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Buffalo Wings: Bidwell Tavern & Café
Coventry, (860) 742-6978 (bidwelltavern.com)
There’s usually no shortage of joints serving buffalo wings in a college town, yet Bidwell Tavern still manages to stand out. The perfectly spiced wings come in a wide array of flavors, including staples such as Honey Barbeque and Buffalo, and more unique flavors like Hickory Horseradish and Sesame Garlic Pepper. Offering over 20 beers on tap to wash ’em down and a Rocks & Wings night (Rolling Rocks and cheap wings), the Bidwell Tavern is unbeatable.
Chef’s Table: Elm
New Canaan, (203) 920-4994 (elmrestaurant.com)
Elevating the concept of the open kitchen, chef’s tables offer diners an opportunity to watch kitchen impresarios ply their craft and interact with them while often enjoying dishes that are not on the regular menu. At Elm, chef/owner Brian Lewis installed a 12-person chef’s table in a semiprivate room with a view into the state-of-the-art kitchen, a perfect spot to enjoy a customized five- or seven-course meal of his inspired farm-to-table cuisine. Elm also has a tasting counter, where those who don’t want a full meal can try specialty cocktails and a “whim flight” of hors d’oeuvres. Both options allow diners exclusive access to one of the state’s finest chefs, and an opportunity to see what goes into creating his culinary masterpieces.
Chocolate Café: Chocopologie
Norwalk, (203) 854-4754, and other locations (chocopologie.com)
One look at the chocolate showcase in back and you will make absolutely certain you “save room for dessert.” Every manner of exquisite dark confection is calling to you. The atmosphere at these cafés is shabby chic, to match the eclectic menu. Salads, crêpes, paninis, quiches and soups make the perfect precursor to the sweet delights concocted by passionate chocolatier Fritz Knipschildt. In addition to his famous truffles and pastries, you can get chocolate-drizzled caramel popcorn and even chocolate-covered cornflakes! There are seasonal specials and live music, and you can also attend one of Knipschildt’s regular classes.
Vernon, (860) 875-1344 (reinsdeli.com)
Bob and Bernie Rein opened the doors to this bustling New York-style Jewish deli off I-84 more than 30 years ago—“centrally located between New York, Boston and Heaven.” Hungry locals and travelers come for everything from delicious matzoh ball soup, corned beef and hot pastrami on rye (with great homemade pickles on the side) to blintzes, babka and cheesecake. The decor includes train station-style signs that direct you to Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island and Long Island. But really, there’s no need to go to the city as long as Rein’s reigns in Vernon.
Dinner and a View: The Hopkins Inn
Warren, (860) 868-7295 (thehopkinsinn.com)
This 19th-century inn and restaurant provides a spectacular view of the Litchfield Hills’ Lake Waramaug, made even more enjoyable by a nice dinner and a glass of wine. Known for its Austrian cuisine—like backhendl with lingonberries and wiener schnitzel—Hopkins offers outdoor terrace seating on warm days. Should you decide to make an overnight of it, there’s lodging available in guest rooms and apartments.
Dinner and Live Music: Bridge Street Live
Canton, (860) 693-9762 (41bridgestreet.com)
This Art Deco Collinsville beauty, set by the Farmington River has evolved from a strictly “tavern bites and live music” venue open only on show days to a fine-dining restaurant five nights a week, whether there’s entertainment or not. Let’s hope it never gets so formal that it stops booking greats like folksinger Greg Brown, Jay Geils (formerly J. Geils) and his jazz quintet, Danny Kortchmar and NRBQ (who presided over two nights of NRBQ BBQ, featuring salmon, chicken and New York strip). Lest we forget, stand-up comedy nights are also on the menu. BSL’ s third-anniversary celebration takes place Sept. 27-29—with music by Ronnie Earl and the Broadcasters, Billie Joe Shaver and Kenny Vance and the Planotones.
Dock and Dine: Fresh Salt at The Saybrook Point Inn & Spa
Old Saybrook, (860) 388-1111 (freshsalt.net)
It’s a thrill to sail into a marina as fine as Saybrook Point Inn & Spa’s, and that pleasure is only heightened after the boat is docked and you land at Fresh Salt for dinner or Sunday brunch. This casual outpost overlooks the point where the fresh water of the Connecticut River meets the salt water of Long Island Sound. In summer, take a seat on the terrace to enjoy delicious food (local oysters, cioppino, lobster paella, a perfectly grilled New York strip) and drink—much of which comes from regional farms and brewers—all served with a spectacular view.
Fried Chicken: Drum Stik Bar-B-Q
Bridgeport, (203) 374-6151 (drumstikbbq.com)
Started in 1964 by “Chicken Ed,” Drum Stik Bar-B-Q has a loyal following of fried chicken fanatics and barbecue lovers across the state. The barbecue mecca is still family-owned and -operated, and dedicated to making the best fried chicken around. Drum Stik also boasts a wide selection of tasty sides including baked macaroni-and-cheese and green coleslaw. Laid-back and affordable, when it comes to chicken in the Nutmeg State, Drum Stik rules the roost.
Greasy Spoon: Mo’s Midtown
Hartford, (860) 236-7741
Whether you’re looking for the perfect hangover cure or just a quick breakfast, Mo’s has the solution. Known for their delicious pancakes, Mo’s has a strong following and you should expect a long wait for service on Saturday mornings, but this hole-in-the-wall is worth it. Large portions, a festive atmosphere and unbeatable grub make Mo’s the ultimate guilty pleasure.
Late-Night Bite: Merritt Canteen
Bridgeport, (203) 372-1416 (merrittcanteen.com)
Been there forever (since 1942), and still the ‘old reliable’ of late-night eateries. Now the Merritt’s opened a second kitchen and introduced trendy food items such as bison burgers and sweet potato fries. Favorites are their hot, hot chili dog, black-and-white shake, clam chowder and fried seafood. A 2011 claim to fame was getting featured on Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” in an episode called “Fully Loaded.” Food is cooked just right, and the price is right, too. The lines might be long, but you’ll be happy you hung in.
Meatballs: Bar Sugo
Norwalk, (203) 956-7134 (barsugo.com)
Meatball-making is something of an art form at this great casual Norwalk spot. And what else would you expect from a French Culinary Institute alum, Pasquale Pascarella, who cut his teeth at Esca and L’Impero in New York?! At Bar Sugo, he makes six different kinds, including “Mommy’s” beef meatballs, pork meatballs, beef n’ bacon (with fig jam), Ox Hollow Farm beef, crispy veal and ricotta, and Sugo’s meatballs, which are beef, veal and pork two ways. If you can’t make up your mind, get a Meatball Tasting, five different varieties, for $17. “Modern Italian meets peasant food” is the motto here.
Middle Eastern Nosh: Lazizah Bake Shop
Norwich, (860) 889-2542
If the way to any human’s heart is through the stomach, then Lazizah is Connecticut’s own Love Shack. Located on the side of a road that seems to spring randomly off Route 32 (the designated entryway to the village of Yantic), it’s clearly more a pit stop than a night out: Indeed, this Dogpatch-style charmer looks like it’ll burst at the seams if more than three people try to enter at once. But the locals rave—justifiably—about everything made here, including fresh tabbouleh, mujadarra, falafel, soups, garlic bread, lamb kebobs, hummus, shawarma, and melt-in-your-mouth baklava (made in several regional variations), all served with chatty Turkish hospitality.
New Chef: Jeffrey Lizotte
ON20, Hartford, (860) 722-5292 (ontwenty.com)
Rising star Jeffrey Lizotte may have gained a passion for cooking while growing up in Simsbury, but he perfected his craft in award-winning kitchens in both New York and France before returning home to dazzle Connecticut diners. And though he may have cooked on some grand stages before, following celebrity chef Noel Jones at ON20 in Hartford without missing a beat was no mean feat. Lizotte has thrived in the limelight, continuing ON20’s legacy of innovative and progressive cuisine, while adding his own fresh take to the menu, which continues to win accolades from Zagat and The New York Times, among others.
Pastry Chef: Kristin Eddy
Millwrights, Simsbury, (860) 651-5500 (millwrightsrestaurant.com)
Although most flock to Millwrights to partake of the breathtaking cuisine of super chef/owner Tyler Anderson, it’s the stunning desserts of Kristin Eddy that often linger on the palates of satisfied diners long after the meal. Her ability to take standards and infuse them with delicious new life is unparalleled: a “banana split” that features rum marshmallows and chocolate gelato; toasted Marcona almond semifreddo in a sugar cone; stone fruit crumble served hot in a cast-iron pot; strawberry semifreddo with ladyfingers, chantilly cream and lemon-basil sorbet. Eddy’s a master of imaginative concepts, expert execution and, most importantly, heavenly results.
Place to Dine Solo: The Whelk
Westport, 203/557-0902 (thewhelkwestport.com)
You’ll never feel alone dining at the bar or at one of the two communal tables at this foodie heaven. Star chef Bill Taibe was one of the pioneers in Connecticut’s farm-to-table movement, and his small-plates menu reflects his passion for locally produced meat, fish and produce. Taibe’s a genius at preparing familiar foods in wondrous new ways: chilled asparagus soup with peekytoe crabmeat . . . Copps Island oyster midlins . . . Stonington roasted scallops with English peas . . . braised pork belly with ramps, stewed cocoa beans and clams.
Soup: Liquid Lunch
Shelton, (203) 924-0200, and Milford, (203) 877-7687 (liquidlunchct.homestead.com)
Specializing in all things soup, Liquid Lunch gets it right. Staples like chicken noodle are always offered, but it’s the daily specials that keep soup-lovers returning again and again. We love the French onion soup and the creamy crab, perfect complements to the café’s fresh salads and sandwiches. And with autumn just around the corner, what better idea than to hunker down with a nice, hot bowlful?
Splurge: Thomas Henkelmann
Greenwich, 203/869-7500 (homesteadinn.com)
Thomas Henkelmann is still at the top of Connecticut’s culinary pantheon—and America’s culinary pantheon—and has the Relais & Chateaux designation to prove it. Chef Henkelmann and his wife, Theresa, took the helm of the already illustrious Homestead Inn in 1997, transforming it into the storied restaurant and inn it is today. The restaurant has been awarded four Mobil stars every year since 1999. On the menu are such rarefied pleasures as cannelloni of lump crabmeat on watercress purée, served with osetra caviar; crisp sautéed sweetbreads with Perigord truffle sauce, and gratin of Maine lobster with black truffle gnocchi.
Tacos: Tacuba Taco Bar
Branford, (203) 208-0736 (tacubataco.com)
Dinner at Tacuba is a full-service affair devoted to “Mexican street food with a Latin influence.” Lunch is much more of a mix-’em, match-’em, grab-’em on-the-run experience—a great time to treat yourself to two or three of the tacos at $4 a pop. On a recent visit, we ordered the al pastor (achiote pork, pineapple and grilled onions), barbacoa (Oaxacan-style braised lamb, pickled red onion, chipotle salsa) and ensenada (tempura-battered corvina, pico de gallo, crema Mexicana), and were rewarded with the overstuffed trio cuddled together on a small silver tray, cute as the dickens, satisfying and tasty—served with a side of rice and beans and a Mexican soda. You can also order nachos, a burrito or quesadilla, but sampling the tacos is more fun.
Hartford, (860) 523-5417 (mytisane.com)
What makes a great tearoom—the atmosphere? The service? The selection of teas? Tisane excels in all three. Unlike the fussy tearooms of old, Tisane is a hip, bright, open space with staff who take pains to ensure that customers are well served. And most importantly, the tea is tea-rific! Sip different varieties of green, black, oolong, white, Pu-erh, herbal or tisane (herbal) teas—all are loose-leaf (and can be purchased by the ounce). Then, there’s the excellent Euro-Asian menu here with everything from appetizers and sandwiches to full meals.