In the late 1970s, most storefronts on South Norwalk’s Washington Street were vacant and many were slated for demolition. A group of community stakeholders formed the South Norwalk Revitalization Project to save the area. It proved that rarest of urban renewal projects: one that actually worked. By 1977 a downtown historic district was formed, protecting 35 buildings in the neighborhood, and in 1988 a former iron works factory on the Norwalk River found new life as The Maritime Aquarium, which became a draw for the “SoNo” neighborhood.
Today there are enough hipster-friendly restaurants to give a Brooklyn neighborhood a run for its money, and you don’t have to walk far to find specialty cocktails or global cuisine from arepas to ramen. Beyond the restaurants, the area has the feel of a boomtown with high-end condos and the newly opened SoNo Collection, an upscale shopping mall. It’s a great neighborhood for a winter day trip, even if the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum, a historic house in the area, closes from January until April.
11 a.m.: Breaking fast
Caffé Social is our first stop. It is a breakfast, lunch and coffee place and the perfect introduction to SoNo with its sleek, this-is-where-the-cool-kids-hang-out atmosphere. Edison bulbs hang from the ceiling, wine and beer is served at the bar, and breakfast cocktails are offered alongside excellent breakfast fare running from waffles to eggs and everything in between. My coffee and giant chocolate chip cookie make me eager to return in the future.
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Noon: Time for Maritime
I grew up in Connecticut and would frequently visit the Maritime Aquarium. It’s been upgraded many times since I was a kid, but what made me love the place so much back then remains on this visit: up-close looks at aquatic animals including seals, river otters, sea turtles, jellies and the ever-popular sharks. Most of the animals featured at the Aquarium are native to Long Island Sound, and the museum’s mission is to educate the public about the Sound and help encourage conservation efforts. The Aquarium is also home to a six-story IMAX theater, which it bills as the largest in Connecticut. Many of the movies are made-for-IMAX documentaries, but the theater also occasionally shows Hollywood productions. Seeing The Dark Knight here back in 2008 remains one of my most memorable movie-going experiences.
2 p.m.: Tapas time
There are no shortage of dining options in South Norwalk. Most storefronts along Washington Street are occupied by restaurants with swanky decor and cool concepts. Many are excellent. Chef Matt Storch’s flagship restaurant Match is one of the most famous eateries in South Norwalk with good reason, and visiting Norwalk’s Mecha Noodle Bar is always a worthwhile experience, but today my wife and I head to Tablao Wine Bar. The Spanish- and Mediterranean-inspired tapas bar has brick walls and a relaxed, upscale feel. Spanish guitar music is pumping out of the PA system. We share two excellent appetizers, hanger steak and eggplant, and a wonderful drink, the Caipi-Fruta, a twist on the Caipirinha, Brazil’s national cocktail. Next time we’ll come during happy hour, which runs 3-6 p.m. every day and features half-off drinks and tapas.
4 p.m.: Say it ain’t SoNo
These days in South Norwalk you can’t escape The SoNo Collection. Opened in the fall, this high-end mall is visible from I-95 and for better or worse now serves as an introduction to the neighborhood for those visiting via the highway. A half-mile from Tablao, it’s an easy walk, though not a particularly scenic one. We take our time getting there because I’m no fan of malls. However, even I have to admit this place is pretty nice. Anchored by Bloomingdale’s and Nordstrom, it features 91 stores. At Nordstrom I pass on buying a $500 pair of Gucci sunglasses, but I do stop in at the coffee cafe in the center of the store. Far more serious than Starbucks, it offers pour-overs and a decent cappuccino. Passing by the Mercedes-Benz dealership on the second floor, I’m invited to try a virtual reality car simulator. I’ve tried VR a few other times, but this is another level. The seat makes you feel like you’re in the car. Once you put on the VR headset you are on the track, albeit a cartoonish-looking one, and feel the turning of the car, motion sickness and all. This is the kind of experience-driven shopping that The SoNo Collection is banking on for its success. So far it’s working.
6 p.m.: Beer me
For drinks before dinner, once more SoNo has an abundance of riches. There’s SoNo 1420, a distillery specializing in making spirits with hemp. For those who want to watch a game, The Blind Rhino is a roomy sports bar with celebrated wings and excellent game-watching grub. But today we head to Spigot, a craft beer bar I’ve been meaning to visit since it opened two years ago. On the outskirts of Washington Street’s main area, Spigot has a true neighborhood feel and serious hipster Vermont vibe. There’s a bong behind the bar and snowboards on the wall. It is also serious about craft beer in a way that sets it apart in an era when breweries have become a dime a dozen, and dive bars often offer decent beer options. Here there are rare bottles of sour beer available as well as sought-after IPAs on tap.
8 p.m.: One dinner, two restaurants
For dinner we start at The Spread, a beloved restaurant and bar. There are many craft cocktails to choose from, but I opt for a mojito, which is well made, and we share an excellent dish of orecchiette. As is the case with many South Norwalk destinations, this place has a fun, modern vibe that seems designed for young professionals and late 20- to 30-somethings. We could easily have eaten more here, but restaurant hopping is one of the draws of South Norwalk, so after getting a dish at The Spread we walk next door to La Calle Arepas Bar. This is a brightly colored, upbeat bar and restaurant offering an assortment of arepas. As we sit down, a manager offers us samples of a Venezuelan spirit. A shrimp arepa and the pabellon, an arepa with shredded beef, beans and fried plantains, are perfect end-of-the-day meals. They would also make for a good lunch, and La Calle is tops on my list to revisit next time I spend a day in South Norwalk.
5 Facts about South Norwalk
The area of South Norwalk was originally a harbor settlement called Old Well, named for the source of water vessels in dock used to replenish their supply.
It became the city of South Norwalk in 1870 but later was consolidated as part of Norwalk.
In 1977, a downtown historic district was formed to protect many historic buildings in the neighborhood.
In 1988, a former iron works factory on the Norwalk River found new life as The Maritime Aquarium, which became a draw for the “SoNo” neighborhood.
Author and illustrator Johnny Gruelle, who lived near South Norwalk in the Silvermine section of town, created the famous Raggedy Ann doll in the early 1900s.
South Norwalk is a desirable address these days. If you have money to spare, there are luxury condos available. If not, there are some more affordable options, but you’ll have to look a little harder.
For $265,000: A one-bedroom, one-bathroom, 824-square-foot condo overlooking Washington Street.
For $600,000: A four-bedroom, two-bathroom, 2,394-square-foot, one-family home on a 5,227-square-foot lot in the heart of South Norwalk.
On the calendar
Feb. 1-2, 15-16, 29: Seal-spotting and birding cruises
These 2½-hour cruises take guests out on Long Island Sound with experts from The Maritime Aquarium in the hopes of seeing creatures that winter in the region. Times vary, so check with the aquarium for specific details about each voyage.
Feb. 2: SoNo Bowl 5, prior to Super Bowl kickoff, The Blind Rhino
Ken Tuccio and The Blind Rhino host this pre-Super Bowl event that has become a local tradition. There are drinks and specials, prizes and various trivia and other games that will get you ready as you wait for the game to start.
Feb. 9: Valentine’s Couples Feeding Time, 8:30 to 10 a.m., The Maritime Aquarium
The weekend before Valentine’s Day, the aquarium is offering adult couples the opportunity to take turns feeding the rays, diamondback terrapins and horseshoe crabs. All before the aquarium opens.
The Maritime Aquarium is screening three IMAX movies on its six-story screen. Great Barrier Reef explores Australia’s aquatic wonder and plays daily at 11 a.m., 2 and 4 p.m. Superpower Dogs looks at the life-saving ability and skills of some of the planet’s most impressive canines and plays daily at 2 and 4 p.m. Dolphins follows marine biologists as they study these amazing creatures and plays daily at 1 p.m.
Recurring: Best Trivia Ever, 8 p.m.
This popular Connecticut trivia company hosts weekly events Tuesdays at The Blind Rhino, Wednesdays at Local, and Thursdays at Our House. Read up on your knowledge of pop culture and form your team.