“Let’s go out and have a good time”


By Pem McNerney / Zip06.com • 10/20/2021 07:00 EST

Connecticut is blessed with a plethora of unique eateries and eateries from its Massachusetts border in the north to the shores of Long Island Sound.

The list of options seems endless.

Hot buttered lobster rolls, steamed cheeseburgers, New Haven pizza.

Lots of Italian places of course, but also Turkish restaurants, Polish diners and a Vietnamese restaurant which proudly displays a mural highlighting the owners’ journey to their new home in America.

A caravan of food trucks parked along a quay, nicknamed “Food Truck Paradise”, offers a dazzling array of Latin American dishes.

An authentic log home that offers family style dining and a world class French brasserie that never fails to please with its impeccable service.

An inn in a Connecticut River town with roots dating back to 1776, and an upstart a few towns away that opened in 2017 and two years later, was named the state’s best restaurant by the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

Mike Urban’s new book, Unique Connecticut Dining and Dining, which will be featured in several upcoming talks on Thursdays, including one at Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook on October 28, one at Essex Public Library on November 4, and one at Guilford Public Library on November 16 . those and more. But it’s not just about the food and buildings that house businesses, more than just a list of places and menus. At its heart, the book pays homage to the innovative, hardworking and generous souls who have made their lives the job of serving and nurturing the public with the food they love.

“These are stories about the people behind the food,” says Urban. “Like I say in the introduction, most of these places in the book are mom-and-pop businesses. They’re organically unique. Maybe it’s a person, couple, or family, and they decide. to open a restaurant They develop their own style, they are at the service of their own community It is the essence and the heart of good regional American cuisine.

They survived

Urban says that the fact that they are family-owned restaurants could explain why, despite the fact that this project was planned beforehand, most of these places survived the pandemic almost intact.

“I originally had a list of 100 and narrowed it down to 85,” he says. “Of those, only one closed, one in Norwich, which was a shame. Everyone else, surprisingly, remained open. I was happy about it because we’ve all heard the horror stories.

The Connecticut Restaurant Association reported that in the first eight months of the pandemic alone, more than 600 restaurants have closed their doors permanently. Many more have hibernated this winter, putting thousands of people out of work.

Worse yet, frontline workers, including waiters and line cooks, were among those most at risk of being affected by COVID-19. Some got sick. Some are dead. Some have seen colleagues fall ill or die while dealing with belligerent clients who were reluctant to adhere to public health mandates. Many of these frontline workers have found work in other industries. Many restaurants are still struggling with a shortage of people willing to return to the front line at a restaurant.

“But a lot of moms and dads survived,” Urban said. “I don’t know exactly why. Less overhead? Maybe they could somehow afford the closure better than the big multi-chain restaurants? “

Whatever the reason, Urban seems relieved about it, as the book itself was as much a labor of love as it was a business venture for him. He has achieved great success and fame as a writer, publisher and book packager. He has written four other books and contributes regularly to Yankee magazine. And he’s outspoken about his gratitude to his wife, Ellen, who is the family’s regular paycheck and his “all-time favorite meal company.” This book is dedicated to him.

His gratitude extends to his other frequent meal mates, many of whom insist on picking up the check.

“This is Sylvia, my sister-in-law; she went to many meals that my wife and I attended, ”he says. “And she helped pay a lot! She is retired from the financial world in Chicago and a fun person to hang out with.

He is also grateful for the enthusiasm and support he received from Nancy Creel of Guilford and her husband Alan Gross.

Urban often ate with his friend Alan, who lives with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.

“He became a good friend and we often went out to eat,” says Urban. “He’s in bad shape now. But we had a lot of fun for four or five years. He was a great guy to hang out with and have dinner with. We laughed, ate, hiked and biked.

While it can be difficult to make a full-time living as a food writer, Urban says it’s all about research.

” That’s what it’s about. Even if they decided not to publish the book, mission accomplished, ”he says of all his culinary adventures and of his good times with his friends and family as they were welcomed by the various establishments mum- et-pop, and got to know the owners. “I do it as a labor of love. I like to travel. I like taking pictures. I like to meet people. And, even if you might not believe it, I love to eat.

Believe it.

His favorites?

There are many settlements along the Connecticut coast and in the Connecticut River Valley, including 22 in New Haven County, which Urban calls “Yale Country,” and 15 in Middlesex County / Valley. the Connecticut River.

But, for those of us who live in these restaurant-rich regions, this book is also a call to adventure, to explore beyond the safe territory of the same beloved places we rely on.

With that in mind, I asked Urban to tell me his favorites statewide.

He objected in the same way a parent might if you asked him about his favorite children.

“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t know if I want to name any. “

Instead, in the interest of highlighting the variety of the book, it features a few restaurants on the back of the book.

Abbott’s Lobster in the Rough, 117 Pearl Street, Noank is world famous. A researcher, Jerry Mears, and his wife used to eat there in the 70s and 80s and they loved the place. One day they saw that it was for sale.

“They took a wild hit,” says Urban. “They said, ‘Let’s do it.’ He left the world of scientific research to get into the restaurant business.

Then his daughter took over. And then his daughter took over.

“Father, daughter, daughter,” says Urban.

Agree to disagree …

Then he and I find that we have to agree to disagree on something.

Growing up in the Midwest with cold lobster rolls, and not many of those, I fell head over heels in love with hot lobster rolls many years ago, when I ate my first bite of a roll. Abbott’s hot lobster, sitting on the rocky shores of the Long Island Strait. Since then, I have been loyal to hot lobster rolls.

Urban prefers cold lobster rolls with mayonnaise, especially the ones he’s tasted in Maine with freshly caught lobster.

“I’m in a lot of trouble here in Connecticut,” he admits.

Which is as it should be.

Still, he loves Abbott’s.

“It’s one of my favorite places,” he says. “They have an excellent lobster …”

He also mentions the famous O’Rourke’s Diner, 728 Main Street, Middletown, which is literally a Phoenix born from the ashes of a devastating fire in 2006.

“The place burned to the ground. It should have been game, set, game, over, ”said Urban. “They didn’t have enough confidence. But the community loved it so much, all the people of Wesleyan and the community of Middletown came together. They raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and they were able to build on the same footprint. It’s a truly heartwarming story and a cherished place. A classic place for mom and pop.

And then there’s Union League Café, 1032 Chapel Street, New Haven. We both totally agree on this one. Although expensive enough to save for special occasions, it is worth every penny. Never, ever a bad meal. Always excellent service. Always a great experience.

A romantic date!

If food is love, which it is, then it’s also true that dining out is an important part of any romantic night out, whether it’s with family and friends, a loved one, or maybe even just treat yourself to a special night out.

With that in mind, I asked Urban to recommend places that had entertainment venues or other attractions nearby. Sometimes it’s more fun to make it a full day or evening, and knowing a fun restaurant nearby is part of that equation.

• Should you go to the Palace Theater, 100 East Main Street, Waterbury? “Waterbury has a lot of great Italians,” says Urban. “But a different and unique place is Sultan’s Turkish Restaurant”, 586 Plank Road, Waterbury. “It’s right off I-84 and across from the mosque. The food is quite good and there is belly dancing on Saturday night. There is a beautiful dining room with a large Bosphorus fresco.

• How about the Stamford Center for the Arts, 61 Atlantic Avenue, Stamford? Urban says to consider trying the Barcelona Wine Bar, 222 Summer Street, which, although not listed in his book, is just around the corner. “It’s kind of a chain, but it’s still very good for quality casual dining,” he says.

• What if I wanted to go to the Wadsworth Atheneum, 600 Main Street, Hartford or the Bushnell Performing Arts Center, 166 Capitol Avenue, Hartford? Urban says he could go to Black-Eyed Sally’s, 350 Asylum Street, for southern barbecue and live blues. On Sundays, the southern brunch is sometimes enhanced with a gospel performance. Urban also recommends the Bricco Restaurant, 78 Lasalle Street, in West Hartford. Although a city isn’t listed in his book, he says it’s a great place for a lunchtime meal.

• He has another recommendation for Hartford, The Parkville Market, 1400 Park Street, Hartford, “a restaurant bazaar in an old factory building”, as he describes in his book, with over 20 food stalls with cuisines that include Jamaican, tweaked Italian, Brazilian, Indian with a bit of Cantonese, Puerto Rican, crab shack, and poke bowls.

• The White Memorial Wildlife Conservation Center, 80 Whitehall Road, Litchfield? Arethusa al tavolo, 828 Bantam Road, Bantam. “You’ll need reservations,” he says. “But this is a very good upscale restaurant.”

• The New Britain Museum of Art, 56 Lexington Avenue, New Britain? “It’s easy,” he said. “Staropolska”, 252 Broad Street, New Britain. “It’s a Polish restaurant that reflects the character of the city. “

And what other advice does he have, after writing this guide to culinary adventures in Connecticut?

“Pick one. And go out and eat there. Go out and support your local restaurants, especially places for moms and dads. Yes, things slowed down and yes we were afraid of the pandemic. But eating out is one of life’s great experiences. Go with your partner. Your partner. With family. With friends. Even by yourself. But let’s continue to support these places. Let’s keep going out and having a good time.

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