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Spotlight on New Haven, CT: A College Town Vacation

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Yale University, New Haven, ConnecticutCollege towns are hard to dislike. From the dreaming spires of Oxford, England, to the music clubs of Austin, Texas, to the coffee houses of Berkeley, California, each town seems to be infused with an energy and personality that explains why they are perennially popular with tourists as well as students.

The best college towns offer everything a large metropolis does—theater, dining, recreation, and culture—but on a more intimate scale.

New Haven, Connecticut, the home of Yale University, is no exception, particularly when it comes to dining.

Scattered alongside the town’s historic academic buildings, world-class museums, and prestigious theaters are more than 160 eclectic, award-winning, and often organic restaurants—which offer visitors seeking a palate-pleasing weekend getaway an excellent alternative to the crowds and prices of New York City or Boston.

Old Favorites and New Upstarts

The culinary renaissance which has been afoot in New Haven for the last decade or so has seen a crop of new, innovative restaurants and bistros shoot up. These upstarts have piqued the interest of food critics and the public alike, but the increased attention on the town has not excluded the old favorite hangouts.

Union League Cafe foodMy own culinary tour of New Haven began at the Union League Café on Chapel Street, one of those spots that’s been a favorite of Yalies for almost two decades, with no sign of any letup. Though the place looks a bit stuffy, with its muted decor and preppy suit-and-tie clientele, the food is anything but.

Diners queue up every night to sample chef Jean Pierre Vuillermet’s combination of classic French fare with clever contemporary variations. The perfectly-seasoned saffron seafood risotto and the classic coq au vin with polenta, to name just a few, were enough to convince me that the Union League has what it takes to compete with the up-and-comers.

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Jams at CaseusCaseus, which opened in early 2008, is one of those “up-and-comers,” but it’s developed quite a loyal following in only two years.

Though proprietor Jason Sobocinksi originally envisioned it as simply a gourmet cheese boutique on Whitney Street, he eventually opened a small café to help support the shop, which soon blossomed into a hugely popular casual basement restaurant. This is mainly due to the wildly inventive ways cheese is incorporated into every comfort-food dish.

The counter at CaseusOn any given day, the gourmet macaroni and cheese at Caseus (which means “cheese” in Latin) includes such varieties as comté, bechamel, gouda, gruyére and provolone – or whatever else is lying around the shop. The same rule goes for the grilled cheese sandwich. Other superb favorites include the pork cassoulet and the cheeseburger, made from grass-fed beef and served on a brioche bun with pickles, extra-sharp cheddar, and pommes frites.

A very different atmosphere awaits at Bespoke on College Street, where the food almost defies description. Chef/proprietor Arturo Franco Camacho (who formerly worked on board Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth II) excels at artfully presenting the food, whose origami-inspired shapes were almost too beautiful to dig into.

The dishes fuse Asian, Latin and European flavors in a dazzling riot of color, taste and texture. My meal there was a delicious blur of parfait of cured salmon and fresh tuna, Cuban beer-braised boneless pork ribs with guava barbeque sauce, white asparagus, garbanzo ragout, and hangar steak with creamed spinach, au gratin potatoes, asparagus, and choron sauce.

Get more Connecticut travel advice with our Ask the Locals Travel Guide: Foxwoods, New London, Mystic & Mashantucket, CT

New Haven has also jumped on the sustainable agriculture bandwagon in a big way, with many eateries sourcing most of their food directly from local organic farmers. Yale University even has its own sustainable food project, whose farm supplies the school’s dining halls and one of the four farmers markets that take place in various parts of the city throughout the year.

Claire’s Corner Copia menuClaire’s Corner Copia, a well-known Chapel Street vegetarian café and coffee house, was one of the first establishments to adopt a “slow-food” approach and a sustainable ethic. The attitude permeates the entire restaurant, from the menu all the way down to the supplies. Entrées and desserts are made from locally-grown ingredients, and served in compostable food boxes and bags rather than Styrofoam.

Those who are familiar with New Haven know that pizza has been part of the fabric of the city for decades—and still is. The Italian immigrants who perfected this hometown favorite in the first half of the 20th century may have long since moved to the suburbs, but dozens of hole-in-the wall joints around Wooster Square still serve up pies that are really THAT good.

In fact, during my visit, a long line of diners gamely waited for more than an hour in the rain in order to sample Frank Pepe’s legendary white clam pizza. This one is nearly a mile from downtown, but it’s well-worth the $5 cab fare to get there.

Visit our Culinary Travel section for more great ideas.

In Between Meals…

The majority of New Haven’s non-culinary attractions are within spitting distance of the downtown restaurant scene, which makes it extremely easy for visitors to walk off those calories between meals. (In fact, it’s possible—and popular—to take a completely car-less weekend break in town by taking Amtrak to New Haven.)

Yale University Visitor Center ToursYale University is naturally the primary tourist draw, and most of the campus is closely intertwined with the downtown area. Visitors can wander around at their own speed, but you won’t learn nearly as much that way as you would if you took a guided tour.

The university visitor center has young, enthusiastic student guides who can acquaint you with the layout and history of the campus, and regale you with stories about the accomplishments of Yale’s famous alumni, the finer points of the Gothic architecture, and the mysteries of the secret societies. Tours last about one hour.

Two of New Haven’s best art galleries, which happen to be located pretty much opposite each other on Chapel street, are also worth a look. The Yale Center for British Art and the Yale University Art Gallery, both university-owned, offer superb collections which rival anything that can be found in the museums of New York City or London without the crowds or pretention.

Yale Center for British ArtThe Yale Center for British Art reflects the tastes and interests of its founder, the late Yale alum Paul Mellon (class of 1929). In addition to hundreds of Gainsboroughs, Hogarths, Constables, and Turners, the museum includes one of the world’s largest collections of British sporting and animal paintings in the world plus a treasure trove of rare British books and manuscripts.

Across the street, at the Yale University Art Gallery, you’ll find a smattering of everything from ancient Assyrian stone reliefs to Andy Warhol prints from the 1960s. Spread across four buildings and several floors, the collection is large and diverse enough to capture the interest of the discerning art aficionado, but small and captivating enough not to scare away the art-shy.

Find more in our Museum Travel section.

Spadefoot toad at the Peabody Museum of Natural HistoryThe New Haven art scene is rounded out by a pair of galleries which include the must-see Peabody Museum of Natural History (also part of the Yale family), famous for its great hall of dinosaurs and mammalian evolution exhibits, and ArtSpace, a non-profit institution that highlights all manner of visual artists and arts, from video narratives to photography to multi-media installations.

Drama is also a proud tradition in New Haven, which boasts five prestigious theaters. Yale Repertory Theater productions have won eight Tony awards—and been nominated for more than 40—throughout the theater’s 43-year history. Not to mention it has made stars of many now-famous Yale alums, including Meryl Streep, Sigourney Weaver and Angela Bassett.

The Shubert Theater is New Haven’s oldest community playhouse and has been home to world premieres of such productions as The King and I and The Sound of Music. And the nearby Long Wharf Theater, which was founded by Yale alumni, is acknowledged to be a leader on the American theater scene and regularly produces both classic plays as well as new, modern material.

By Karen Elowitt for PeterGreenberg.com.

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