The Elm City: New and Improved New Haven

Frank Pepe's Pizzeria
Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria, New Haven’s legend.
Yale University. photo: Visit New Haven
Yale Old Campus. Photo: Michael Melford/ Visit New Haven

New Haven, Connecticut: A City for Every Palate

By Esha Samajpati

New Haven may be known for the ivy-league college it houses, but it is far from being your quintessential college town.

It is a big city, a little rough around the edges, but manages to be artsy and inspired at the same time.

Nine Neat Squares

Known as America’s first planned city, it was initially laid out neatly in nine squares, and as was the norm in those days, the central block assumed the all-important position of the town green. And if you visit New Haven you will realize that the 16-acre patch of green is indeed the heart of the city.

Connecticut’s Quiet Corner

Framed by College, Chapel, Church, and Elm Streets, the New Haven Green is a National Historic Landmark. It is where the town hosts its year-round concerts and festivals, and the surrounding streets are where you can feel the pulse of a revitalized downtown.

Shops, eateries, nightclubs, galleries, museums, theaters abound. Well-known chain stories vie for space with unique local establishments, chain restaurants rub shoulders with one-of-a-kind bistros, and classical concerts make peace with the thumping beats of stoner metal.

New Haven For the Foodie

The Elm City, as New Haven is often called, is no stranger to old-fashioned hamburger sandwiches (Louis Lunch is said to be the birthplace), coal-fired pizza (Sally’s and Pepe’s have been vying for the top pizzeria spot for years), and hearty Italian-American fare.

Chef Avi Szapiro of Roia Restaurant. Photo by Meghan Capozzi Rowe.

As for those of us who side with the thin-crust of New York-style pizza over the deep-dish Chicago style, New Haven-style pizza is pure delight.

It takes the crisp crust a notch higher, with plenty of char on the underside, maybe a wee bit on the edges, and somehow still manages to have a deliciously dense, chewy dough.

Recent years have seen a spurt of new restaurants offering cuisines from all over the world, from Malaysian to Austrian to Cuban. It’s not an easy task, fitting so many establishments within a mere 369 square miles.

But on the other hand, it makes it easy for culinary tours to offer diverse samplings within a reasonable time.

One such tour company, Taste of New Haven, has quite the following. Owner and chief tour guide, Colin Caplan has a degree in architecture and is the author of five history books. Usually lasting between three to four hours, his tours will have you sipping margaritas and admiring gargoyles at the same time.

Louis Lunch
Louis Lunch. Photo by Esha Samajpati.

Then there’s the Stephen Fries’ Culinary Walking Tour and the many food tours which are part of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas (a celebration of music, art, and theater for 15 glorious days of summer).

Most of the restaurants and cafes are clustered near the Green, and one can hop, skip, and jump from one eatery to another. If I were you I would grab a yogurt parfait at Claire’s Corner Copia (their home-made granola will have you going back for more).

As for lunch, you could peek into BAR and see if they will bake you some fresh New Haven-style oblong pies. Their mashed potato topping gets the job done if you have had a few too many, but if it’s a light lunch you are after, stick to more conventional fixings.

Roia Restaurant

Roia Restaurant. Photo by Meghan Capozzi Rowe.
Roia Restaurant. Photo by Meghan Capozzi Rowe.

If I have to name a restaurant I can’t wait to go back to, it is new kid on the block, Roia, located on College Street. Chef Avi Szapiro and his wife Meera have been all over the world, from Paris to Mumbai, but when it came to opening their own place, they chose downtown New Haven.

Apart from the quiet grandeur of the building which has been restored to reveal century-old white oak paneling and marble floors, the French-Italian fare does much to impress.

My Arctic Char arrived on a bed of sautéed greens, surrounded by cipollinis, pine nuts, and farro, nicely finished with a light drizzle of lemon vinaigrette. If you go, don’t leave without a taste of their house-made gelato. It’s spoon-licking good.

For the Night Bird

A cooking demonstration at Soul de Cuba Cafe, as part of the Festival of Arts and Ideas’ Downtown Culinary Tour. Photo by Esha Samajpati.

If you like your lagers, pale ales, stouts, and porters, and you don’t want to strain your vocal cords trying to have a conversation, head straight to the Cask Republic on Crown Street.

Flanking the impossible-to-miss Omni Hotel, this pub has 53 continuously rotating taps (five “warm” lines for a few stouts and Belgian beers which are best experienced at slightly over 50 degrees) and many more by the bottle.

You will also find rare and cask-conditioned ales, and a wood-paneled, temperature-controlled vintage room dedicated to the process of aging and monitoring beer.

The rich dark mahogany bar fitted with a wide selection of crafted beer tap handles gives the place an air of finesse, yet the ambiance is casual. The same can be said for the food, which manages to strike a balance between pub grub and fine dining.

Cafe Nine for Music

If live bands are more your scene, you could do well to check out the listings at Café Nine on State Street. A favorite with locals, and known for its open jam sessions, it has bands belting out jazz, punk rock, country blues, dark indie New England folk, noise rock, metal, and even something as extreme as electro-sleaze.

For those into improvised music, there’s Firehouse 12 on Crown Street. It has a recording studio that doubles as a performance space, along with a bar & lounge.

For the Art and Architecture Aficionado

What started with John Davenport’s grid of nine squares, in the 17th century, is now the setting for the works of architecture legends like Louis I. Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Cesar Pelli, Henry Austin, Frank Gehry, Egerton Swartwout, and Philip Johnson. Apart from being pleasing to the eye, each building is significant in its own way.

New Haven Green. Photo by Michael Melford, courtesy of Visit New Haven.

A far cry from the Old Brick Row of the 18th century, the Gothic Revival design of Austin’s Dwight Hall (Old Library) set the tone of campus architecture to this day. On the corner of Chapel and High Streets, is Peter B. Wight’s Street Hall, a reminder of improving town-gown relationships.

Yale’s Gallery

Taking up the length of one-and-a-half city blocks, the expanded and renovated Yale University Art Gallery has brought together Louis Kahn’s modernist structure, the entire Old Yale Art Gallery (designed by Egerton Swartwout) and the neighboring Street Hall.

The vast collection of art at the college museum ensures you spend the better part of the day there.

But luckily for me, I had enough time to walk across the street, past Atticus (a gem of an indie bookstore/café), and into the Yale Center for British Art. The entrance is strangely inconspicuous for a place that houses the largest collection of British art outside the United Kingdom.

For admirers of post-war modernist architecture, Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink with its hump-backed roof, or as it is commonly known, the Yale Whale, is a must-see.

For theater-goers, there’s the Shubert which has reclaimed its lost glory, and then there’s the illustrious Yale Rep, both within walking distance of each other. It’s only the Long Wharf Theater, fronting the New Haven Harbor, which may have you hail a cab or grab your car keys. All three playhouses have at one time or another been launch pads for shows that have made their way to Broadway.

MakeHaven, a workshop where people come together to learn, teach, create and share. Photo by Esha Samajpati.
MakeHaven, a workshop where people come together to learn, teach, create, and share. Photo by Esha Samajpati.

For the Creative Type

The Ninth Square in the southeast section of downtown is not known as the arts district for anything. It is lined with eclectic shops, vintage boutiques, art galleries, studios, clubs, organic food stores, specialty cafes and Brooklyn-style lofts.

It’s all part of an effort to invigorate the district with fresh ideas and inspire innovation. The old brick buildings once vacant are now buzzing with creative types collaborating on new projects.

One such space, MakeHaven, which in the words of one of its members is “a garage space for city kids” who love to tinker with electronics, coding, digital art, mechanics, chemistry, crafts, woodworking, and beer-making.

It’s one of those places you hang out in, but instead of sitting idly sipping coffee, you actually make something. They even conduct workshops, especially for power tool users, and yes, they have one of those professional 3-D printers. I don’t know about you, but I can assure you that what they have in there is way cooler than what I had in my garage growing up.

New Haven and Me

The Festival of Arts and Ideas at the New Haven Green. Photo by Esha Samajpati.

The last time I was in New Haven, the Festival of Arts and Ideas was in full swing. The city, buffed and primed, was trying its best to contain all the excitement that came with hosting an event of such grand proportions.

For the past 18 years, artists from all corners of the world have made their way to the city’s parks and theaters, with shows as varied as tightrope walking to string music to dances of southern India.

Particularly impressive was the Kronos Quartet concert on the Green and the quirky interpretation of The Bard’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A production of Bristol Old Vic in association with Handspring Puppet Company, the play was as much of chaos in the first half, as it was entertaining in the second.

Vintage shop on the historic Ninth Square. Photo by Esha Samajpati.

Driving a hefty sum of $25 million in economic activity, this festival is one of the reasons that New Haven, the once co-capital of Connecticut, has now acquired the status of cultural capital.

Being the center of culture comes with its fair share of burdens and to keep up with the rising expectations, the city is striving to better itself, block by block, both for the sake of those who has made it their home, and for those who pass by.

Worth a Click Before You Go

ANDI Available for iPhone, iPad and Android, this app is all you need to find out more about the arts, nightlife, and restaurants of the region.

Yale Campus Tours – Nice way to get to know the city first-hand.

Yale Symphony Orchestra – Their stunt-driven annual midnight Halloween show is a crowd-pleaser and almost always sold out days in advance.

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