Recently my wife and I and another couple decided to embark on what we dubbed a “culinary tour of Bethel.” We’d start at our house, within walking distance of downtown, and work our way through as many restaurants as we could, sharing a signature dish from each restaurant we stopped at.
The tour proved less grand than I’d hoped. We only made it to three restaurants before we were too full — and we’ll call it “tired” from the drinking — to continue. But the night reminded me of one of the things I love about Bethel. This small town next to Danbury has too many excellent restaurants to go to in one night or even one day. It is a sample-size foodie paradise that can hold its own (per capita, at least) with heavy hitters like New Haven and West Hartford.
Bethel also has an immensely walkable, bite-size downtown rich with history that is home to four — that’s right, four — bookstores, each with its own distinct personality. My wife and I moved to Bethel this summer after we became such frequent visitors it just made sense to start sleeping here.
10 a.m.: Car-hop to it
Sycamore Drive-In is one of the town’s iconic destinations. The food may be standard greasy-spoon fare — burgers, fries, eggs, pancakes, etc. — but the atmosphere is anything but. In continuous operation since 1948, this classic spot is vintage with a capital V. Outside there’s a large, sizzling neon sign, inside has a black-and-white-tiled floor, cherry-red stools at the counter, an antique gas pump and arcade games. Don’t want to get out of your car? There’s car-hop service. Just flash your lights and a server will be out shortly with a food tray that hooks onto your window. In addition to being fun, doing this is a great way to “dine out” if you have a dog.
Next, it’s a short walk or shorter drive to Molten Java, a beloved local institution and gathering spot for musicians, artists and creatives of all kinds. The specialty is house-roasted coffee, but tea and bottled beer is also available, as well as snacks. Grab a table inside or sit on the coffeehouse’s expansive front porch.
11 a.m.: Barnum and bookworms
Turn left out of Molten Java, walk across the train tracks, and in front of the town library you’ll find a life-size statue of P.T. Barnum, who was born in Bethel in 1810. (It was built by local sculptor David Gesualdi and erected in 2010.) Across the street is Byrd’s Books. This store sells a wide range of exclusively new books, and owner Alice Hutchinson and her son Stephen, the store’s manager, always have great recommendations. Byrd’s also hosts regular author events. (Full disclosure: I have had author events at Byrd’s.) Just up the road on the same side is Relay Bookhouse, which specializes in used books, though it does offer new books as well. It’s the type of place where shelves are overflowing with books and where you may not find what you’re looking for but will certainly find something interesting. Across the street and up the road just a bit is Rainy Day Paperback, which specializes in used paperbacks. Bethel’s fourth and final bookstore is Camelot Toy Soldiers & Books at 14 P.T. Barnum Square. There’s a sign on the door that says hours are by “appointment or by chance” above the inscription that reads “the wizard is never late nor early, he arrives precisely when he intends to arrive.” This is no joke. I’ve been coming to Bethel for years, and I now live here, and I don’t recall this bookstore ever being open. Apparently, it is primarily open by appointment.
12:30 p.m.: Burritos and beer
There may be no better pairing than burritos and beer, and I’ve never found a better place to enjoy both than at Broken Symmetry Gastro Brewery. The San Diego-style burritos are the best I’ve had anywhere. I recommend the veggie or chicken. You can wash these down with the brewery’s excellent craft beers. There is a rotating assortment of Belgian styles available as well as hazy New England-style IPAs. The brewery is housed in an 1800s-era former train station. It has an open interior with Edison light bulbs shining over long communal tables. There is a nice outdoor area for those warmer months, and it’s fun to watch the trains go by. (Bethel has a modern train station just down the tracks a bit.)
2 p.m.: Walking it off
If you’re looking to burn off a few of the burrito-and-beer calories, there are some hiking options within Bethel proper. But my favorite hike in the area is at Huntington State Park. The main entrance to the park is only a 9-minute drive from downtown Bethel; it is located in Redding but parts of the 1,000-plus-acre park dip into Bethel. The park offers a variety of trails. Right near the parking lot are cleared fields with majestic views of the horizon. Walk a little farther and you’ll eventually come upon a system of interconnected ponds that provide nature vistas as striking as any in Connecticut. If you happen to visit Bethel during apple season you might want to substitute Blue Jay Orchards here. It’s a fun orchard with some amazing cider doughnuts.
4 p.m.: Second lunch
OK, so second lunch isn’t a thing, but if by some miracle you are still hungry, try either Lebanese Cuisine, a bluntly named but masterfully executed spot for falafel and more that is in Bethel though outside downtown, or Sprouts, a Vietnamese eatery on the outskirts of downtown offering pho and banh mi sandwiches.
5 p.m.: Happy hour
Bethel has a good bar scene with several spots for craft beer and cocktails. The kombucha margarita at J. Lawrence Downtown is a personal favorite, made with Cross Culture Kombucha and J’s Homemade Elderberry Syrup. If you’re still somehow hungry, try the soft bavarian pretzel served with IPA cheese. Note Kitchen, a music-themed bar with live performances most every night, is also a great spot for a drink and a bite (the dish to try here is the cauliflower wings, with most of the flavors of chicken wings without the actual chicken). If you’re up for a third drink you can try Ecco Rooftop, the rooftop bar and restaurant above the Italian restaurant La Zingara.
6 p.m.: Dinner and a movie
Bethel Cinema is a quirky little movie theater that’s the perfect fit for this quirky little town. It specializes in arthouse fare with an occasional more-mainstream film thrown in. The popcorn is less expensive and better than at the multiplexes with real butter, not that yellow-ish artificial stuff you get at most theaters. After the movie is done, walk over to Taproot, a restaurant that shares a door (and bathrooms) with the theater and is a rightfully acclaimed farm-to-table restaurant with spectacular dishes sourced to a farm co-owned by the restaurant. They also have special pop-ups including a monthly event called Bushido where they transform into a Japanese restaurant and offer slow-cooked ramen.
8:30 p.m. Ice cream, you scream
No matter how late it is, you don’t want to leave Bethel without stopping by one of its most famous attractions: Dr. Mike’s Ice Cream. Sometimes featured nationally for its housemade ice cream, this hole-in-the-wall spot, located behind a professional office off the main drag, offers a few rotating flavors that utilize seasonal ingredients. Each I’ve tried — and I’ve tried a lot — have been fantastic. The servings are also huge, which never hurts, unless of course, you’ve been eating all day.
Upcoming events in Bethel
Best Trivia Ever — 7:30 p.m., Broken Symmetry. This popular Connecticut trivia company takes up residence at Broken Symmetry every Tuesday evening. It’s a fun night with a lively crowd and great questions. If you’re a fan of trivia, mark your calendars and head down to the brewery.
Battle of the Books — 7 p.m., Byrd’s Books, James Mustich, the author of 1,000 Books to Read Before You Die: A Life-Changing List, hosts this epic throw-down of literary greats. Local authors, teachers and other members of the community argue for their favorite books. At the end of the event, the audience votes on which book will be added to their reading list.
The Joys of Baking — 4 p.m., Byrd’s Books. Samantha Seneviratne, author of The Joys of Baking: Recipes and Stories for a Sweet Life, is hosting a baking event at Byrd’s Books. Participants who choose to bake a recipe from the book will receive a $20 gift certificate from Byrd’s and a chance to have Seneviratne sample your cooking and offer feedback.
Music by Auguste and Alden — 8-11 p.m., Note Kitchen. This sibling power trio plays a mix of originals as well as inspired covers by the likes of Tom Petty, Matisyahu and others. Live music can be heard almost every night at Note, but this is one of the shows we’re most looking forward to. Check the venue’s calendar for other upcoming concerts.
Alternate Fridays in the summer
Food Truck Fridays — 5-8 p.m., Bethel Green, In June, July and August, you can hear live bands and sample foods from area food trucks many Friday evenings outside on the lawn at the Bethel Municipal Center, known informally as the Bethel Green. Summer may be far away but we’re already looking forward to this series.
5 facts about Bethel
The legendary showman P.T. Barnum was born in Bethel in 1810 and there’s a life-size statue of him in front of the library.
Actor Meg Ryan is a Bethel High School graduate.
Battery maker Duracell is headquartered in Bethel.
In the 1930s, Bethel became the birthplace of both American vodka and the Smirnoff brand we know today after Rudolph Kunett emigrated from Russia with a vodka recipe.
Bethel was a part of neighboring Danbury until 1855.
There are single- and two-family homes within walking distance to town or in more rural sections of Bethel in a wide range of prices. Downtown houses, particularly those in the $300,000 range or below, tend to sell fast.
For $229,000: A three-bedroom, one-bathroom, 1,200-square-foot antique house within walking distance to town.
For $339,500: A four-bedroom, one-bathroom, 2,215-square-foot 1920s Colonial on 0.48 acres.
For $485,000: A four-bedroom, 2½-bathroom, 2,884-square-foot home outside of town on a 1-acre lot.
Mill rate: 33.41
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated in one reference the year P.T. Barnum was born. He was born in 1810 not 1811.