The Southeastern Connecticut shoreline, defined as that stretch of coast from the Connecticut River to the Pawcatuck, has a gravitational pull that far outweighs its population. Its seven official towns—Old Saybrook, Old Lyme, East Lyme, Waterford, New London, Groton and Stonington—account for a mere fraction of the state’s roughly 3.5 million residents, but Nutmeggers are unable to resist the tug of this stretch of coast, and attractions such as Rocky Neck State Park, the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theater Center, Ocean Beach Park, the Garde Arts Center, the Cross Sound Ferry, Groton Sub Base, Mystic Aquarium, Mystic Seaport, Stonington Vineyards and Stonington Borough, especially in the summer months.
According to studies commissioned by the Connecticut Department of Tourism, when out-of-state leisure travelers are asked what comes to mind when they think of Connecticut, they cite the Mystic region by a substantial margin over all other destinations. Although the shoreline attractions are major enticements, “the big thing is the nearby casinos,” says Edward Dombroskas, executive director of the Eastern Regional Tourism District. “Their offerings have helped make the region the entertainment capital of southern New England.”
Between the casino traffic and the growing numbers of higher-income year-round residents, many restaurateurs have come to see this stretch of shoreline as a year-round opportunity.
So take in as many attractions as you like, but leave time for a good meal. The shoreline has a host of remarkable options, ranging from temples of haute cuisine to seafood shacks, from new-and-noteworthy to familiar-and-comforting. Unfortunately, we have room here for only a sampling. Keep in mind that a few of our suggestions may be seasonal, and that the best seafood is not always found in a seafood restaurant.
Right at the mouth of the Connecticut River is Fresh Salt (2 Bridge St., 860/388-1111, freshsalt.net), named for where the fresh and salt waters meet. Situated in the posh Saybrook Point Inn & Spa, with windows and a terrace overlooking the river and the state-of-the-art Saybrook Point Marina, Fresh Salt’s menu is intended to reflect the diversity of colliding ecosystems. Specialties include a raw bar, clam chowder, lobster pot pie, olive oil-roasted Chatham cod, cioppino and the grilled Block Island swordfish “chop.” Fresh Salt even offers dueling lobster rolls, done both “Connecticut-style” (with warm buttered lobster) and Maine-style (with chilled lobster salad). The Sunday brunch is dazzling. You can get there by land, river or sea, as is your preference.
A hundred yards upriver is Dock & Dine (145 College St., 860/388-4665, dockdinect.com), a casual seafooder with tremendous views of the Connecticut River that was ravaged by Hurricane Irene. A sign in its window says that ownership is taking the opportunity to refresh the restaurant and its Facebook page promises renovations will be completed before this issue comes out. Better call first.
Located not on the Sound but by the Lieutenant River, the two venerable inns that anchor the Old Lyme dining scene may be at their best in years. Under owners David and Linnea Rufo and chef Kristofer Rowe, The Chestnut Grille at The Bee and Thistle Inn and Spa (100 Lyme St., 860/434-1667, beeandthistleinn.com) now offers enticing restaurant, lounge and prix-fixe menus. With menu categories for land and sea, typical seafood offerings might include soft-shell crabs; house-cured gravlax with crispy potato cake and wild chive crème fraîche; and pan-seared diver scallops with forbidden rice, saffron-lime braised bok choy. Stay overnight in beautifully appointed rooms, stroll the sculpture gardens, play boules or take a kayak out on the river.
Linnea sees The Bee and Thistle’s location next to the Florence Griswold Museum and the Old Lyme Inn’s location across from the Lyme Art Museum as constituting a “Cultural Corners” and welcomes the idea of joint promotions with their neighbors. Friendly new owners Ken and Chris Kitchings have just reopened the historic Old Lyme Inn (85 Lyme St., 860/434-2600, oldlymeinn.com) after a year of renovations. And chef Dennis Young, formerly of Todd English’s Tuscany at Mohegan Sun and Shelter Harbor Inn in Westerly, R.I., is adding excitement to the menu. Look for inventive seafood preparations such as Smoked Cod Cake with Charred Pineapple Cocktail Sauce, Bento Box Tuna with edamame hummus, seaweed salad with wasabi vinaigrette, and Antique Recipe Lobster Stew.
This isn’t Tuesday and this isn’t Belgium. Flanders, Shoreliners know, is the inland portion of East Lyme, especially the commercial area surrounding the intersection of Route 161 and Route 1, commonly called “Four Corners.” But you could hardly find better or fresher seafood than Flanders Fish Market (22 Chesterfield Rd., 860/739-8866, flandersfish.com), a full-fledged fish market and 150-seat restaurant, complete with a large outdoor picnic area. Famous for its clear clam chowder (it also has New England-style), fish-and-chips (featured on Food Network) and Sunday seafood buffet, the menu offers many other delights, including clam fritters, oyster stew, Gorgonzola shrimp, stuffed lobsters, Alaskan king crab legs, stuffed trout, Dijon swordfish tips, as well as lots of fried, flame-grilled and blackened seafoods.
Niantic comprises the shoreline half of East Lyme. Several restaurants have water views, but Niantic’s best dining option lies perhaps a quarter of a mile from the sea. Named after the Parisian bistro in the movie Casablanca where Rick and Ilsa last saw each other before reuniting in Morocco, La Belle Aurore (75 Pennsylvania Ave, 860/739-6767, labelleaurorebistro.com) is a chef-owned American bistro that knows its way around seafood providers and local farms. Stunningly fresh and expertly prepared options include shrimp-and-crab bisque, rainbow trout roasted with herbs and mustard dill sauce, and Stonington sea scallops and shrimp with asparagus, fava beans, bacon and spinach. (The restaurant is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday, and Monday, and for brunch on Saturday and Sunday.)
Waterford is an odd duck, a shoreline town where most of the commercial action lies inland. Nevertheless, our pick is a spot situated in the shadow of the Niantic River Bridge. Yes, despite its great patios and decks and waterside location, seasonal-only Sunset Ribs (378 Rope Ferry Rd., 860/443-7427, sunsetribs.com) is famous for, well, ribs. (Justly famous, that is.) But in addition to great ribs, there’s a substantial selection of seafood on the menu, including raw bar items, Panko-encrusted baked scallops, blackened mahi-mahi with mango salsa, and boiled or stuffed lobsters straight from the tank. For those who plan to imbibe more than strictly necessary, you can even catch a ride locally to and from Sunset Ribs aboard its shuttle bus, the Flip Flop Express.
A New England aphorism favored by John F. Kennedy says that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” Nevertheless, there are pockets of the Southeastern Connecticut shoreline that continue to struggle, most notably, downtown New London. Bygone destination restaurants like La Vie en Rose and Papillon are sorely missed there. Most of the places along the Thames River are seafood shanties, but at least one finer dining option remains: On The Waterfront (250 Pequot Ave., 860/444-2800, onthewaterfrontnl.com). You’ll forgive this seafooder its Rhode Island-style clam chowder, when you sample the fried or baked Stonington sea scallops, fried whole belly clams, Cod Mediterranean and zuppa di pesce fra diavolo. And there’s covered outdoor seating to boot.
The town of Groton spans the area between the Thames River and the Mystic River, but we’ll focus here on the downtown and stretches of routes 12, 184 and 117, the other sections to be covered separately. From a diverse selection of restaurants, we’re going to highlight just two. One is charming Paul’s Pasta Shop (223 Thames St., Groton 860/ 445-5276, paulspastashop.com)—with windows and porch that overlook the Thames, it draws legions of admirers. Baked shrimp and lobster ravioli may be the only real seafood items on the posted menu, but there’s plenty more to like, including stunningly fresh salads and housemade pastas.
Located on the landward side of Interstate 95, Octagon in the Mystic Marriott (625 North Rd., 860/326-0360, octagonsteakhouse.com) has consistently been one of the best restaurants east of the Connecticut River for years. Though it bills itself as a steak house, Octagon also excels in the seafood department. Enjoy sophisticated preparations such as shrimp escabeche, Stonington Scallops au Poivre, Seared Snapper with rustic French toast and tomato fritto, Grilled Swordfish with Pomegranate Beurre Blanc, and steamed Maine lobster with corn and roasted sunchokes. You may not be able to see or smell the sea, but you’ll taste it for sure.
The Groton village of Noank may be small but it’s a major seafood destination. At Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough (117 Pearl St., 860/536-7719, abbotts-lobster.com), you’ll find incredibly fresh, simply cooked seafood in abundance in a clam-shack atmosphere with plenty of porch. Enjoy great views of Long Island Sound along with shrimp and roasted-corn chowder, lobster and crab rolls done either Connecticut- or Maine-style, lobster dinners up to ten pounds, and the New England Seafood Feast featuring clam chowder, shrimp in the rough, steamer clams and mussels, and a lobster. Print out a free clam chowder coupon from the website before you visit. You can even arrive by boat and tie up, but if you want to tie one on, remember it’s BYOB.
Somewhat easier to find is The Fisherman (Route 215, 860/536-1717, fishermanrestaurant.com), a popular seafood spot with a great deck overlooking Palmer’s Cove. More upscale in its aspirations, The Fisherman offers temptations like Native Clam Pan Roast, lobster cannelloni, a basil pesto shrimp pizzette, and Thai Red Curry and Coconut Sea Scallops, in addition to traditional standbys like clam chowder, lobster bisque, Connecticut-style lobster rolls and fish-and-chips.
To make our survey more manageable, we divide Mystic into its Groton and Stonington halves, which lie on either side of the Mystic River. On the Groton side, we recommend two popular eateries, one long established, the other a product of recent outside investment. Construction of the historic Captain Daniel Packer Inne (32 Water St., 860/536-3555, danielpacker.com) was completed in 1756. Packer, a former square-rigger captain, fed and lodged travelers, regaled them with tales of the high seas, and gave them crossing on his rope ferry. Located a stone’s throw from the water, the inn remained in the hands of the Packers and their descendants, the Keelers, until the 1970s, when it was purchased and beautifully restored by its current owners, Richard and Lulu Kiley. Seafood specialties include New England clam chowder, grilled mussels, scallops casino, lobster lollipops, truffled scallops and sesame-crusted yellowfin tuna. The food’s terrific and the atmosphere can’t be beat.
Also located on Water Street but opening some 255 years later is The Oyster Club (13 Water St., 860/415-9266, oysterclubct.com), a new addition from former French Culinary Institute classmates Jason Steadman and Daniel Meiser. Meiser helped open innovative Firebox in Hartford, and chef James Wayman comes to Mystic via River Tavern in Chester. This is a restaurant to watch, with a creative menu touting “food that travels the shortest distance from farm and sea to table.” Specials might include quahog chowder; sautéed soft-shell crab with greens, lemon and capers; Chinese BBQ squid with scallion, cilantro and toasted peanuts; seared scallops with red chili grits, sautéed spinach and brown sugar-caper butter; and pan-roasted swordfish with carrot purée, cranberry beans and Persian cress pesto.
The east side of the Mystic River also has many wonderful restaurants, but we will restrict ourselves to three. Located in the Whaler’s Inn about a block from the drawbridge is Carol Kanabis favorite BravoBravo (20 East Main St., 860/536-3228, bravobravoct.com). Perhaps more than anyone, Kanabis, who also also owns Azu in Mystic and Olio in Groton, should be credited for recognizing the year-round restaurant potential of the area. This charming bistro offers elegant Italian-accented seafood and pastas, including Cajun BBQ Shrimp over polenta, champagne risotto with lobster and asparagus, lobster ravioli in a lobster chive sauce, and seafood stew over linguine.
While BravoBravo lacks views of the water, elevated Flood Tide in The Inn at Mystic (3 Williams Ave., 860/536-8140, floodtiderestaurant.com) looks out across pretty Pequotsepos Cove. Seafood options abound, including a lobster Madeira crêpe, award-winning New England clam chowder, bouillabaisse, fish-and-chips, cumin-dusted sea scallops, and barbecue-rubbed cedar plank salmon.
People reacted as if the sky was falling when word got out that Kitchen Little in the Mystic River Marina (36 Quarry Rd., 860/536-2122, kitchenlittle.org) would lose its prominent roadside spot just upriver from Mystic Seaport. (No hue and cry like that had been heard since O’Rourke’s Diner burned in Middletown.) Well, the good news is, Kitchen Little has reopened in the Mystic River Marina and has lovely water views from its second-floor dining room and porch. The bad news is, it’s not quite as convenient or easy to find. But we’re guessing the space will happily exchange the hordes of tourists who used to drop by for a steadier diet of locals and yachters.
Kitchen Little built its reputation as a breakfast and lunch destination. Popular seafood items include the Mystic Melt, scrambled eggs with fresh lump crab and cream cheese; a Rhode Island-style clam chowder that was featured in Gourmet magazine, fresh-lobster rolls; Bomster scallop rolls; fish sandwiches; and lump crab sandwiches. More good news: Kitchen Little now takes credit cards and, as we went to press, was contemplating opening for dinner and serving beer and wine.
Historic Stonington Borough is home to a handful of interesting eateries, including delightful Noah’s and Water Street Café, but we’re focusing on the two most seafaring of them. Dog Watch Café in Dodson Boatyard (194 Water St., 860/415-4510, dogwatchcafe.com), a relative newcomer, already offers unparalleled conviviality along with sublime sunsets and tasty victuals. Signature items include Ahi Tuna Tempura with a Trio of Sauces, fried calamari salad, Maine-style lobster rolls, whole belly clams, and the self-proclaimed “best bouillabaisse in America.”
Toward the southern end of the street, there’s Skipper’s Dock (66 Water St., 860/535-0111, skippersdock.com), established in 1929. As its name implies, it’s actually located over the water. Crowds come for seafood fare like bouillabaisse, Cajun-grilled shrimp, lobster salad sliders, mussels Provençale, stuffed Stonington quahogs, coquille Saint-Jacques, lobsters from the tank and oven-roasted striped bass.
Our last stop is Pawcatuck, that Stonington village that cozies right up against Westerly, R.I. There aren’t a lot of dining options here, but a nice one is Prime Time Café (1 West Broad St., 860/599-3840, ptcafe.com), which abuts the Pawcatuck River that separates Connecticut from Rhode Island. Last summer Hurricane Irene closed Prime Time Café for more than two weeks, but fortunately it escaped extensive damage. Unafraid of flavor, the local fave features intriguing seafood offerings such as skewered prosciutto-wrapped scallops with Grand Marnier sauce, Chesapeake crab cakes with a chile corn relish and chipotle rémoulade, grilled tuna au poivre in an orange cumin sauce, crab-stuffed flounder in a hazelnut cream sauce and oyster stew.
At night, from out front of Prime Time Café, one can actually see the magenta lights that illuminate Bridge Restaurant as it hangs out over the Pawcatuck in Westerly. (When it was Three Fish years ago, it was helmed by talented Connecticut chef Jack Flaws.)
But the state line is where we turn back.