One of the best ways to enjoy summer is dining at a spot where the scenery is as fine as what’s on the plate. To greet the official arrival of the season June 21, and to serve as a guide from now through the fall, here's a list of the 25 best outdoor dining destinations in the state, with a few extras thrown in for good measure.
(And let us know what you think on Twitter, Facebook or Google+. As with out best pizza feature, we know there are more great al fresco places out there, but we had to stop somewhere and 25 seemed like a good number.)
Fresh Salt, Saybrook Point Inn
The dining room at the seafood restaurant Fresh Salt has one of the most gorgeous locations in Connecticut. It looks out at the broad expanse of water where the Connecticut River flows into Long Island Sound, and the setting inspires dishes like the Jonah Crab-Avocado Salad, whose menu description says it comes with grilled watermelon “steak”, jicama and plaintain.
We tasted the entire spring menu not long ago and especially loved the sweet pea risotto with Stonington pink shrimp, and the Point Judith calamari stuffed with artichoke and crabmeat and served amid a Valencia paella with mussels. The enjoyment factor for those dishes and everything else gets a seasonal enhancement in the summer, when you can dine outside on the patios—and even a raised deck—at the Saybrook Point Inn. It really doesn’t get any better than that.
(800) 243-0212, saybrook.com
The Wharf Restaurant at Madison Beach Hotel, Madison
With a wrap-around deck overlooking the Long Island Sound, The Wharf Restaurant at Madison Beach Hotel offers some of the most impressive sunset views in the area. When the weather is a little chillier, overhead heating lamps allow the al fresco dining to continue. The hotel’s restaurant is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner to both hotel guests and those just looking for a great farm-to-table meal in a spectacular location.
Start your day with a gourmet breakfast or end it with a dessert made in the in-house pastry shop. For those meals in between, the treasures of the Atlantic Ocean feature prominently on the menu. Diver scallops, grilled Atlantic swordfish, crispy skin Faroe Island salmon and steamed Maine lobster are just a few options “of the sea.”
If the land is more your taste, try the restaurant’s lamb loin chops, beef tenderloin, rib-eye steak frites or roasted GourmAvian Farm chicken breast. Soups, salads, appetizers and fresh raw bar will help round out your meal at The Wharf.
When you’re satisfied, enjoy a post-meal cocktail, beer or glass of vino off the extensive wine list at the hotel’s Port Bar.
(203) 245-1404, madisonbeachhotel.com
Oyster Club, Mystic
Travel + Leisure named the Oyster Club one of its Best Oyster Bars in America in 2014, and with a focus on sourcing ingredients from “farmers, fisherman and artisans, most of whom make their home both inland and along the coast of Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts,” the seafood and other cuisine at the Oyster Club is some of the best in Connecticut.
And then there’s the “secret” outdoor space that ups the ante. It’s called The Treehouse, and the restaurant’s website perfectly sums up its appeal: “Tucked away in the trees with views of the Mystic River, the Treehouse is an outdoor bar and deck, where smoke and fire meet the ocean. Oyster Club’s take on a traditional New England summer shack, we feature everything that makes New England in the Summer the Greatest place on Earth…raw oysters, whole lobster, fried clams, grilled fish and the best in seasonal cocktails, crisp wines and frosty beers. Combined with a light breeze and rosy sunsets, you’ve got perfection. Cheers!”
(860) 415-9266, oysterclubct.com
Red 36, Mystic
This relatively new restaurant is blessed with the perfect location at Seaport Marine right on the water. You walk on a dock to get to Red 36!
Needless to say, the outdoor experience is first-rate, and not just because the views and the town of Mystic are gorgeous. The food at Red 36 is also gorgeous, and while the location feels a bit seafood rustic/casual, the cuisine has a delicious sophistication. Sure there’s a raw bar and clam chowder, but there’s also a menu of grilled flatbreads, appetizers like crispy fried oysters with cucumber kim-chee and ginger vinegar, and entrées like paella-style risotto with shrimp, clams, mussels, chorizo sausage, roasted chicken, peas, oven- roasted tomatoes and creamy saffron risotto, and truffle mushroom ravioli with seared scallops, asparagus, sweet potatoes, shitake mushrooms, pancetta and sherry wine butter.
(860) 536-3604, red36ct.com
Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough, Noank
Founded in 1947 Abbott’s Lobster is a waterfront restaurant located on the Mystic River in Noank. It’s a seasonal operation that opens each May.
There’s indoor seating, but the entire appeal here is the terrific waterfront setting with lots of outdoor seating—that and fresh delicious seafood, which ranges from classic lobster dinners to lobster rolls in varying sizes, chowder, steamed clams, crab cakes, freshly shucked oysters and more. Save room for a brownie sundae for dessert.
(860) 536-7719, abbottslobster.com
Fairfield County Waterfront
They call Lower Fairfield County the Gold Coast of Connecticut, and at the French restaurant l’escale, located at the Delamar Greenwich Harbor, you feel like you’re dining on the Riviera in France. The restaurant’s setting is a “supreme” location on the Greenwich waterfront, and in the summer months you can even arrive by boat.
As that implies, this is a gorgeous place for al fresco dining, or, as the website says, “just lounge idly at our terrace bar overlooking the harbor.” The menu is studded with gems, but when on the water what could be better than oysters on ice (with a crisp French Sancerre) and more elaborate offerings like the Lateau de Fruits de Mer, a selection of oysters, clams, jumbo shrimp and mussels served with brandied cocktail sauce, mignonette sauce and buttered rye bread—or the Plateau Royal, with Maine lobster, king crab legs, a selection of oysters, clams, jumbo shrimp, and mussels, with brandied cocktail sauce, mignonette and buttered rye bread.
Now that’s living, and there’s also Sunday brunch to consider.
(203) 661-4600, lescalerestaurant.com
The Whelk, Westport
Chef Bill Taibe has established his place in the Connecticut culinary scene with his trio of Westport restaurants—LeFarm opened in 2009, The Whelk opened in 2012 and Kawa Ni opened earlier this year. All are impressive and distinctive, but here we focus on The Whelk for its food, of course, but also for its beautiful outdoor dining space. The flagstone patio looks out over the Saugatuck River, enhancing the already enviable experience of eating here during the summer season.
Called “the most sophisticated clam shack on the New England coast” by Connecticut Magazine reviewer Elise Maclay, The Whelk takes our collective love of seafood and elevates it above the lobster rolls and clam baskets that are typical of shoreline eateries. The raw bar features fresh clams and oysters from as nearby as Norwalk. Scallops, soft shell crab, tilefish and octopus are just some of the delicacies featured on The Whelk’s menu, but chef Taibe uses only what’s fresh and in season, rotating the menu to highlight the best ingredients out there.
Mouthwatering dishes come and go, but are always replaced by something equally memorable. Each trip to The Whelk is different, and a treat.
(203) 557-0902, thewhelkwestport.com
“Hip, stylish, delicious new Latin sizzle has arrived at the high-energy Harbor Point urban redevelopment on Stamford’s industrial waterfront in the form of the new restaurant Paloma from chef Aarón Sánchez … co-star of Food Network’s hit series “Chopped” . . . .
We wrote last July when the restaurant debuted in a waterfront location in Stamford. “There’s something [especially] convivial and social about eating Latin-inspired food,” Sánchez told us at the time. Dishes with nice acidity, great spice and influences from cuisines around the world are a hot culinary trend with time-tested appeal—while also particularly appealing to young food savvy people who “travel the world,” Sanchez said.
Where better than on the wide patio while watching boats cruise along the Rippowam River to feel young and alive while enjoying raw bar options and small plates like crispy prawns or short rib with wild mushroom arepa.
(203) 998-7500, palomagrill.com
On the River
Gelston House Restaurant and Inn, East Haddam
The view from this fine dining establishment on the banks of the Connecticut River not only gives one a stunning panoramic of the mighty river but also seems to provide a peek back in time at the way things once were or at least we’d like them to have been. Close by and within full view is the ornate Goodspeed Opera House, built in the 1800s. Nearby, albeit not within view, is Gillette Castle and the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, which has served (in one form or another) those seeking to cross the river since 1769.
The large outdoor dining area at Gelston House is covered from the elements by an awning and guests can enjoy items from the pub menu. If you want something more formal, dine inside in the main dining room, which still offers nice views of the river thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows.
Favorites here include rack of lamb, Kobe beef burgers, Chilean sea bass and duck à l’orange. Each is best enjoyed with a pinch of nostalgia.
(860) 873-1411, gelstonhouse.com
Blue Oar, Haddam
Outdoor dining seekers will discover a riverside gem on the Connecticut River with this cash-only seafood summertime haunt. The website advises guests to “act like a regular and succumb to the reggae, amazing food, and river breeze,” at this BYOB establishment that also encourages guests to “(if applicable) bring your own boat.”
You can enjoy warm weather delicacies like hot and cold lobster rolls, salads, ribs and a variety of fresh-caught fish. One thing you won’t find is any French fries or other grease-filled offerings. “We don’t fry food, everything is made fresh on the grill,” says Jody Reilly, who opened the restaurant 19 summers ago with her husband Jim. The policy started out of necessity, as the location’s small kitchen didn’t allow space for a deep fryer, and continued because it just seemed to work.
Though there are spaces for boats to dock at the Blue Oar, Reilly says these days the majority of guests arrive by land because “river traffic has slowed down.” But no matter how you get there, once you drop anchor at the Blue Oar, prepare for river livin’ to take over.
(860) 345-2994, blueoarct.wix.com
Hopkins Inn, Warren
Given the cuisine, ambiance and surrounding terrain, it’s easy to imagine that you’re gazing out over a pristine Austrian mountain lake when you’re enjoying the view from a table on the flagstone patio of the Hopkins Inn. But the hills that are alive with fine dining here are the Litchfield Hills and the body of water below is Lake Waramaug, one of the most scenic destinations in the entire state.
Reflecting the heritage of owner Franz Schober, the menu is filled with traditional Austrian fare: think wiener schnitzel, backhendl (boneless chicken leg) with lingonberries, rahmschnitzel (escallop of veal) and sweetbreads. But the menu also features a substantial selection of non-Austrian entrées such as filet mignon, veal piccata, chicken cordon bleu and roast duck. There are also separate lunch and mid-afternoon menus, and don’t forget to leave room for the apple strudel!
If you decide to make a night of it, the inn has 11 cozy guest rooms and two apartments—and there are few more pleasurable experiences than sipping a cup of coffee after a hearty breakfast and simply soaking in the serene morning beauty of Lake Waramaug.
(860) 868-7295, thehopkinsinn.com
The White Hart, Salisbury
With British chef Annie Wayte at the helm, fellow Englishman Paul Pearson cooking alongside her, and pastry chef Gabby Rios sculpting gorgeous desserts, The Dining Room at The White Hart in Salisbury is as brilliant as it is new, and instantly one of the best restaurants in Connecticut. Wayte, who opened fashion designer Nicole Farhi’s namesake restaurant and 202 Café in London and New York City, also worked with Sally Clarke—the Alice Waters of England—and she’s passionate about cooking with the best local and seasonal ingredients produced sustainably. (John Gruen photo, below.)
We recently had an entrée of lamb saddle—two pink, thick, juicy pieces of lamb loin with no bones attached—served with apricot-pistachio couscous, cucumber-mint salad and avocado; amazing flavors that made beautiful music with the Benton Lane pinot noir. Perfection.
Now that it’s summer, you can enjoy this new gem from a lovely perch on the genteel porch in a truly picturesque setting.
(860) 435-0030, whitehartinn.com
The White Horse Country Pub, Washington
One of our favorite things about The White Horse—a classic British pub that’s a snug and stylish home for hearty comfort food—are the impressive artifacts on display throughout, ranging from a sheet from the first newspaper ever published in England (with an ad for a lost dog) to a vintage Indian motorcycle behind the bar and a guitar signed by members of the Rolling Stones.
In the winter, it’s a treat to enjoy the great burgers or favorite dishes like the steakhouse shepherd’s pie and chicken pot pie by the fire, and while the pub is equally welcoming in the summer, insiders know to score a table outside in the back, where you can dine right by the East Aspetuck River and feel like you’re in the countryside of England.
(860) 868-1496, whitehorsecountrypub.com
Full disclosure: Millwright’s is in the process of a significant freshening up of its beautiful and historic former grist mill, located on a mill pond that spills over a waterfall. Most tables in the dining room have great views and some tables in the tavern on the downstairs level are literally just yards from the waterfall; if not for a window you could almost reach out and touch the water.
When the renovation is done, James Beard-nominated chef Tyler Anderson says, there will be a four-season porch that provides both stunning views and the equivalent of outdoor dining. Picturesque water is everywhere in the Millwright’s viewscape and even in the dining room the indoors and outdoors hardly seem separated.
Go for the al fresco spirit of the setting—but more than that go for Anderson’s incomparable cuisine. Be sure to have the tapioca custard starter, which is the equivalent of a trompe l’oeil painting, as it tastes like clam chowder.
But order anything; it’s all fabulous.
(860) 651-5500, millwrightsrestaurant.com
Apricots Restaurant & Pub, Farmington
Apricots is one of the places that’s been around a long time and thrives because it does everything right and for that reason has a vibrant legion of fans who return often.
The building was once a trolley barn at the end of the line from Hartford, and is now divided between a cozy and casual pub on the first level and two more formal dining areas upstairs.
Like the best places, it’s open seven days a week. In the pub you get hearty fare like mac-and-cheese, mussels, burgers, penne Bolognese and meatloaf with mashed potatoes. Upstairs the level is raised with dishes like Grilled North Atlantic Swordfish and sweet brown rice with scallions and ginger, and oven-roasted rack of lamb Dijon with a cashew crust, hickory-smoked creamer potatoes, grilled pickled baby carrots and a veal demi-glace.
Whatever you’re eating, the place to do it in the summer is the large patio on the banks of the Farmington River, where you might get a table that’s literally only feet from the water.
(860) 673-5405, apricotsrestaurant.com
Up on the Roof
Rooftop 120, Glastonbury
Steamy summer nights evoke thoughts of refreshing alcoholic beverages enjoyed outdoors with friends, but Rooftop 120 in Glastonbury’s Eric Town Square knows that simple pleasure is something people desire all year round. As it says on its website, “It’s good to be on top.”
Rooftop 120’s four-season deck (the largest in New England) offers impressive panoramic views of Glastonbury. Crowd around one of the fire pits, hang at the two-sided bar or lounge on a patio sofa. The bar is stocked with domestic and imported beers, wine, 10 fun martinis and multiple cocktails. The bar hosts live music and events on the rooftop all year round.
As for the food, the restaurant serves an international array of dishes in a chic, romantic space. Opt for the shrimp Ramen noodle bowl with a coconut curry sauce, shiitake mushrooms and baby bok choy; parmesan basil crêpes with a roasted vegetable filling and red pepper purée; or the Rooftop Paella with mussels, shrimp, chorizo, chicken, peas, peppers and saffron rice. Start with something from the raw bar, devour a flatbread or order a round of small plates to share like crispy calamari, General Tso’s ribs or truffle fries.
(860) 430-9989, rooftop120.com
Goodfellas, New Haven
Most urban restaurants longing to have the allure of al fresco dining end up embracing function at the expense of form; they squeeze some tables into any available outdoor space, with results that aren’t always pretty or palatable. Not at a classic Italian gem like Goodfellas, where the kind of food you know and love (we love the linguine with clams, the Cioppino Mulberry Street Style, and all the pasta dishes) is served in an atmosphere where you’re treated like family (impeccably) and where every detail counts.
Goodfellas takes outdoor dining to new heights—by taking it up on the roof to the Sky Deck. Tables shaded by stylish tan umbrellas, lots of flowers, and most of all good food and good people, makes this a signature Connecticut dining experience not to be missed.
(203) 785-8722, goodfellasrestaurant.com
Ecco Rooftop Eatery and Bar at La Zingara, Bethel
Atop La Zingara, a James Beard-honored Italian restaurant, this hip rooftop destination has the feeling of a secret-but-inviting club or trendy New York City hangout. It is enclosed in greenhouse-like glass so it is not technically speaking an “outdoor” dining spot but with its stringed lights, rooftop feel and ample amounts of sunshine, this place gives off such a powerful outdoor-on-the-deck summer vibe you’ll forget all about the enclosure (plus it’s a great place to go when its raining or chilly out but you still want an outdoor atmosphere).
The restaurant, which closes for winter, features a variety of small plate menu items anchored by wood-fired pizza. Our favorite was the Genovese pizza, mozzarella and tomato sauced topped with pesto.
The bar also specializes in craft cocktails and has a nice selection of craft beer. On a recent Monday night, we enjoyed beer from England’s Wild Beer Co. and Connecticut’s Two Roads Brewing Co. as local singer/songwriter James Zap entertained the audience.
(203) 744-7500, eccorooftop.com
By the Empire State
Bernard’s Restaurant and Sarah’s Wine Bar, Ridgefield
“Enchanting” and “magical” are just some of the words guests use to describe dining under the stars on a warm summer’s evening at Bernard’s Restaurant or its casual counterpart, Sarah’s Wine Bar, says Sarah Bouissou, who owns both with her husband, Bernard Bouissou.
Bernard’s Restaurant is a formal French dining establishment where guests enjoy appetizers like crispy fried duck egg (baby arugula, ramps, asparagus, smoked duck and duck prosciutto with truffle vinaigrette) and a range of entrées from caviar to lobster and steak to chicken.
Upstairs is Sarah’s Wine Bar, a more casual dining establishment with an equally intriguing menu that features seafood and meats as well as more exotic options like venison (prepared four different ways) or a sampler of house-cured bacon.
Both spots feature delightful outdoor seating. At Bernard’s, you can sit surrounded by plants and trees not far from a large vegetable garden where many ingredients of your meal our sourced. At Sarah’s Wine Bar, there is a second-floor patio where guests can dine in a tree house-like setting.
Whichever option you choose, you’re sure to experience a wonderful under-the-stars culinary experience.
(203) 438-8282, bernardsridgefield.com
The Quiet Corner
The Golden Lamb Buttery, Brooklyn
The Golden Lamb Buttery offers such a unique and memorable outdoor Connecticut experience—although technically guests don’t eat meals outside—that it needs to be mentioned.
For 52 years, patrons have arrived at the rustic farm tucked away in the Quiet Corner for one prix-fixe dinner seating per night (Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m.). All meet at the big red barn and adjourn to the deck for cocktails and an amazing view of the thousand-acre property. They are then invited on a tractor-pulled hayride (complete with guitar serenade) where they can further enjoy the bucolic splendor of ponds, stonewalls and pastures rolling by. (Julie Bidwell photo, below.)
Following that, it’s a cozy, relaxed dinner in the barn with entrées such as roast duckling, chateaubriand, sea scallops or rack of lamb, followed by a selection of specialty desserts, all enjoyed casually as candles burn down and another lovely evening fades.
(860) 774-4423, thegoldenlamb.com
Lake View Family Restaurant, Coventry
Nestled along a small cove on Coventry Lake, this appropriately named venue maximizes its location with a large patio right on the water’s edge, ideal for relaxing with friends while sipping a beverage and admiring the action on and around the lake. And after the sun sets, the patio continues to glow warmly, drawing new friends and regulars throughout the summer months. The vibe is casual and relaxed, but the food is stellar and service is attentive.
The entrées here are diverse: chicken marsala, veal piccata, shrimp and sea scallop gorgonzola and jambalaya as well as a bevvy of Italian favorites—eggplant parmesan, baked lasagna, stuffed shells, eggplant rollatini. Sandwiches, paninis, burgers, wraps and an assortment of seafood options fill out the menu.
Lake View’s chicken wings are popular—kettle-fried with more than a dozen zesty sauces in addition to traditional buffalo-style. There’s also other lighter, pub-like fare.
Lake View also offers live entertainment every Friday and Saturday night, and there are lunch and dinner specials throughout the week.
(860) 498-0500, coventrylakeview.com
L’Orcio, New Haven
In a city filled with authentic Italian eateries, L’Orcio on New Haven’s State Street sets itself apart with its familial atmosphere and secluded outdoor space. Dining al fresco here won’t relegate you to a cramped table on a crowded sidewalk.
An expansive patio covered by a wooden trellis is tucked behind the restaurant, which was once a single-family home. Privacy is in ample supply here. No overwhelming street noise. No gawking onlookers. “Outdoor dining has transformed our business,” says owner Alison De Renzi. “It’s very charming for people. When they get back there they say, ‘Whoa, this is special.’”
When opening L’Orcio over a decade ago, De Renzi and her husband Francesco d’Amuri, the restaurant’s chef, aspired to create a welcoming environment where patrons can enjoy a homemade Italian meal with their families. They drew inspiration from their travels through Italy when creating the menu, which is stacked with all of their favorites—pillow-like gnocchi alla vodka, tender grilled New Zealand baby lamb chops, raviolis filled with sausage and broccoli rabe, ragu and much more.
There’s a little something for everyone here, and it’s all affordable. “It’s a personal story,” says De Renzi, “And we take a lot of pride in what we do.”
(203) 777-6670, lorcio.com
For Jet Setters
121 Restaurant at OXC, Oxford
Offering one of the more unusual fine dining experiences in the state, 121 Restaurant at OXC is located directly adjacent to tiny Oxford Airport, which means you can sit on the patio and watch private planes and even small jets take off and land while you eat. Unlike its big-city counterparts, Oxford Airport is tucked into the rolling, verdant hills of the Naugatuck Valley, providing a pleasing panoramic view even when the planes aren’t coming and going.
The fare here skews toward “American favorites” as it’s described—a range of gourmet appetizers, sandwiches and salads—and there’s also a wood-fired pizza bar that turns out (thin crust) specialties like the fig pizza (with prosciutto, blue cheese and mozzarella), Joe Jr.’s BBQ chicken (chicken, cilantro, bacon, caramelized onions, smoked mozzarella) and the Pizza Bianca (house-made mozzarella, garlic, basil, extra virgin olive oil, Sicilian sea salt). The restaurant offers special dinner entrées such as hangar steak (of course), braised short ribs, grilled rib-eye and tempura soft shell crab.
And if you don’t want to drive and you have the means, you’re welcome to fly in!
(203) 262-0121, 121restaurantgroup.com/oxc/
Par for the Course
Connecticut has an abundance of great golf courses that also offer delicious gourmet cuisine—and many of those are also a hole-in-one when it comes to providing a scenic outdoor dining experience.
• Monty’s River Grille at Great River Golf Club in Milford has a wrap-around veranda that overlooks several holes; the cuisine is American-International and there’s regularly live music and special events like homemade grilled pizza night.
(203) 701-0051, greatrivergolfclub.com
• On the Rocks at Fox Hopyard Golf Club in East Haddam (above) also has a wrap-around porch, perfect for enjoying American-fusion cuisine while gazing out on an award-winning course. (860) 434-6644, otrrestaurant.com
• Lion Four Tavern at Tower Ridge Country Club in Simsbury offers the beauty of Talcott Notch and Heublein Tower as a backdrop for its stone and brick patio. (860) 651-9393, lionfourtavern.com
• Jesse Camille’s in Naugatuck features classic American, Italian and pub favorites plus an awning-covered patio that provides great views of Hop Brook Golf Course.
(203) 723-2275, jessecamilles.com