A Long Weekend in New Haven: Where to Eat, What to Do, and Where to Stay
New Haven is Connecticut’s second-largest city, and to most it’s synonymous with two things: Yale University and pizza. Yale plays a large role in the city’s culture and the pizza is indeed up there with the best in America, but a recent visit at the invitation of Market New Haven revealed that New Haven is multi-layered and multi-faceted, a great walking town with a fascinating history, with an abundance of fun things to do and sights to see, making it a fabulous destination for a weekend jaunt.
New Haven was actually the very first planned city in America, laid out in 1638 by English Puritans according to a grid that today comprises the heart of downtown and is centered around New Haven Green, which is still the city’s town square. Like any American city that’s been around for so long, it played a role in the American Revolution (and, as it survived the Revolution relatively unscathed, many colonial features were saved), but its historical claims to fame go far beyond that: It’s where Eli Whitney developed the cotton gin and where Samuel Colt invented the revolver, it’s where the famous Amistad slave trial was held, and it’s the city that gave birth to the steamboat, the submarine, the corkscrew, the telephone directory and public phone, the lollipop, the Frisbee, the hamburger (more on that later), and the Erector Set. From the 1950s to the 1990s the city saw a period of decline (which necessitated — and was exacerbated by — an “urban renewal” project that saw parts of Downtown demolished), but within the past 20 years the city has bounced back with a vengeance, and it’s become a cultural destination for restaurants, bars, retail, and nightlife, with an influx of high-end housing developments and multi-use conversions of historic buildings making it a fantastic place to live and visit.
After a quick train ride from New York City (about an hour and 40 minutes) and a brief cab ride, we checked into our hotel, The Study at Yale, which we’d strongly recommend. It’s a short walk from the New Haven Green and is located right in the heart of Yale’s campus, so not only are you just a short jaunt from all of Yale’s theaters and museums (including its legendary Yale University Art Gallery), your hotel room might also provide a spectacular view of the campus and its Federal-style architecture. The hotel is sleek and modern, our room was bright and cozy, and the hotel’s restaurant, Heirloom, is a favorite among locals and visitors alike (more on that later).
If you have a free afternoon, just walking around Yale University’s campus and New Haven Green provides ample opportunity for distraction, but there are a few things you shouldn’t miss: the Art Gallery (which is home to more than 200,000 objects d’art), the Louis Khan-designed Yale Center for British Art, which is home to the largest collection of British art outside the U.K., and the famed Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, which is home to an astonishing array of old books (including the mysterious Voynich Manuscript, which has never been deciphered).
After all that walking around, you’re going to get hungry, and if you’re in the mood for pizza, you’ve come to the right place. If you’re not familiar with New Haven-style pizza, it’s absolutely worth discovering if you consider yourself a pizza lover. And New Haven, with its large Italian population, is home to some of the country’s most legendary pizzerias, many of which date back to the 1920s and ‘30s. New Haven-style pizza is fired in a coal oven, and it typically has a thin, crisp, and chewy crust, a slightly oblong shape, and some amount of charring along the outside. It’s also unique in that a “plain” pie is only topped with tomato sauce, oregano, and a little pecorino romano — mozzarella cheese is considered a topping, and it needs to be requested.
The highlight of our visit was the opportunity to visit four legendary pizzerias — Frank Pepe, Sally’s Apizza, Modern Apizza, and the newer BAR — all in one afternoon, with Taste of New Haven’s Colin M. Caplan as our guide. Caplan is perhaps the country’s foremost authority on all things New Haven pizza (known around these parts as “apizza,” pronounced “ah-BEETZ”), as he’s literally written the book on New Haven Pizza and its storied history (you can buy a copy here).
We started at Frank Pepe, which opened here in 1925 and is widely credited with inventing New Haven-style pizza as we know it. (Not entirely coincidentally, it’s home to The Daily Meal’s pick for the best pizza in America, its signature white clam pie.) There are today 10 locations, but it all started right here, and many foodies consider a visit to Pepe’s a required culinary pilgrimage. If the concept of a mozzarella-free pie sounds weird to you, order the “plain” pie here, and the combination of the crisp, chewy crust, the slight char, the high-quality sauce (made with tomatoes delivered in Pepe-branded cans) and a sprinkle of pecorino will be a total paradigm-changer for you. You also owe it to yourself to order the famous white clam pie, which is topped simply with garlic, oregano, olive oil, grated pecorino, and freshly-shucked clams (and bacon if you’re feeling extra). It’s a masterpiece.
Up next, we visited BAR, which also happens to be one of the best bars in New Haven, serving a great assortment of beers (brewed in-house) in a fun and lively space. BAR’s pizzas are cooked in a brick oven, slightly less oblong than the competition, slightly less charred, and available with a wide array of toppings including oven-roasted hot peppers, roast chicken, shrimp and eggs. The mozzarella pie was fantastic, and the pepperoni was solid, but there’s one pizza that put this place on the map, and it’s a must-order: mashed potato and bacon. The crust gets a thin layer of creamy, garlicky mashed potatoes and a topping of crumbled bacon and fresh herbs; there’s nothing else quite like it, and it pairs perfectly with a house-brewed beer.
Up next, the legendary Sally’s Apizza. Sally’s was founded in 1938 by Frank Pepe’s sister, Filomena Pepe Consiglio, who named if after her son, Sal (who in turn ran the restaurant until his death in 1989). The pizza here will be familiar to you if you’ve been to Pepe’s: brick oven, slightly oblong, slightly charred. The plain, mozzarella, and pepperoni pies were all evenly cooked with a crisp, chewy crust and just the right amount of topping, and a real sleeper hit was the potato and onion pie, both sliced impossibly thin and artfully arranged from end to end. It was honestly one of the best pizzas I’ve ever tasted, and that combined with the masterful preparation of the other pies made Sally’s my personal favorite apizza of the day (It was Sinatra’s favorite, as well).
With whatever stomach space remained rapidly dwindling, we made it to our last stop of the day: Modern Apizza. This was actually founded in 1934, even though it looks a lot newer than that (it resembles a traditional, newish Italian restaurant a lot more than the others do), and along with Pepe’s and Sally’s it forms what’s commonly referred to as the “Holy Trinity” of New Haven pizzerias. Pizzas here are fired in an oil-fueled brick oven (one of the last remaining examples in America, in fact), and as opposed to the light and crispy crusts of the competition, these pies were slightly heavier and wetter, and were the only ones of the bunch to have a sprinkling of cornmeal on the bottom. Both the plain and mozzarella were on-point if a little soggy (which isn’t a dig at all), and we were fans of the eggplant pie, which is topped with thin strips of fried eggplant. If you’re a fan of pizzas with lots of toppings, don’t miss the Italian Bomb, topped with sausage, bacon, pepperoni, mushrooms, onion, peppers, and garlic.
There should be one more stop on your New Haven food tour (after you’re regained your appetite, obviously): Louis Lunch, widely regarded as the birthplace of the hamburger. Founded as a tiny lunch wagon in 1895 and today only slightly larger than that, the diminutive restaurant (which founder Louis Lassen upgraded to in 1917) is perpetually crowded with pilgrims in search of the original burger, which (as legend has it) was invented by Lassen in 1900. The burgers served here are cooked in unique upright broilers (the same exact ones used by Lassen) and served on white toast, with cheese spread and sliced onions as the only optional toppings. Eating here is like stepping back in time, and it’s still run by the Lassen family.
Oh, and as for the burger? It’s exceptionally good: The beef is high-quality, fresh-ground in house daily, and formed into 6-ounce pucks, and eating it with just a slice of onion on toast really allows it to shine. The only rule? No ketchup!
Obviously, more restaurants have opened in New Haven since the 1930s, so if you’re looking for something other than pizza or a burger you’re in luck. Heirloom, the restaurant inside the Study at Yale (above), is one of the city’s best fine-dining restaurants, and is spacious and comfortable with floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook Chapel Street. The seasonally-driven menu is a real crowd-pleaser, with appetizers including warm local ricotta with thyme, truffle oil, and toast; a jar of whipped chicken liver pate with bacon jam; baked Connecticut clams; and roast octopus. Entrees include lamb ragù with house-made penne, seared Maine scallops with caramelized spaghetti squash, bouillabaisse, a grass-fed burger, and filet mignon. We really enjoyed our meal there; service was professional and knowledgeable, and the dining room has a really buzzy energy, especially around the bar area. It also serves breakfast, brunch, and lunch.
Another dinner option is Zinc, which is located right on New Haven Green and has been a local favorite since 1999. They’re sourcing ingredients from local farms and purveyors, and they’re turning them into creative New American dishes with a sprinkling of that oh-so-1999 trend, Asian fusion. Apps include a house-cured gravlax and sticky rice roll, Korean barbecue pork belly, and carrot and smoked cheddar fondue; and entrees include pork carnitas aji verde, ricotta gnocchi with sage brown butter and port-soaked figs, and Scottish salmon with risotto and roasted beets. Our meal there unfortunately had a couple issues — grilled rib-eye steak ordered medium-rare was served on the bloody side of rare, and we were seriously disappointed with the restaurant’s supposedly signature appetizer, duck nachos, which were essentially wonton chips doused in mayo and sour cream and topped with a heavy handful of microgreens; whatever scraps of duck were present were overcooked, flavorless pebbles (you can see one towards the bottom of the plate above). The salmon was nicely cooked, though, and honestly the best part of the meal were desserts from pastry chef Alba Estenoz: a pear perfectly poached in red wine and topped with homemade ice cream, and a multilayered “cake” of chocolate, rum, and caramel mousses served with a shot of caramel milk on the side. Both were spectacular, and worthy of a visit in their own right.
Another popular fine-dining destination is John Davenport’s, located on the top floor of the Omni Hotel on New Haven Green. We stopped in for a Saturday morning breakfast, and had a dizzying array of dishes to choose from — omelets, three Benedicts (traditional, smoked salmon, or lobster), smoked salmon platter, pancakes, waffles, French toast, corned beef hash, avocado toast — and a whole breakfast buffet! We settled on the lobster eggs Benedict and a Belgian waffle with strawberries and Vermont maple syrup. Both were expertly prepared — the lobster was fresh and nicely cooked, the hollandaise was perfectly tart and creamy, and the waffle was light and crisp.
Other standout restaurants in New Haven include Claire’s Corner Copia, serving healthy vegetarian fare since 1975; chef John Brennan’s Olives and Oil, serving creative Italian fare and top-notch cocktails in a cool and modern setting; Union League Café, a super high-end French restaurant; and Consiglio’s, an old-school red-sauce joint.
The cocktail scene in New Haven is also very strong. Ordinary is nestled into a bar room dating from 1910, inside a former hotel (the Taft) that can trace its roots to a colonial-era tavern. The bar room itself, and the back room, are covered in old wood, and it’s honestly one of the most beautiful, coziest bars I’ve ever imbibed in. The cocktails are creative and crafted with an eye for flavor and balance (they run the gamut from classic — like the Bee’s Knees to modern — like the Lawnmower Man (with cachaça, Suze, citrus, green juice, house celery bitters, and lemon verbena air) — and the punch bowls are parties unto themselves. Also worth visiting is Anchor Spa, a classic dive-turned classy cocktail bar; and Elm City Social, chef John Brennan’s first project, a fun and laid-back nightly party that also serves a killer lunch and dinner menu with something for everyone. Another ideal post-dinner retreat is Firehouse 12, a sleek and swanky cocktail bar and lounge that’s also home to a recording studio-grade music venue that plays host to mostly jazz musicians.
New Haven is a beautiful city, the perfect destination for an autumn retreat. Yale lends it a youthful energy, an influx of mixologists and chefs are revitalizing the dining and cocktail scene, it has a walkable and historic downtown, and it has some of the best pizza on Earth. It’s an ideal small city, and if you decide to spend a weekend taking it in, you won’t regret it.
The visit that was the subject of this review was hosted by Visit New Haven.