Connecticut might not be the first state that springs to mind when you think of cuisine, but you’d be surprised by how many ultra-unique foodie experiences are packed into this understated corner of New England. But while world-class dining establishments and trendy farm-to-table local eateries are starting to become a dime a dozen these days, you might want to go off the beaten path and add some of Connecticut’s quirkier culinary experiences to your bucket list.
Where: New Haven According to the Library of Congress, the hamburger was born in 1900 at Louis’ Lunch, when a hurried customer told the owner, Louis Lassen, that he needed something quick to eat on the run. Louis gamely slapped some ground steak between two slices of toasted bread and served it up, creating the world’s first hamburger. One hundred twenty years later, not much has changed at the historic roadside diner. In keeping with tradition, burgers are still cooked on original-style 1898 vertical stove towers. And the patties are still served as naked as the day they were born, between slices of toast instead of a bun with minimal toppings and no condiments. You’ll have it their way, apparently.
Where: Middletown Connecticut offers plenty of eateries with open-air patios in the summer months, but only one has its own beach out back -- and it’s nowhere near the ocean! Open since 1994, Eli Cannon’s Tap Room’s private patio area resembles a white sandy beach, complete with umbrellas, lounge chairs, and beachy decor. There are even sand toys for the kids. With a vast selection of rare and local microbrews and top-notch tavern fare, you could say life’s a beach here.
Where: Springtime, anywhere in Connecticut Although Connecticut’s state fish was bountiful in the 19th century, shad was originally shunned even by prisoners because the fish contains 1,000 tiny bones. But shad underwent a significant rebranding in the late 1800s when marketers began promoting shad bakes as a quintessential New England springtime event, and the mindset has stuck to this day. The shad is deboned and butterflied, then nailed to an angled hickory, cedar or oak plank to impart flavor as it’s cooked over hot coals. When the fish is done cooking, the grill-master shouts, “board!” The shad is either served up with a splash of olive oil, paprika, and bacon or straight up, with its savory wood-smoked flavor shining through.
Where: Union Ever get in trouble for reading as you’re eating at the table as a kid? The Traveler Restaurant, located at the Massachusetts border, is for you. The sign hanging out front pretty much sums it up in big letters: “Food and Books.” Once you’ve purchased a meal, you are allowed to take home any book of your choosing from the restaurant’s vast library.
Where: New Haven No, that’s not a typo. Immigrants from Italy’s Campania region pronounce pizza “a-beets,” which became “apizza” -- and the name has stuck ever since in New Haven. So where do clams come into the equation? To make clam apizza, also known as clam pie, a handful of raw, freshly-shucked littleneck clams and romano cheese, olive oil, fresh garlic, and parsley are piled atop a substantial crust, which is then charred. You can thank Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana for inventing this interesting idea in the 1960s, which is now iconic New Haven cuisine.
Where: Meriden Why not forgo greasy grills and steam your cheeseburger instead? That’s how they like it in central Connecticut. Also called a “cheeseburg” or a “steamer,” steamed cheeseburgers might lack that familiar charred taste, but they more than make up for it with their epic levels of juiciness. The cheese is steamed separately and poured atop the patties before serving. The most famous place to try steamed cheeseburgs is at Ted’s, which has been serving them for over 50 years.
Where: Cheshire If you want a hot dog that’s worth the detour, head to Blackie’s, an oddly shaped old-school roadside hot dog stand which has been operating since the 1920s. The humble menu is as simple as the day it was first opened, and the small interior is as inviting as an old fashioned diner. Their hot dogs are smoky and delicious, topped with their famous pickle-free relish, a secret family recipe made with a chunky blend of onions and spicy pepper. If you love this relish, as most do, you can buy a jar behind the counter. Note that the stand is closed on Fridays, a throwback to old Catholic traditions about abstaining from red meat on that day.
Where: Sandy Hook If you love Italian food, you’ll be spoiled for choice in Connecticut. If you’re having a hard time narrowing down all your options, why not head to Lorenzo’s, the state’s very first purveyor of authentic, homemade Italian cuisine? The quaint and cozy interior of this family-owned eaterie, which opened its doors in 1926, makes you feel like you’ve traveled back in time, with a scrumptious menu that has withstood the test of time.
Where: Bethel There are milkshakes, and then there are freakshakes. You’ll never see milkshakes go so freakishly over the top as you will at Cream & Sugar Cafe. With whimsical rainbow-hued ice cream and toppings like donuts, cotton candy, and cookies, piled a foot above the glass, this is dessert insanity at its finest.
Where: Essex The Griswold Inn opened its doors in 1776 and hasn’t closed them since, making it one of the oldest continuously operating inns and taverns in the US. The historic dining area was constructed from a repurposed New England covered bridge and features a large collection of maritime artifacts from the golden era of seafaring. The taproom was built from a repurposed schoolhouse, which was attached to the inn in 1801. Wine lovers can sample a flight of wines and get a glass of their favorite at the wine bar, with over 50 options to choose from.