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Best of Connecticut 2018

Food & Drink, Fun & Leisure and Shopping: Our Picks and the Return of Readers' Choice

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Welcome to the third decade of the annual Best of Connecticut — our celebration of all the things we love about the state.

This year, for the first time since 2008, we’ve incorporated the things you love, too. In each of our three main categories — Food & Drink, Fun & Leisure and Shopping — look for designated Readers’ Choice picks. These are the winners of online votes in more than two dozen categories, from bars and tacos to movie theaters and hair salons.

Enjoy all the selections, and, as always, let us know what you think about the winners and any places that might have fallen through the cracks.

Begin by exploring FOOD & DRINK below, or skip directly to FUN & LEISURE or SHOPPING.


FOOD & DRINK

BAKERY

Russo’s BakeryEnfield, 860-741-7844

Mouth-watering cookies, cakes and pastries abound — and the pizza’s pretty good, too — but Russo’s is home to some of the most unique and delicious cannoli you’ll ever find. They have mastered dozens of styles (chocolate Oreo brownie and cookie dough are two of our favorites) with a minimum of 18 options always available.

BAR (Readers’ Choice)

Celtic CavernMiddletown, 860-894-2954

“Celtic Cavern has a great atmosphere and awesome people. The food is amazing and they have a wonderful beer selection!” Ashley Frost, Middletown

“When I retired they put my favorite beer on tap for me.” — Jerry, Rockfall

BARBECUE

Hoodoo Brown BBQRidgefield, 203-438-6033

Hoodoo’s slow-cooked brisket is in a class by itself. Other elite offerings include chicken, pork belly, pork ribs and the expensive-but-still-very-worth-it beef ribs. There’s a reason why since opening in 2015 it’s been a part of every conversation we’ve had about best barbecue in the state.

BEER (you can actually find)

Two Juicy, Two Roads Brewing Co., Stratford, 203-335-2010

In just its sixth year of operation, Two Roads is already one of the most successful breweries ever born in Connecticut. And the masterpiece of the first decade may prove to be Two Juicy, an unfiltered, cloudy New England-style double IPA. At 8.2 percent ABV it manages to pack a punch while still being surprisingly drinkable.

BREAD

Wave Hill BreadsNorwalk, 203-762-9595

For this bakery, making bread is a passion that combines art and science. The breads here are made from unbleached wheat flour, organic spelt and organic rye berries that are milled for each batch. The bakery also offers a wild yeast sourdough, made from a “starter” that must be fed every day.

BREAKFAST

O’Rourke’s DinerMiddletown, 860-346-6101

Housed in a classic diner car at the edge of Middletown’s downtown, O’Rourke’s has been serving amazing breakfast and lunch items since 1941. The place is so beloved that after a fire decimated it in 2006, the community pitched in to help reopen it the following year.

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Kent Falls Brewing Co.

BREWERY

Kent Falls Brewing Co.Kent, 860-398-9645

This farm brewery utilizes local ingredients to create elite beers in a wide range of styles, from approachable pilsners to tropical-tasting IPAs and barrel-aged farmhouse sours. Visitors can tour the brewery’s hop yard and hang out inside or outside at the laid-back farmhouse taproom.

BREWERY TO VISIT (Readers’ Choice)

Stony Creek BreweryBranford, 203-433-4545

Come for the house-brewed beer with a selection to match all tastes; stay for the atmosphere, with two huge decks overlooking the scenic Branford River.

BURGER

SwyftKent, 860-592-0404

Made from Randall cows, a heritage cattle breed raised at Rock Cobble Farm in South Kent, the “Swyft Burger” is worth every cent of its $18 price tag. Toppings of fontina cheese and basil aioli complete the dining experience.

BURRITO

Broken SymmetryBethel, 203-826-9907

The San Diego-style burritos we long admired at the Green Grunion food truck are now offered alongside craft beers at this “gastro brewery” opened in the spring. Tightly wrapped with ingredients ranging from chicken to chorizo to french fries and a great veggie option, these burritos are addictive.

CAKE

JCakesNorth Branford, 203-488-2800 

Whether you’re looking for an elegant wedding cake or a silly, over-the-top birthday cake (how about a minion or X-Man Wolverine’s adamantium claws exploding through a cake top?), this shop can make your confection dreams come true. And with lovely French buttercream frosting, they taste just as good as they look.

CANDY & CHOCOLATE MAKER

Thorncrest Farm & Milk House ChocolatesGoshen, 860-309-2545

The best-tasting fruits and vegetables are those that are freshly harvested. Why would it be any different for chocolate? Using milk, cream and butter from the farm’s carefully chosen milk cows, Kimberly Thorn and company make their small-batch chocolates by hand fresh daily. Stop by their cozy chocolate shop and try Thorncrest’s artisanal chocolate creations for yourself.

CANDY & CHOCOLATE SHOP (Readers' Choice)

Apples Etc.Branford, 203-208-5220

“Apples Etc. has such delicious selections. Always new flavors, great products, friendly and accommodating staff. Our favorite!” — Sandy, North Haven

“Apples Etc. is the very best apples I have ever had, and I have tried a lot. Great gift ideas. Love love love them. Great people.”  — Linda Bell-Roy, Southington

CLAM CHOWDER

Oyster ClubMystic, 860-415-9266

This isn’t your typical chowder. Rather than the thick, heavy goop you’re used to, this chowder lets the core ingredients do the talking. And, oh, do they have a tale to tell … Fresh, local quahogs, slab bacon, potatoes, celery and fresh parsley combine into a warming, satisfying soup. If you still yearn for a certain level of creaminess, opt for the New England style, which comes with a hefty splash of heavy cream.

COFFEE

Story and Soil CoffeeHartford, 860-540-3987

An array of coffee-connoisseur favorites are offered at this amazing little shop with a picturesque exterior. Enjoy pour over, aeropress, cold brew nitro and other specialty coffees from a rotating roster of craft coffee roasters. Owners Michael Acosta and husband-and-wife Michael and Sarah McCoy are incredibly passionate about their coffee shop and it shows.

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Sugar Bakery

CUPCAKES

Sugar BakeryEast Haven, 203-469-0815

The cupcakes at this East Haven bakery and its two food trucks provide the right mix of classic cupcake goodness and modern culinary innovation. At the store you can choose from 36 everyday flavors as well as daily specials and gluten-free options. Munch away.

CRAFT COCKTAILS

116 CrownNew Haven, 203-777-3116

Some of the most knowledgeable mixologists around stand behind the onyx bar of 116 Crown as an expansive and creative cocktail menu covers all the angles. How expansive and creative? Sample the Breakfast in Vegas: Booker’s bourbon, espresso shrub, strawberries, local honey, Veuve Clicquot champagne, St. George absinthe, and chewable coffee served straight up.

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Vinny's Deli

DELI (Readers' Choice)

Vinny’s DeliWallingford, 203-265-7288

Vinny’s may (deservedly) call itself “The King of Roast Beef,” but order anything here and you’ll feel like you’re getting the royal treatment. They also offer extensive catering options, and make it a point of pride to use only American ingredients whenever possible.

DINER (Readers' Choice)

Sandy Hook DinerSandy Hook, 203-270-5509

“I love the Sandy Hook Diner! The staff is warm and friendly and the food is great. I always leave with a smile on my face.” — Wendy Leon-Gambetta, Newtown

DOUGHNUTS

Neil’s DonutsWallingford, 203-269-4255

We nearly fell out of our chairs when we saw a notice on Neil’s website announcing they’d be on vacation and closed for a week at the beginning of August. Where would we satisfy our doughnut fix? Luckily, Neil’s is once again open for business and serving its dozens of varieties, including blueberry crumb, maple frosted and, um, nevermind, gotta go …

FOOD TRUCK

Hapa Food TruckStamford, 203-998-5918

American street food mixes with Asian Pacific cuisine at this eclectic and unique food truck. Tacos and rice bowls share menu space with burgers, and all are made with a delicious fusion of flavors. Try the HAPA burger featuring grass-fed beef accentuated by pork belly and house aioli, on an ube bun, which is a purple, yam-flavored bread.

FRIES

Order of FriesNew Haven

203-691-7654

For many eateries, the french fry is often an afterthought, an uninspired side dish. At this State Street spot, fries are the main attraction. Available with an array of toppings and flavors, the fries are perhaps strongest with a tenting of chili and cheese. The chili is beanless, but has hearty portions of beef and pork, as well as sweet notes of cinnamon and brown sugar. Complemented by sharp cheddar, it’s a meal unto itself.

GRINDER (Readers’ Choice)

Nardelli’sNaugatuck, Waterbury, Southbury, Danbury, Middletown, Oxford, Cromwell, Southington, Meriden, Wallingford, East Hartford, Milford and Torrington

The Nardelli family was the first to bring the classic grinder to Connecticut in the 1920s. Since then the family has grown a single grocery store into a local chain of 14 delis, with a Farmington location on the way. Whether it’s due to the special “classic mix” marinade of veggies that’s been a family secret for decades or the sheer variety of hot and cold sandwiches on your choice of bread, these delicious grinders are a perennial favorite.

HEALTH FOOD STORE

New Morning MarketWoodbury, 203-263-4868

Inspired by the back-to-the-earth movement of the 1970s, New Morning Market opened in 1971. More than 45 years later the store remains true to its local and sustainable roots with one of the state’s largest selections of organic produce, local meats and dairy products from humanely raised animals. There’s also a fresh-food counter and vitality center.

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Cricket Car Hop

HOT DOGS

Cricket Car HopStratford, 203-378-5191

Cricket first opened in 1949 and had a solid run all the way up until 2004. It finally reopened in a new location in the summer of 2017 and has been serving up delicious Hummel long dogs with Cricket’s famous red relish on a toasted, New England-style bun like it never missed a day. The works at Cricket is red relish, mustard, hot sauce and sauerkraut, but we recommend many return visits until you find your perfect combination.

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Il Bacio Ice Cream

ICE CREAM (HOMEMADE)

Il Bacio Ice CreamDanbury ,203-794-1184

The ice cream is silky and super creamy with a high butterfat content that is not so high that it obscures the flavors of the various ingredients owner and ice cream impresario Tony Nascimento uses. With hundreds of rotating flavors, and dozens available daily, you’re always sure to find something you love.

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Mel's Downtown Creamery

ICE CREAM SHOP (Readers’ Choice)

Mel’s Downtown CreameryPawcatuck, 860-599-1363

“Great atmosphere and staff ... delicious ice cream!!!”  — Vanessa Diaz, Norwich

“Wonderful service, great ice cream and sweet treats in a ’50s-themed, family-friendly spot.” — Celena Lopriore, Charlestown, Rhode Island

 “Absolutely THE best ice cream! In addition, Mel sponsors many fundraisers to benefit the community! Did I mention the great ice cream? ;)”  — Scott Cook, Pawcatuck

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Captain Scott's Lobster Dock

LOBSTER ROLL

Captain Scott’s Lobster DockNew London, 860-439-1741

It’s hard to imagine a better lobster roll (or meal of any kind) than the hot lobster roll at this seasonal outdoor eatery. Hot lobster meat is slathered in butter and served on a toasted roll. For those not sold on the hot Connecticut-style roll, there are also cold lobster rolls.

NOODLE HOUSE

Mecha Noodle BarFairfield: 203-292-8222; South Norwalk: 203-295-8718; New Haven: 203-691-9671

Mecha offers high-quality pho and ramen in a sleek setting. Each of the restaurant’s three locations are places where you not only want to slurp up broth but want to hang out and sip sake and specialty cocktails afterward.

OUTDOOR BAR

The Hops Co.Derby, 203-734-1616

Tucked inconspicuously back from the busy thoroughfare of Route 34, The Hops Co. is an oasis for beer lovers and those just looking to get together with friends and have a good time. A spacious rear beer garden has firepits, cornhole and plenty of picnic tables. Tall trees line the 4½-acre space, providing nice spots of shade when the sun is blazing. A great beer selection and Zuppardi’s pizza will keep you full and happy.

PIE

Oronoque FarmsShelton, 203-925-4237

The lineage of this bakery began with a roadside stand in front of a farmhouse at Oronoque Orchards in Stratford back in 1949. Now in Shelton, Oronoque Farms is baking up scrumptious pies of many varieties including apple, blueberry, cherry (in addition to the crumb version of all three) and an assortment of cream pies, chiffons and custards. The fall season will bring pumpkin, pecan and chocolate pecan.

PIZZA

Modern ApizzaNew Haven, 203-776-5306

Along with Sally’s and Pepe’s, Modern forms the holy trinity of New Haven pizza, but it is sometimes third in the ranking behind the two Wooster Street giants. However, with Pepe’s diluting its brand with expansion and Sally’s eyeing multiple locations under new ownership, Modern is rising in the depth charts and may carry the wood-fired torch of New Haven pizza into the next generation. And, yeah, the pizza here remains as awesome as ever.

SANDWICH

Johnny Salami’sNew Haven, 203-777-7906

Tucked away in Food Terminal Plaza at Long Wharf, Johnny Salami’s has been slapping together consistently craveable sandwiches year after year. Everything from paninis and parmesans to Reubens and wraps is complemented by daily specials and a general menu approach of “If you don’t see it ask for it!” If you’re lucky you’ll pay a visit on Cuban egg roll day — it’s Johnny’s take on a Cuban sandwich, deep fried and served with chipotle mayo.

SEAFOOD

The WhelkWestport, 203-557-0902

This upscale spot overlooking the Saugatuck River prides itself on serving the finest local and sustainable seafood. The raw bar is stacked with littlenecks and oysters from Connecticut to Maine. Deviled eggs topped with fried oysters are fiendishly good. Seafood stew is smoking with Calabrian chilies. Mackerel, shrimp, octopus, lobster, the list goes on and on …

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SOUP

The Soup GirlHamden, 203-248-7687

This humble Hamden storefront is a cathedral of soup love. There are several soups offered daily and there are even soup deliveries available in Hamden and surrounding towns. Some recent specials include zuppa de Bolognese, chicken escarole bean and a vegetarian and gluten-free corn chowder.

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Litchfield Distillery

Litchfield Distillery

SPIRIT

Bourbon line, Litchfield DistilleryLitchfield, 860-361-6503

Connecticut is not known for its bourbon, but the Litchfield Distillery is trying to change that. From a double-barreled, 10-year bourbon whiskey to a flavored line that includes maple, coffee and vanilla bourbons, Litchfield Distillery is a great introduction to the bourbon world and a fun place to visit.

TACOS (Readers' Choice)

El CamionWoodbury, 203-405-3008

“Best fresh, gourmet-quality tacos I have ever had!” — Melanie, Colchester

“El Camion hands down has the most refreshing, flavor-packed tacos and burritos in New England.” — Ryan Connelly, Woodbury

TACOS (TRADITIONAL)

Los Garcia Mexican FusionWaterbury, 203-910-9432

The tacos at this hidden-gem Mexican establishment feature made-to-order corn tortillas served warm and stuffed with your choice of chicken, chorizo or Los Garcia’s signature al pastor, then slathered with one of 12 different salsas. We eat a lot of tacos, none better than the ones served here.

VEGETARIAN & VEGAN FOOD

G-ZenBranford,  203-208-0443 

You’ll be forgiven for going straight to the desserts at this haven for the health conscious. Replacing processed sugar, milk and eggs with ingredients such as organic, whole-grain pastry flour and nut milks, G-Zen’s desserts — highlights are the raw chocolate almond butter crunch torte and spiced carrot cake — will leave you satisfied, but without the guilt. Besides the sweet stuff, there are countless “powered by plants” menu choices, including hand-cut sweet potato G-Fries and raw tacos packed with walnut “taco meat” and fresh guacamole. 

WINE BAR

Nouveau Monde Wine Bar + BistroSandy Hook, 203-491-2723

With more than 40 wines by the glass and 130 wines by the bottle, the Wine Spectator award-winning wine list here is impressive, but what makes this place truly special is the way the staff helps customers navigate the list. From affordable gems to high-end offerings, there is something for every wine drinker and the staff helps you find it.

WINERY TO VISIT (Readers' Choice)

Chamard VineyardsClinton, 860-664-0299

“Best wine in the state and awesome food. Beautiful grounds, top-notch service, staff, all around the best.”  — Debbie Lupo, Monroe

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Total Wine & More

WINE SHOP (Readers' Choice)

Total Wine & MoreMilford, West Hartford, Norwalk and Manchester

This popular chain emphasizes both variety and quality, stocking more than 8,000 wines (as well as thousands of beers and other beverages) from around the world, and prides itself on its employees’ expert knowledge. If you want to become an expert yourself, they offer regular classes on the finer points of wines and other spirits.

WINGS

J. Timothy’sPlainville, 860-747-6813

Many claim to be the best, and many are indeed very good. But this is J. Timothy’s category, now and maybe forever. Both the drumsticks and flats are meaty and tender and their signature “dirt” style is the only way to go — sauced, fried, sauced again, fried again. J. Tim’s sends out more than 300 tons of wings per year in four perfected flavors: original buffalo, honey gold BBQ, teriyaki and sweet red chili.


FUN & LEISURE 

Activities 

ADVENTURE PARK

Adventure Park at Storrs860-946-0606,

The Adventure Park at Storrs is five acres of forest fun. Multiple levels of difficulty ensure everyone from daytrippers to daredevils has a course they can conquer. Home to eight trails, 21 zip lines and more than 100 challenge bridges, the park also provides trained staff to monitor and assist if needed. Nighttime Glow in the Park events are scheduled for Sept. 7 and 21.

BEACH (Readers' Choice)

Hammonasset Beach State ParkMadison

Connecticut’s largest shoreline park draws more than 1 million visitors a year to its spacious, 2-mile beach, hundreds of campsites and the Meigs Point Nature Center, a year-round hub of all-ages programs and activities.

COASTAL CRUISE

Mystic Whaler CruisesNew London, 800-697-8420

The bliss you feel as you sail aboard the 110-foot Mystic Whaler schooner — the sun in your face, the wind in your hair — is hard to beat. You have a variety of options to choose from including a sunset lobster dinner cruise, lunch, brunch or multi-day overnight cruises. The six bathrooms with hot showers below deck come in handy for the sleep-aboard adventures. Each cruise starts with a loving look at the waterfront of the Thames River, featuring historic forts and lighthouses.

COUNTRY FAIR (Readers' Choice)

Durham FairDurham, 860-349-9495

Connecticut’s largest agricultural fair is a four-day, volunteer-run festival that attracts 200,000 people annually. This year’s fair (Sept. 27-30) will, as always, have a bounty of prizes, exhibits, contests, amusement rides and fair food, and Melissa Etheridge and Scotty McCreery are this year’s entertainment headliners.

FARMERS MARKET (Readers' Choice)

Coventry Farmers MarketCoventry

On Sundays from June through October this market is held at the Nathan Hale Homestead, where you can find an unparalleled selection of fresh fruits and vegetables, rustic breads, cheeses and much more. You’ll also find artisan crafts, activities for the kids and live entertainment.

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Matterhorn Mini Golf

GOLF COURSE (MINI)

Matterhorn Mini GolfCanton, 860-795-0234

“Matterhorn is a labor of love for me,” owner Autumn Sutherland says. “I designed, built it and actively manage it all day, every day.” Decked out in a colorful embroidered Swiss dress, Sutherland is hard to miss at this 18-hole course devoted to all things Switzerland. Perhaps harder to spot, but no less endearing, is Sutherland’s dog Mulligan, a tiny Coton de Tuléar and course mascot. As for the golfing, it’s a challenging course featuring Swiss icons such as Heidi, a bobsled track and ski moguls. The soundtrack? Yodeling, of course.

GOLF COURSE (PUBLIC)

Lake of Isles Golf Club and ResortNorth Stonington, 888-475-3746

Legendary golf course architect Rees Jones designed this 36-hole treasure (one public course, one private course) surrounding the 90-acre Lake of Isles. Island greens and tees provide a setting not commonly found outside of private country clubs, and the scenery gets even more stunning as the leaves begin to turn in the fall. Golfweek magazine consistently lists Lake of Isles as the best place to play in Connecticut.

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Dunkin' Donuts Park

PLACE TO SEE A GAME (Readers' Choice)

Dunkin’ Donuts ParkHartford, 860-240-5591

This stadium in downtown Hartford may have opened a year late, but it was worth the wait. With 6,121 seats close to the action, fantastic food and beverage options, and some of the best baseball prospects in the world taking the field, a Yard Goats game has become a top summer option. Dunkin’ Donuts Park also has free movie nights on the big screen — Black Panther is playing Sept. 18 — and the second annual G.O.A.T. Brew Fest is Oct. 20.

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Jones Family Farm

PICK-YOUR-OWN FARM

Jones Family FarmsShelton, 203-929-8425

From early summer to late fall, there is plenty to harvest at this 400-acre working farm. In early summer, it’s plump strawberries. Blueberries follow later in the season. Come fall, it’s time to pick your pumpkin for that perfect jack-o’-lantern, as well as other gourds and squash. And before Christmas arrives, scour the farm’s 200 acres of Christmas trees. Pro tip: To beat the post-Thanksgiving rush, head to the farm earlier in November for your tree.

SKIING

Ski SundownNew Hartford, 860-379-7669

While not the state’s biggest ski resort, Ski Sundown boasts impressive pitch and a nice selection of trails to satisfy a variety of skills levels. Of its 16 trails, 15 are lighted for nighttime slope action, and there’s a host of freestyle terrain. For those inclined for a long, leisurely run, Tom’s Treat meanders down the mountain for a mile. For the experienced, there are three black diamonds and a double black diamond, the blood-pumping Satan’s Stairway.

SKIING (WITHOUT SNOW)

Powder Ridge Mountain Park & ResortMiddlefield, 866-860-0208

Can’t ski without snow, right? Wrong, at least at Powder Ridge, which has synthetic slopes for skiing, snowboarding and tubing. Now in its second season of synthetic snow sports, Powder Ridge was the first to offer the activity in the Northeast. For those used to the real white stuff, it won’t take long to get used to this hard-packed faux snow. It’s just one part of a strategy to make the resort a year-round destination, as the park also has a new 1,400-foot-long zip line, an impressive mountain-biking experience, and disc golf.

SPORTS COMPLEX

Chelsea Piers ConnecticutStamford, 203-989-1000

The first time you step into this monstrous, 465,000-square-foot complex, you’ll be amazed at what can fit under one roof. Seven tennis courts, three swimming pools (one Olympic size), two hockey rinks, basketball and volleyball courts, turf fields, tracks, batting cages, a gymnastics training center and, somehow, even more. There’s also a juice bar, cafe, and bar and grill, because it’s pretty hard not to work up an appetite while you’re here.


Overnights

CITY STAY

Goodwin Hotel

The Goodwin Hotel

The GoodwinHartford, 860-246-1881

The Goodwin reopened last year with a remodeling that somehow manages to honor the grand and classic legacy of the 1881 building while simultaneously being new and hip. Porrón & Piña, the recently opened restaurant and bar within the hotel from chef Tyler Anderson, completes the winning equation.

COUNTRY B&B

Connecticut River Valley InnGlastonbury, 860-633-7374

Built in the 1740s, it has the quaint charm of a mid-18th century property with all the modern amenities one could ask for at a bed and breakfast. There are rooms for all seasons — Winter Solstice, Autumn Glow, Summer Wind and Spring Rain — and the River of Dreams room, a nod to the nearby Connecticut River whose banks are just a short walk away.

INN FOR FOODIES

Copper Beech InnIvoryton, 860-767-0330

Even if you don’t stay at this historic estate — with its 22 unique rooms spread across three houses — you’ll want to visit its award-winning restaurant, The Oak Room. Helmed by chef Carlos Cassar, the eatery has a sophisticated menu replete with local ingredients. Dine indoors or out, in the formal main dining room or more casual bar, which also features a soul-warming fireplace. And with a 2,500-bottle wine cellar, you’re sure to have a nice night.

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Madison Beach Hotel

ON THE WATER

Madison Beach HotelMadison, 203-245-1404

When a hotel is best known for its weddings, it’s a safe bet the accommodations are going to be top-notch. Combine that with its close proximity to the ocean — a furnished porch overlooks Long Island Sound — and you have the jewel of the Connecticut shoreline. Throw in an award-winning restaurant and it’s hard to argue this isn’t the perfect spot for a romantic getaway or weekend escape.

ROMANTIC OVERNIGHT (Readers' Choice)

Saybrook Point InnOld Saybrook, 860-395-2000

Seeking a romantic seaside getaway on Long Island Sound? The luxury suites at the Saybrook Point Inn will do just fine. Dine in your room or at the inn’s award-winning, upscale restaurant, Fresh Salt. If you want to bring your getaway up yet another notch, the inn’s one-of-a-kind Lighthouse Suite gives you a private kitchenette and living area and unobstructed water views from every angle.

UNIQUE RESORT

Winvian FarmMorris, 860-567-9600

Occupying 113 rustic acres in the Litchfield Hills, Winvian Farm is a wondrous lodging destination that owners call an “oasis of peace.” You’re sure to find plenty of rest and relaxation in one of the resort’s 18 architect-designed cottages, including a treehouse, an arts-and-crafts bungalow or a fully restored Coast Guard helicopter (it’s more spacious than you’d think!). Complete your inner peace with countless activities, such as fitness classes and a 5,000-square-foot luxury spa.


Arts & Entertainment

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Wadsworth Atheneum

MUSEUM (Reader's Choice)

Wadsworth AtheneumHartford, 860-278-2670

The nation’s oldest continuously operating public art museum rivals any in the country, with more than 50,000 pieces of art from around the world in its permanent collection, and blockbuster traveling exhibits — such as Monsters & Myths: Surrealism and War in the 1930s and 1940s (Oct. 20-Jan. 13), which will showcase works from Salvador Dalí, Joan Miró, Max Ernst and more.

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Hygenic Art

ART GALLERY

Hygienic ArtNew London, 860-443-8001

Hygienic Art is difficult to define, but that’s one of the things that makes it so quirky and interesting. Set amid Bank Street’s vibrant cultural scene, it’s a community group that supports a variety of arts-themed happenings in the area. It’s also home to an edgy, anything-goes art gallery featuring local artists. The highlight of a recent visit was an overwhelming, wall-to-wall sticker art display. But their big project is the construction of an amphitheater next door, a first for the city. Look for even more off-the-wall performance art.

CULTURAL ATTRACTION (ART)

Yale University Art GalleryNew Haven, 203-432-0601

Current exhibitions include artwork from a virtually unknown period in the career of a young Leonardo da Vinci and the largest collection of Sol LeWitt wall drawings in the world. September brings the opening of Seriously Funny: Caricature Through the Centuries, a recent acquisition of 19th-century French satirical lithographs. YUAG’s permanent collection spans 1½ city blocks and features more than 4,000 works plus a rooftop terrace and sculpture garden.

CULTURAL ATTRACTION (HISTORY)

Thames River Heritage ParkGroton and New London

This “park” unites more than a dozen national and historic sites dotting the Thames River via a water taxi. The historic attractions include the Fort Trumbull State Park, Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park, the Submarine Force Museum (home of the USS Nautilus), and will ultimately include the National Coast Guard Museum planned for New London’s waterfront. 

CULTURAL ATTRACTION (WITH KIDS)

Mystic Seaport MuseumMystic, 860-572-0711

We can’t speak for everyone, but hands-on learning may be the best way to learn, especially for children. At Mystic Seaport, kids can hang in the Home Port activity center, learn about the marine environment on Australia Beach, visit the children’s museum and find out how ships work in the Discovery Barn. Need a souvenir? Make your own and build a toy boat.

MOVIE THEATER (Readers' Choice)

CinemarkNorth Haven, 203-234-8100

When the Cinemark chain opened a 57,000-square-foot, 14-screen multiplex in North Haven in 2015, it raised the bar for the fully immersive cinematic experience in Connecticut. Pick your snacks from the cafeteria-like concession area, grab a drink from the bar, and settle into your reserved luxury recliner to enjoy the latest blockbuster in digital surround sound and projected on a screen measuring up to 68 feet by 32 feet.

INDIE CINEMA

The Avon Theatre Film CenterStamford, 203-967-3660

This is the type of theater every film buff wants in their city. In addition to new films, The Avon has several recurring film series including French cinema and cult classics that includes annual screenings of The Big Lebowski. We love this theater but, well, that’s just, like, our opinion, man.

MUSIC CLUB

Infinity Music Hall & BistroHartford, 866-666-6306

A cozy space with superior acoustics and wonderful bistro selections combine for a satisfying dinner-and-music experience. The talent that comes through this place is also impressive. West Coast gangsta rap legend Warren G brought his I Need a Light tour to Infinity in August. For country pop, check out LeAnn Rimes on Sept. 23 and Tegan Maria on Sept. 27. On Nov. 2, multi-genre group Parsonsfield (hailing from Mansfield) team up with Connecticut native and NBC’s The Voice winner Sawyer Fredericks.

PLACE TO SEE LOCAL BANDS (Readers' Choice)

Toad’s PlaceNew Haven, 203-624-8623

You never know who you might see at Toad’s — a given night could bring a band playing anything from rock to rap to reggae, from upcoming acts to musical legends, on the same stage where Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and U2 have made appearances. Upcoming shows include rapper Lil Baby (Sep. 2) and punk legends the Descendants (Oct. 28).

PERFORMING ARTS VENUE (LARGE)

College Street Music HallNew Haven, 203-867-2000

The hits just keep on coming at College Street. With enough space for about 2,000 guests, the new kid on the New Haven arts-and-entertainment scene has become a magnet for some of music’s top acts, as well as some quirky performances (the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Live! show arrives Oct. 13). Other highlights are Ziggy Marley (Sept. 15), Ray LaMontagne (Oct. 8) and Arlo Guthrie (Oct. 20).

PERFORMING ARTS VENUE (SMALL)

FTC StageOneFairfield, 203-259-1036

This intimate, 225-seat theater is the flagship of the Fairfield Theater Company. It has hosted hundreds of great shows, from a wide range of musical acts to comedians. Along with the 640-person capacity Warehouse at FTC, The Fairfield Theater Company hosts several high-quality shows a week. 

THEATER (Readers' Choice)

Shubert TheatreNew Haven, 203-562-5666

“The Shubert Theatre is a great local venue to see shows that have the same great quality they have on Broadway but in a smaller and more intimate place. I’ve grown up seeing shows at the Shubert and it is where my love of theater began.”  — Jacqueline Nathman, Branford

THEATER FOR ORIGINAL SHOWS

Yale Repertory TheatreNew Haven, 203-432-1234

Year after year, Yale Rep turns out original works that reflect our times and challenge our thinking. From El Huracán (Sept. 28-Oct. 20), a Miami-set story of family and forgiveness, to Good Faith: Four Chats About Race and the New Haven Fire Department (Feb. 1-23), a new play about the landmark 2009 civil rights case involving the city and a group of its firefighters, the Rep delivers world-class drama.

THEATER FOR TOURING SHOWS

The BushnellHartford, 860-987-5900

One word: Hamilton. The touring show of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s uber-hit visits The Bushnell from Dec. 11-30. Start working now on getting those tickets, if you haven’t done so already. Sheer quality and the kaleidoscope of performances define the venue. The hilarious Broadway hit The Play That Goes Wrong features Sept. 25-30, Lily Tomlin brings the laughs Oct. 19, the puppet-filled The Very Hungry Caterpillar stops by Nov. 10, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson shoots for the stars Dec. 3.


Casinos 

CASUAL DINING

Bobby’s Burger PalaceMohegan Sun, 860-862-2277

The brainchild of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, this restaurant specializes in burgers with toppings inspired by the culinary traditions found in different parts of the U.S. Regardless of which burger you get, all are winners. The milkshakes are equally excellent.

FINE DINING

Vue 24Foxwoods, 800-369-9663

One thing that’s not a gamble at Foxwoods is whether you’re going to have a great meal at Vue 24. The menu is rich with delicacies such as foie gras, escargot and osetra caviar, and options not available even in fine establishments such as the Grand Pequot Seafood Tower (Stonington lobster, king crab, giant shrimp, oysters and clams) and châteaubriand steak prepared tableside.

ENTERTAINMENT VENUE (LARGE)

Foxwoods Grand Theater800-200-2882

The biggest concert and performance venue at Foxwoods brings in some of the biggest stars of music, comedy and more. Comedian Gabriel Iglesias, bluegrass superstar Alison Krauss, and R&B legends Bell Biv Devoe and Bobby Brown will fill the 4,000-seat theater in September. Tim Allen and Hall & Oates are slated for November shows.

ENTERTAINMENT VENUE (SMALL) (Readers' Choice)

Wolf DenMohegan Sun, 888-226-7711

You can’t beat a free concert. Located in the middle of the Mohegan Sun casino, the Wolf Den is an intimate venue that’s hosted acts including MC Hammer, the Gin Blossoms and John Cafferty. 

NIGHTCLUB

AvalonMohegan Sun, 860-862-7042

Avalon is another repeat winner that will be hard-pressed to be knocked from its pedestal. Big-name DJs spin records through a state-of-the-art sound system that reverberates throughout the 10,000-square-foot party place. Dress to impress is the code, so you know the crowd inside is grown and sexy. Planning a bachelor(ette) or birthday party? It’s on at Avalon.

PLACE TO SPEND YOUR WINNINGS

Lux Bond & GreenMohegan Sun, 860-862-9900

Naugatuck Valley merchant Morris A. Green started this company 120 years ago with a horse and cart on the streets of Waterbury. Fast-forward a century and a score and now Lux Bond & Green is one of the longest continuously operating, singularly owned jewelers in the country. No more horse and cart, either. Now customers show up with wads of cash fresh off hitting a jackpot or calling an all-in bluff in the poker room.

SHOPPING

Tanger OutletsFoxwoods, 860-383-4340 

Tanger is a respected name in high-quality shopping. And at Foxwoods, Tanger’s shopping destination does not disappoint. With about 100 stores — including Ann Taylor, Coach, Kate Spade, Steve Madden, Connecticut’s own Vineyard Vines and many more — you should probably set aside a weekend to browse the full selection.


Health & Beauty

SPA

G Spa & SalonFoxwoods, 860-312-4772

Founded by renowned salon and fashion designer Gretta Monahan, this spa features 21,000 square feet of pampering space. From massages, facials, hair services, manicures and pedicures to a sauna, waterfall, pool and eucalyptus steam room, G Spa has all the ingredients for supreme relaxation. 

FITNESS CLUB/GYM (Readers' Choice)

Empowered Indoor Cycling StudioGlastonbury, 860-430-2170

“Empowered Indoor Cycling Studio because it’s state-of-the-art. It has awesome instructors, amazing bikes, fun classes!” — Jocelyn DeMaio, Manchester

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KALON by Karina

HAIR SALON (Readers' Choice)

Kalon by KarinaTrumbull, 475-239-6666,

“Kalon by Karina is just fantastic. She gives the best haircut I have ever had and she actually spends the time to teach you how to style it. Warm and inviting space!”  — Keira Robilotto, Trumbull 

“Karina is an expert, she is friendly, reliable, and professional and makes everyone that comes in feel like family without being overbearing. She listens to your needs and always delivers the best haircuts and styles.”  — Nicole, Stamford

MED SPA

Versailles Medical SpaDarien, 203-424-2588

Versailles specializes in the latest and most advanced types of non-surgical cosmetic enhancement, including skin rejuvenation, wrinkle reduction, fat reduction, laser hair removal, body treatments, cosmetic tattooing, permanent makeup and more. Approaching a decade serving Fairfield County and beyond, Versailles provides an elegant and discreet environment for these most personal of procedures.

RELAXATION TREATMENT

PuREST FloatTrumbull: 203-445-6918; New Haven: 203-404-7755

The sensory-deprivation salt baths at PuREST Float offer intense relaxation. The high salt content allows you to float without effort and the chambers cut out all sight and sounds, creating a trippy and truly soothing experience. There’s now even a couple’s float option in the New Haven location. 

YOGA STUDIO

Bloom Yoga Fitness StudiosSouthington, 860-620-4530

How can you tell they know their stuff at Bloom Yoga? Because their alums have gone on to launch other yoga destinations in the state. In addition to their yogi-training program, Bloom Yoga has a variety of classes to suit the yoga enthusiast, or someone just getting started. Offerings range from yoga with children (and goats!) to meditation workshops, while a wellness studio features spa-like amenities such as massage and acupuncture. 


SHOPPING

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The Promeade Shops at Evergreen Walk

SHOPPING CENTER/DESTINATION

The Promenade Shops at Evergreen WalkSouth Windsor, 860-432-3398

This collection of shops and dining options covers more than 350,000 square feet and is made up of retailers such as Anthropologie, Banana Republic, Eddie Bauer and L.L. Bean and restaurants such as Panera, Red Heat Tavern and Ted’s Montana Grill. Designed to be pedestrian friendly, there’s a traditional New England village vibe augmented by a fountain and fire pits.


Home & Garden

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Cindy's Unique SHop

ANTIQUES (Readers' Choice)

Cindy’s Unique ShopWallingford, 203-269-9341

Since Cynthia Ruszczyk opened this consignment shop in 2010, customers have consistently found two things: a warm and friendly owner and staff, and an ever-changing selection of beautiful but affordable treasures. Cindy even offers layaways.

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Stratford Antique Center

ANTIQUES (MULTI-DEALER)

Stratford Antique CenterStratford, 203-378-7754,

This is where dealers and thrifters head for great finds that won’t bust the budget. And let’s face it, when looking for interesting pieces for the home, why would you settle for some mass-produced item from a big-box store that millions of other people have, too? Speaking of big boxes, Stratford has 16,500 square feet jam-packed with all manner of antiques and collectibles from more than 200 dealers.

FLEA MARKET

Elephant’s TrunkNew Milford, 860-355-1448

This New England treasure-hunting institution has been going strong for more than 40 years. Open every Sunday (even holiday weekends) from late March through mid-December, the Trunk is typically filled with some 500 vendors with everything from bargain finds to high-end goods. There’s no telling what you might unearth on any given Sunday.

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Wallingford Flower Shop

FLORIST

Wallingford Flower ShoppeWallingford, 203-265-1514

Centrally located (on Center Street, naturally) between Route 5 and Main Street in downtown Wallingford, this purveyor of plants and fragrant flowers is a repeat winner, and with good reason. Approaching seven decades of designing decorative arrangements, this family-owned shop offers same-day delivery and awesome options for all occasions.

GARDEN CENTER (Readers' Choice)

Van Wilgen’s Garden CenterNorth Branford, 203-488-2110

Since the roots of the business began to grow nearly a century ago, Van Wilgen’s has grown into the destination for the green-thumb crowd. Most of the plants are either locally sourced or grown on Van Wilgen’s own 56-acre nursery, and can be bought at the original North Branford location and at Garden Mart outlets in Guilford, Old Saybrook and Milford.

HOME DECOR

Plain GoodsNew Preston, 860-868-0280

Plain Goods offers stylish antique and vintage furniture, lighting, mirrors, art, textiles and rugs, and more. They also offer home design services aimed at creating “environments that are personal and refined, with a quiet beauty that is integrated into everyday life.”


Boutiques

CONSIGNMENT

Pennywise Consignment ShopMystic, 860-572-9232

The rule of thumb with clothing is, if you haven’t worn something in more than a year, it’s time to get rid of it. But don’t throw it out! Besides donating it, another good option is consigning. Pennywise is an ideal location to consign your men’s and women’s designer and name-brand clothing and jewelry. Of course, if you need to spruce up your wardrobe, Pennywise is also a top spot, boasting items with labels such as DKNY, Banana Republic, Tory Burch and Lilly Pulitzer.

MEN'S WEAR

Daswani ClothiersWest Hartford, 860-233-4435

Jack Daswani has been in business for more than 30 years and clearly knows what he’s doing. His clothing store works with designers from around the world and offers customers access to top brands as well as custom-designed clothing.

WOMEN'S WEAR

Morneault’s Stackpole Moore TryonHartford, 860-522-0181

Stackpole Moore Tryon was established in 1909 but the Morneaults have been running things successfully in downtown Hartford for 45 years. They feature designer clothes, custom-made options and formal wear, in addition to in-house fitting and tailoring.


General

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The Book Barn

BOOKSTORE (USED)

The Book BarnNiantic, 860-739-5715

More like Book Barns. The Main Barn started with three bookcases and a couch in 1988 and now there are four locations in Niantic and a collection of more than 500,000 books. The Downtown Shop has an eclectic selection, the Midtown Shop is quiet and peaceful, and Store Four has rare and out-of-print selections. The Book Barn is closed only on Thanksgiving and Christmas. Come on down, the store cats are waiting.

BOOKSTORE (NEW/INDIE) (Readers’ Choice)

Book Club Bookstore and MoreSouth Windsor, 860-432-7411

“Book Club Bookstore and More is my favorite indie bookstore because it is tremendously supportive of local authors and artisans, and provides a great place for the community to connect at the many diverse events hosted by the store. It’s a small business with a huge heart!”  — Maria Carvalho, South Windsor

 “I absolutely love Book Club Bookstore. There’s a great variety of books and a ton of book discussions, workshops, classes, and other activities. They also support local authors and are very involved in community events.”  — Jessica Bottomley, Broad Brook

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The Bowerbird

GIFTS

The BowerbirdOld Lyme, 860-434-3562

The Bowerbird, which opened in 1989, “represents the quintessential family shopping experience.” There are toys, books, clothes, soaps, jewelry, accessories, gourmet food, pet stuff, stationary, party supplies, trinkets, doodads, tchotchkes, the whole nine. It’s stocked with “impulsive necessities” from more than 2,000 vendors. A beautiful touch is their gift wrap donation program. The Bowerbird charges a fee for wrapping and donates half of the proceeds from the entire year to local nonprofits.

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Becker's Diamonds and Fine Jewelry

JEWELRY STORE

Becker’s Diamonds and Fine JewelryWest Hartford: 860-521-3202 Old Saybrook: 860-391-8281

Becker’s was established in 1978 and in 2014 a second location was opened in Old Saybrook. The service is personal and professional, and invite-only events are held periodically for loyal customers. The West Hartford store has a goldsmith shop and a vast estate jewelry department, and each store has a service and repair studio. Becker’s is a member of the Leading Jewelers Guild and Preferred Jewelers International.

PET SERVICES (Readers’ Choice)

The Barking LotHamden, 203-764-2622

No one likes to leave Fido behind … but if you must, the folks here will treat your furry family member like their own, with services from doggie daycare to overnight stays and long-term boarding. Pooches can play and socialize in a 3,000-square-foot outdoor playground filled with jungle gyms and dipping pools, and The Barking Lot actively supports local canine rescue groups.

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Amato's Toy and Hobby

TOY STORE

Amato’s Toy and Hobby, New Britain: 860-229-9069; Middletown: 860-347-1893

For the classics, including die-cast model cars, flying model rockets, radio-controlled vehicles, wood blocks, and dolls, head to this shop that’s been serving New Britain since the ’50s and Middletown since 1940. You’ll also find more modern stuff such as science kits. Here’s some holiday cheer: the New Britain store was featured in a 2017 Lifetime movie, A Very Merry Toy Store, starring Mario Lopez and Melissa Joan Hart.


Recreation

BIKE SHOP

Pedal PowerBerlin, Essex, Middletown and Vernon

With new trails opening all the time, the cycling options in Connecticut just keep getting better and better. Make sure you have the right gear to tackle all the miles out there. With four locations, Pedal Power has bikes to handle busy city streets or rocky mountain paths, and hybrids for those who want a bit of both. Also offering bike rentals and repairs, Pedal Power hosts weekly group rides where you can develop your pack mentality.

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Sound Runner

RUNNING GEAR

Sound RunnerFairfield, Glastonbury, Old Saybrook, Branford

With three locations along the shoreline and one up in Glastonbury, Sound Runner will have you feeling like you’re ready to run from store to store. They’ll fit you for the right shoes and the proper headband, and take care of everything in between. Socks, shorts, shirts, sunglasses, water bottles, you name it. Trained staff will even take the time to analyze your gait to figure out what will work best for you.

SPORTING GOODS

Farr’s Sporting GoodsManchester, 860-643-7111

With their selection of baseball and softball bats, it’s no wonder Farr’s went back-to-back in the sporting goods category. Whether your sport is indoors or outdoors, summer or winter, Farr’s has everything you could imagine for major sports such as football and basketball all the way to frisbee golf, darts and yard games. Farr’s is also the place for all the equipment you need for skiing, skating, sledding, camping, fishing and biking.

Also see the Best of Connecticut 2018 in Food & Drink and Fun & Leisure


This article appeared in the September 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine. Did you like what you read? You can subscribe here.

The Senior Writer at Connecticut Magazine, Erik is the author of "Buzzed: Where to Enjoy the Best Craft Beverages in New England" & "Gillette Castle." His next book is with Penguin Random House & he is an adjunct professor at WCSU & Quinnipiac University.

Mike Wollschlager, editor and writer for Connecticut Magazine, was born and raised in Bristol and has lived in Farmington, Milford, Shelton and Wallingford. He was previously an assistant sports editor at the New Haven Register.

Albie Yuravich is the editor in chief of Connecticut Magazine. A product of the Naugatuck River Valley, he's also been a newspaper editor and writer at the New Haven Register, Greenwich Time, The Register Citizen and the Republican-American.

Greg Moody is a graphic designer and occasional editorial contributor for Connecticut Magazine.