Welcome to the 22nd annual Best of Connecticut, in which we celebrate everything we love about the state we call home. Across our three main categories of Food & Drink, Fun & Leisure and Shopping you’ll find many winners chosen by you, our readers, in an online survey. Combine that with editors’ picks in many more categories, and you have one seriously lovable list. Check out all the picks, and, as usual, let us know what you think.
The Bakehouse, Litchfield, 860-361-6423, thebakehousect.com
From its magnificent sourdough bread to its warm, buttery croissants and perfectly sweetened cookies and cupcakes, this charming country storefront is a true example of everything a bakery should be. Owners Allison Varian, a baker and pastry decorator, and Jeremy McKendry, a graduate of the International Culinary Center in New York, combine their talents in visually appealing and always delicious ways.
Hoodoo Brown BBQ, Ridgefield, 203-438-6033, hoodoobrownbbq.com
Cut-with-a-spoon, slow-cooked brisket is the star of the barbecue menu here. Other specialties include smoked chicken, pork belly and ribs. As we noted when crowning them with this honor last year, there’s a reason why since opening in 2015 Hoodoo’s has been a part of every conversation we’ve had about the best barbecue in the state.
O’Rourke’s Diner, Middletown, 860-346-6101, orourkesmiddletown.com
We’ve been in love with this restaurant ever since ordering the “Brian’s Breakfast” a few years back. This rotating two-course breakfast feast consists of what chef and owner Brian O’Rourke feels like making that day. But long before it became our favorite, O’Rourke’s was a local favorite serving great breakfast and lunch since 1941. O’Rourke is the nephew of the original owner and is carrying the torch (skillet?) forward with skill.
Bantam Bread, Litchfield, 860-567-2737, bantambread.com
“From scratch, by hand, all-natural” is the motto of this bread company and you can taste how it’s more than lip service in each bite of naturally fermented bread. There are more than a dozen regular varieties ranging from whole-grain spelt to semolina batard. Every type of bread we’ve tried here has been worth ordering again, and again.
BEST BURGER (Readers' Pick)
J. Lawrence Downtown, Bethel, 203-616-5949, jlawrencect.com
BEST BURGER (GOURMET)
Prime 16, New Haven and Orange, 203-782-1616 and 203-553-9616, prime16.com
We all have favorites. That’s the essence of Best of Connecticut. But at Prime 16 we recommend trying a new burger each time you go. The Honey Truffle (Swiss, bacon, honey-truffle potato chips), Cajun Melt (pepper Jack, bacon, tobacco fried onions) and Kahuna (pepper Jack, teriyaki bacon, grilled pineapple, red onion) are just three of many perfectly concocted creations.
Broken Symmetry Gastro Brewery, Bethel, 203-826-9907, brokensymmetrybrew.com
Chef and co-owner Paul Mannion’s San Diego-style burritos have long provided the fix to our deepest burrito cravings. From a veggie option with locally sourced ingredients to chicken, chorizo, steak and seafood, these burritos are the best we’ve had, period. Pairing with one of the brewery’s IPAs or Belgian-style beers completes the experience.
JCakes, North Branford, 203-488-2800, j-cakes.com
Maybe it’s the French buttercream frosting, or maybe it’s the elegance of the custom-designed and made-to-order cakes that have captivated customers of this North Branford bakery. Either way, each cake is as delicious as the next and special occasions are made more special when the cake is from JCakes.
BEST CANDY & CHOCOLATIER (Readers' Pick)
Bridgewater Chocolates, Brookfield, 800-888-8742, bridgewaterchocolate.com
BEST CLAM CHOWDER
Clam Castle, Madison, 203-245-4911, clamcastlect.com
The Clam Castle is a 65-year-old landmark on the Connecticut shoreline. It was spiffed up by the Donahues in 2014 and has enjoyed six spectacular seasons, winning many awards for its chowders and outstanding fresh seafood. The Rhode Island chowder took first place at the 2016 Chowdafest.
Giv Coffee, Canton, 860-764-0023, givcoffee.com
Specializing in lighter roasts designed to emphasize the flavor and sweetness of the beans, this husband-and-wife-owned roastery has made a name for itself since opening seven years ago. They also operate a sleek coffeehouse where you can enjoy pour-overs, espresso, cold brew coffee and more.
Perkatory Coffee Roasters, Middletown, 860-788-2029, perkatoryroasters.com
There’s a toy skeleton sitting at the bar, punk music playing and enough room that the place has the renovated-warehouse, industrial-chic feel of a brewery. It doesn’t take one long to figure out that this roastery and coffeehouse is a cool spot to hang out. It’s on, but set back a bit, from Middletown’s Main Street. In addition to great coffee there’s also pastries and breakfast specialties.
Sugar Bakery, East Haven, 203-469-0815, thesugarbakery.com
Sugar is a cheat-day paradise. Everyday favorites like cookie dough, Oreo explosion and the traditional Hostess are complemented by ever-changing flavors of the month. July featured strawberry rhubarb, brownie sundae, campfire s’mores and about a dozen others. We’re not sure what September has in store, but be sure to check it out. On cheat day, of course.
BEST DINER (Readers' Pick)
Sandy Hook Diner, Sandy Hook, 203-270-1270, on Facebook
“It feels like home. The food is fabulous and the people treat you like family.” — Lauren Oliaro, Newtown
BEST DOUGHNUTS (Readers' Pick)
Neil’s Donuts, Wallingford, 203-269-4255, neilsdonuts.com
BEST FOOD TRUCK
Craftbird Food Truck, Hartford County, 860-245-9337, craftbirdfoodtruck.com
With a rotating menu of favorites and imaginative new creations, Craftbird serves up unique sandwiches — like a chicken sandwich with kimchi and lemongrass aioli — along with classics and sides using seasonal ingredients sourced from local farms. They roam the Hartford area, parking at partner farms, breweries and farmers markets in addition to catering private events.
BEST GRINDER (Readers' Pick)
Nardelli’s, Naugatuck, Waterbury, Southbury, Danbury, Middletown, Oxford, Cromwell, Southington, Meriden, Wallingford, East Hartford, Milford and Torrington, nardellis.com
BEST HEALTH FOOD STORE (Readers' Pick)
New Morning Market, Woodbury, 203-263-4868, newmorn.com
“The vibe and food are great. The staff is knowledgeable. I am there at least twice a week, sometimes more.” — Gina Bernard, Middlebury
BEST HOT DOGS (tie) (Readers' Pick)
Blackie’s Hot Dog Stand, Cheshire, 203-699-1819, blackieshotdogs.com
Denmo’s Drive-In, Southbury, 203-264-4626, denmosdrivein.com
BEST ICE CREAM (Readers' Pick)
Ferris Acres Creamery, Newtown, 203-426-8803, ferrisacrescreamery.com
BEST LOBSTER ROLL (Readers' Pick)
Westbrook Lobster, Wallingford, 203-265-5071, Clinton, 860-664-9464 westbrooklobster.com
BEST NOODLE HOUSE
Kawa Ni, Westport, 203-557-8775, kawaniwestport.com
Over the last few years, more restaurants specializing in ramen have opened in Connecticut, but this Westport hotspot modeled on an izakaya (Japanese pub), still reigns supreme. The pork and garlic ramen, with a savory chunk of pork belly and a cloudy tonkatsu pork broth, is a favorite as is the trout mazemine, a cold noodle dish for the ages.
Soleil and Suns Bakery, Woodstock, 860-928-4977, facebook.com/soleilsunsbakeryllc
Customers say the bakery’s artisan breads (Asiago cheese will make the mouth water), English buns (great for burgers), exquisite pastries, creative cupcakes (try a maple bacon), special order cakes, scones and other scrumptious treats keep them coming back. The bakery, known for its friendliness, also keeps a freezer full of gluten-free offerings from other companies and carries its own vegan whoopies, cupcakes and muffins.
BEST PIZZA (Readers' Pick)
Next Door, New Haven, 475-234-5969, nextdoornewhaven.com
BEST TACOS (Readers' Pick)
Señor Panchos, Southbury, 203-262-6988; Prospect, 203-758-7788; Middlebury, 203-527-7634; senorpanchos.com
BEST VEGETARIAN/VEGAN FOOD
G-Zen, Branford, 203-208-0443, g-zen.com
Loyal customers know the G spreads the message of green business ethics and a vegan menu, while the Zen focuses on mindfulness. The same thoughtfulness goes into all the recipes, made from scratch and with a goal to support local farmers and sustainable businesses. Wines come from around the world and the coffee and teas are fair trade.
J. Timothy’s, Plainville, 860-747-6813, jtimothys.com
What do the other wing establishments need to do to knock J. Timothy’s down off its pedestal? Tim’s may just be too good. The sauce is untouchable and the Dirt Style (fried, sauced, then fried and sauced again) method is beyond reproach. An underrated aspect of the J. Tim’s wing: the quality and meatiness of the chicken itself. It’s not all skin and bones here.
DRINKS & BEVERAGES
The Hops Co., Derby, 203-734-1616, thehopscompany.com
BEST BEER (you can actually find)
Two Juicy unfiltered New England-style double IPA, Two Roads Brewing Co., Stratford, 203-335-2010, tworoadsbrewing.com
Two Roads is arguably the pre-eminent brewery on the Connecticut beer scene. They’ve undergone multiple expansions and produced dozens of brews in just seven years. We’re hard-pressed to find a better-tasting, easier-drinking, more consistent, readily available beer — and a double IPA no less — than Two Juicy. But we’ll keep trying!
BEST BREWERY TO VISIT
Two Roads Brewery, Stratford, 203-335-2010, tworoadsbrewing.com
BEST ROOFTOP BAR
Elm City Social, New Haven, 475-441-7436, elmcitysocial.com
With its goal to evoke the spirit of the 1920s, and rebirthing the “craftwork of cocktails,” Elm City Social has atmosphere along with its seasonally inspired menus. Located right in the heart of downtown New Haven, Elm City Social is sure to delight from its small plates to its rooftop and “for the famished” menus.
Fox Farm Brewery, Salem, 860-213-5108, foxfarmbeer.com
Fox Farm is a family-run brewery located in a handsomely converted and updated 1960s barn. They offer a variety of styles each week for onsite consumption or take-away via growler fills, bottles or cans. Nothing disappoints, but an extra tip of the cap is reserved for the Burst IPA and Freckled Fields farmhouse ale.
BEST CRAFT COCKTAILS
Conspiracy, Middletown, 860-236-0211, conspiracyct.com
Opened in 2017 by cocktail enthusiasts Mark and Jen Sabo, Conspiracy is the type of place where patrons can ask to see the absinthe list or talk about the legendary father of mixology, Jerry Thomas. Accessible by an easy-to-miss doorway on Middletown’s Main Street, the second-floor space has the feeling of a secret club straight out of a film noir, and the place has the cocktails to match that impression.
BEST OUTDOOR BAR
The Hops Co., Derby, 203-734-1616, thehopscompany.com
With a 4.5-acre beer garden, a massive indoor space, dozens of draft beers and even wine and cocktails on tap, this is a bar that is truly a great place to meet a group of friends. On top of the drinks, the food offerings here are strong, with Zuppardi’s Apizza and beer-hall favorites like bratwurst, kielbasa, knackwurst and pierogies.
Bourbon line by Litchfield Distillery, Litchfield, 860-361-6503, litchfielddistillery.com
Ingredients from Connecticut farms, slow distillation and a serious attention to detail make this bourbon line a repeat award-winner. From the single stick in the Cinnamon Bourbon to the bean in the Vanilla Bourbon to the Maple Bourbon made in barrels used for maple syrup production, Litchfield Distilleries’ line is something Nutmeggers can be proud of.
BEST WINE BAR
Its name means “new world” in French and its Paris-inspired decor and feel is the perfect backdrop to the Wine Spectator award-winning list offering 40 wines by the glass and more than 200 by the bottle. There is also a chef’s suggested pairing for each entrée.
BEST WINERY TO VISIT (tie) (Readers' Pick)
Chamard Vineyards, Clinton, 860-664-0299, chamard.com
Gouveia Vineyards, Wallingford, 203-265-5526, gouveiavineyards.com
BEST WINE SHOP (Readers' Pick)
The Wine Thief, New Haven, 203-772-1944 and 203-865-4845; Madison, 203-421-2727, thewinethief.com
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Our (and our readers') picks for the best in fun and leisure.