Opening a restaurant is a mountain of a task in the best of times. These eateries not only opened their doors during the past two pandemic years, but have excelled to be among the state’s best. Now that’s worth celebrating.
Also see the rest of this year’s Best Restaurant Awards, including lots more Experts’ Picks and the results of our Readers’ Choice survey. And be sure to watch for these 7 dining trends in 2022.
Here, in no particular order, are our Experts’ Picks for the 25 best restaurants that opened since the start of 2020.
Materia Ristorante, Bantam
Launched in March 2021 and still leading a bit of a quiet existence on platforms like Facebook and Instagram, Materia is the name whispered in (seemingly) every conversation about where to dine well right now in scenic and historic Litchfield, which is saying something for a locus of fine dining that’s home to some of the state’s top restaurants.
Materia, which has guest rooms upstairs in a stately old stone building, is all about upscale Italian food impeccably prepared and presented by chef David Di Stasi, who has worked with top chefs in New York and Tuscany. Think of housemade pastas, yes, but also grilled octopus, risottos, tagliatelle al ragù, roasted halibut, duck breast, a Berkshire pork chop, roasted venison loin and more. There’s even a five-course pasta tasting dinner — and lots of nice Italian wines on the list to complement the cuisine. — DPC
Villa Lulu, New Haven
A recent addition to New Haven’s endlessly intriguing restaurant scene has been garnering raves — and it’s a lulu. Brainchild of veteran restaurateurs Rafael Palomino and Mo Gad, Villa Lulu opened in August just two doors down the College Street “Restaurant Row” from their longtime Nuevo Latino flagship, Pacifico. Despite being located an egg toss away from Pacifico, it’s unlikely Villa Lulu draws any business away from its older sib, due to its contemporary Italian menu and distinct design. The towering brick brownstone is utilized to maximum advantage, with a first-floor bar area, second-floor main dining area and special-function rooms on its second and third floors.
The Elm City has led Connecticut’s cocktail revolution for the past decade and a half. Villa Lulu doesn’t disappoint, with drinks like its Queen of Naples (vodka, blood orange, lemon, Cocchi Rosa, hibiscus and prosecco) and La Mora (bourbon, blackberry, honey, bitters). Craft beers and boutique wines like its 2013 Tormaresca “Masseria Maìme” Negroamaro from Salento round out the offerings.
Executive chef Denis Marukovich executes an evolving menu with near-flawless technique and visible panache. A deep dive reveals savory standouts like feather-light crispy artichokes with Parmesan aioli; butternut squash soup with fennel, pumpkin seeds and cream; pork belly over Tuscan cabbage with apple mostarda; sumptuous squid-ink linguine with shrimp and salmon; a baby kale salad in a pomegranate vinaigrette with goat cheese and toasted hazelnuts; a goat cheese pizza with garlic cream, ricotta, pistachio, red onion and truffle honey; rack of lamb with goat cheese mashed potatoes and pistachio butter; and branzino puttanesca. Dolci include delights like affogato, panna cotta, flourless chocolate cake, and Marcona almond biscotti.
Each menu success makes one desire to dig deeper. Visit Villa Lulu and you may reach the same conclusion I did — that it’s not just one of Connecticut’s best new restaurants but one of its better restaurants, period. — FC
La Llorona, Niantic
A sure sign that a new restaurant is succeeding? It nearly doubles its indoor capacity by expanding into an adjacent space within eight months of opening and while heading into the typically slower months of the year. It was an easy decision for the extended family behind the progressive Mexican La Llorona, which has drawn steady crowds since it launched last spring, particularly after it opened its outdoor patio in early June. In this short span La Llorona has developed a devoted following, as much for its attentive, welcoming service as the flavors of the southwest Mexican coast it brings to familiar fare such as enchiladas and tacos as well as inventive presentations of American favorites like pork chop and New York strip, and local seafood. Spices, herbs and produce sourced from Michoacán, the home state of three of the principals, find their way into dishes throughout the menu, often in the form of sauces and salsas that impart a layered, rustic flavor.
Encouraged by the customer response, chefs Oscar Yanez and Chris Herbert, husband of Oscar’s sister Gabi, are keen to introduce more Michoacán staples into their offerings, broadening both the menu and the palates of their diners. With different native fruits coming into season, expect new tastes into unexpected offerings, perhaps a crème brûlée with a fruity topping. Dessert, anyone? — GS
Twisted Italian Cafe, Parkville Market, Hartford
You know you’re embarking on a delicious journey when the chef/owners of a spot are bold enough to promise “crazy good food” on their social accounts, and then deliver, of course, with small plates and salads, “giant” grinders, pasta and “the best meatballs ever” as part of the housemade “twisted” Italian cuisine. Located at Parkville Market, the state’s first food hall, Twisted Italian Café and owners Mark and Michelle Maturo delight devoted fans with handhelds like the Ultimate House Made Focaccia Melt (Provolone, Swiss and American cheeses, with bacon and tomato), along with chicken marsala, chicken parmesan, chicken piccata, eggplant parmesan, “CRAZY” Bolognese, rigatoni marinara, and lots more. And the dessert alerts on social media are beyond tempting. Nutella and banana bread pudding with crushed hazelnuts and vanilla bean ice cream — just let that sink in a bit before you look for the car keys. — DPC
Allium Eatery, Westport
Michelle Greenfield has worked at a few of Connecticut’s best restaurants, with stints at The Schoolhouse at Cannondale where she eventually became the head chef and at Bill Taibe’s Jesup Hall. At Allium Eatery, her first shot at being a chef/owner, she’s taking her classically trained French background and applying it to every dish.
Greenfield’s menu is day and night. During the day on Tuesday through Saturday it’s all about gourmet sandwiches, coffee and local pastries. Thursday through Saturday at 5 p.m., it turns into a sit-down experience with bites like duck confit rillette and crispy potato pave with caviar and whipped crème fraiche, plus entrées like braised short ribs and pork belly with lentil ragu. Arguably the restaurant’s signature dish is a succulent porcini-rubbed rotisserie chicken with cheesy mashed potatoes, bitter greens, and herby natural jus.
Allium preaches seasonal menu switchups and locally grown produce, so what you see today may not be there tomorrow. (We think the chicken will be a mainstay, but the others, probably not.) But no matter what’s listed for dinner on a given night, you’ll leave more than satisfied. — AD
Appetit Bistro, Norwalk
Whenever I go to a French restaurant, especially if it’s my first visit, steak frites always calls out to me. In 2021, I had it twice, once at Boucherie in New York City and the other time was at Appetit Bistro in South Norwalk. Boucherie, take a back seat. Appetit’s got you beat. It’s the hard sear on the hanger, the cool red center, the pile of salty shoestring fries, and the gravy boat full of creamy peppercorn sauce. Sauce up those tender slices of beef, dunk it, hell, dip your fries in it, too. I promise you’ll do all of that. Pair it with a Manhattan, Sazerac or a Sidecar, maybe even a bold glass of red. Perfection isn’t easily achieved but this is as close as it gets.
Steak aside, all of Appetit’s “modern French” is mostly classic. Even if owners Edwin Montoya and chef Ismael Carias take minor liberties, they’re still paying homage to the food they both fell in love with years ago. And you might see a Mediterranean-style seafood linguini or a very Italian chicken scarp on their menu, but the rest is oui, oui to a tee. Buttery, garlicky escargot topped with mini puff pastry “biscuits” are a standout, as are fish and potatoes in the form of sole au citron with caper brown butter sauce, moules frites, and duck à l’orange.
End your night at Appetit by breaking through the sugar-torched top of a ramekin of crème brûlée or by stopping by their gourmet market next door which should be open come January.
What’s been working for Montoya and Carias for six years and counting at their flagship in Port Chester will surely follow at their sequel in SoNo. — AD
Seed 41, Collinsville
Collinsville has to be one of the most charming villages in Connecticut, defined by the landmark and sprawling former ax factory complex, the Farmington River rail trail, antiques and hometown shops, and dining with a truly local flair. Francesca’s Wine Bar and Bistro was one of the hot spots, and amid the pandemic the team there moved and evolved into Seed 41, looking out over the river as it backs up behind the landmark dam.
There’s still an emphasis on wine — refreshing when too many restaurants offer only dutiful lists with the same few choices — and this past fall the list at Seed 41 grew with great additions like a Chateauneuf du Pape, an Il Bruciato Super Tuscan, a Poliziano Montepulciano, Stag’s Leap cabernet sauvignon, and a Panthera chardonnay from the Russian River Valley in California. Those wines pair with New American cuisine with a focus on locally sourced, sustainable ingredients, resulting in appetizers like crispy risotto balls with bacon, onions, truffle cheese and roasted tomato aioli, and entrées including pan-roasted chicken or duck breast, handmade tagliatelle Bolognese, and marinated swordfish and New England clam chowder with crispy leeks. — DPC
Opening in December 2020, Moon required less than a lunar cycle to start gaining attention with fine-dining connoisseurs in Connecticut. Restaurateurs Kevin Yin and chef Matt Madera (Jean-Georges, L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon) spent over a year obsessing over the operational details of customer experience: plates from Japan, French silverware, Italian marble, even custom scents for the dining room and hand towels. Above all was the food, overseen by fellow Robuchon alum chef Nisorin Paulino in the kitchen, and Sushi of Gari veteran Isamu Yamada facing customers.
“Our food is all very low inventory: extremely fresh vegetables, fish from Japan,” chef Madera said when we visited for the April issue, noting he went so far as to “completely overspend” on the sound system to achieve balanced levels everywhere. “Everything needs to be perfect.”
Our experience, with a 12-course omakase (chef’s choice) menu last winter, was stellar, a guided adventure in dining. Akami tuna topped with a dollop of fermented pear jam; sweet, snappy ebi shrimp from Japan; New Zealand salmon; sea scallops delivered from Hokkaido Bay, all are individual delights equally pleasing from the eye to the palate. Attention to detail, exceptional food and excellent service earned Moon a spot on this list. — JG
Good Old Days, Newtown
This instant favorite from Matt Stanczak (previously chef and owner of Stanziato’s in Danbury) features two styles of pizza, a thin and crispy round pie and a thicker square pie. The round pies are good but it’s those square pies that make this spot a destination. Inspired by Detroit-style pan pizzas, these pies are slightly thinner than a standard Sicilian pizza, but as with Detroit pies, the cheese is placed on top first followed by toppings and sauce.
The pies are similar enough to Sicilian-style pizza to fulfill a craving for a Sicilian slice, though the crust is lighter and more airy. They feature a holy trinity of flavor consisting of that light and crisp crust, the golden brown frico cheese and your choice of a house red or vodka sauce — each one fantastic in its own way. The restaurant also offers a well-curated beer list, wine and craft cocktails, as well as salads that source seasonal ingredients from local farms. — EO
Marygold’s on Main, Newtown
Located in the renovated landmark Newtown Inn building in the center of town, Marygold’s on Main is a throwback to earlier eras in the best sense. It’s a restaurant, pub and events venue that serves lunch, dinner and weekend brunch, features live music, offers accommodations, and is home to Good Old Days pizzeria downstairs. Renovated by Russell Barton (also responsible for the transformation of the former jail in Litchfield) Marygold’s is guided by Clark (the chef) and Kate Neugold, who also operate another popular spot in town, the Foundry Kitchen & Tavern in Sandy Hook.
In terms of cuisine, Neugold and chef de cuisine Matt Abbott favor classic dishes with modern flair, which translates into entrées like wild striped bass with celery root purée and Swiss chard, served with a tomato, tarragon and vermouth butter sauce. There are dishes to please any member of a family or group on all the menus, and also items for those who want something a bit different, like gravlax rösti (Hudson Valley smoked salmon on a leek and potato rösti with horseradish cream topped with dill, cucumber and lightly pickled onions). — DPC
After one visit to L’Ostal, I asked my five dining companions, “Why aren’t more people talking about this place?!” Part of me doesn’t want anyone except Darien-area locals to know about it, but delicious secrets should be shared.
What I love about L’Ostal isn’t only that their Provençal offerings switch seasonally, it’s that they keep the choices to a minimum. Chef Jared Sippel — who has worked at several Michelin-starred restaurants — has a progressive menu that’s best shared with a group. Start with snacks like marinated olives and gigante beans, then move onto charcuteries, cheeses and foie gras with fruit preserves and brioche from local star baker Rob VanKeuren’s Flour Water Salt Bread. Usually there’s a stunningly presented escargot and three or so handmade pastas — like a recent egg yolk and ricotta raviolo that was the size of the plate. Diners can then anticipate four entrées, two of which are typically seafood, and the others being everything from bavette steak, duck confit, and even a fall-off-the-bone lamb shank confit with gratin potatoes.
All of that isn’t complete without a glass or bottle of a French or Italian wine, a Belgian beer, or one of L’Ostal’s stellar craft cocktails. Should you require something stronger, a list of spirits including some absinthe choices, served sugar-cube-and-water-drip-fountain style, might strike your fancy.
Now that the rest of Connecticut is in on the secret, all you have to do is show up. But you should probably make a reservation first. — AD
Little Oak Cafe, Canton
The shopping center on Route 44 in Canton might be a drive-by for many, but the arrival of Little Oak Café made it a destination for locals and others in the know. Owners David Borselle and Jeff Fiorino have created a hub for breakfast, lunch, wood-fired pizzas, and gourmet meals to go, as well as serving wine, espresso, coffee and more. Winter at Little Oak is soup season, with offerings including beef or veggie chili, chicken noodle, roasted onion, butternut squash bisque, hearty lentil, and Tuscan white bean. In addition to paninis for lunch, specials tilt toward crowd-pleasers like Da Meatball Sub, featuring housemade beef meatballs, Pomodoro sauce, Provolone cheese, and roasted red peppers, served on a garlic buttered sub roll. Even tuna gets kicked up a notch with treatments like the Tuna BLT.
You’ll want to stop in on a Thursday if you can, when the special is buy one wood-fired pizza, get a second at half-price. And those pizzas, they’re Neapolitan-meets-New Haven style made in a specially constructed Italian Di Fiore oven. There’s classic Margherita, sausage, a veggie pizza, a Roman pie with just tomato sauce, grated Romano cheese and oregano, and the Little Oak Special, a white pizza with ricotta cheese, prosciutto, grated Parmesan, and black truffle honey. — DPC
Grizzled young restaurant veterans Jared Falco and Coby Blount were the talk of the dining scene when they opened Rosina’s in the Byram section of Greenwich in August. Don’t expect the buzz to dissipate anytime soon. Falco’s menu is all about scratch-made pasta, crispy pizzas, and creative takes on Italian classics from a chef who’s unafraid to break the mold.
With that said, you shouldn’t anticipate coming here for spaghetti and meatballs. Just a sampling of Falco’s culinary fearlessness: a soulful bowl of rigatoni with tender braised pork, al dente beans, escarole and crunchy breadcrumbs; squid-ink malloreddus with shrimp and Calabrian chilis that Falco says is “like spicy shrimp scampi;” ’Nduja sausage arancini with a pungent pecorino cream sauce; and crispy octopus with potatoes and lemon aioli. But sure, there’s cacio e pepe and a creamless pappardelle Bolognese if you wish. There’s also plenty of decadence that’s usually a huge bone-in veal chop (already showcased a la Milanese and parmigiana style) and a dry-aged ribeye with duck fat potatoes. Even if you want truffles freshly shaved all over a particular dish or on your pizza? Rosina’s will oblige your bougie dining behavior.
But no visit to Rosina’s is complete without one or three of bar manager Juan Meyer’s drink creations. Negronis, Garibaldis, Sidecars (renamed “Fancy Car” here) and some of Meyer’s own original cocktails all have minor Italian liqueur tweaks for optimum flavor and smooth drinkability. Choose to crash at the bar and you’ll see why Meyer is in the conversation as one of Connecticut’s best bartenders. It’s not only that his libations are stellar, it’s the combination of that and his warm hospitality.
Embrace the twists that Rosina’s puts forth throughout their menu and it’ll become a fast favorite. — AD
Via Emilia, Mystic
It’s harder to find a parking spot than a good restaurant in downtown Mystic, but the hunt is worth the effort, especially if you’re dining at Via Emilia. This eatery, opened by two guys who formerly worked at Mohegan Sun, one of them Shaun Golan as the former executive chef at Ballo, takes fine dining to a loftier level. The focus is on Italian, but there is something for everyone.
The sole responsibility of one employee, Ernestina “Tina” Salcedo, is making pastas daily that she hands off to the chef. Her bucatini is served with roasted artichokes, Castelvetrano olives and golden raisins. The potato gnocchi that she kneads and cuts is prepared with fontina and prosciutto, and her cappelletti makes a buffalo mozzarella filled ravioli that is fixed with roasted Sungold tomatoes and basil.
Golan traveled through Italy for three weeks in September, looking for inspiration for his menu. He ate a sandwich in a gas station there that led to his creation of an appetizer called stracciatella, a cream-filled mozzarella with pan-roasted mortadella, pistachio pesto, and winter squash. It’s heaven on a fork.
If you’re looking for delicious and unique pasta dishes, or veal, chicken, fish or scallops prepared with flair — make a reservation for Via Emilia. — AB
Don Rene Taqueria, Milford
While recently opened Mexican-themed eateries helmed by star chefs, like Bill Taibe’s Don Memo in Westport and Arturo Franco-Camacho’s eponymous Camacho Garage in New Haven’s Westville neighborhood, have been grabbing the culinary limelight, quietly another Mex entry — Don Reno Taqueria — has drawn a small spotlight since its June opening.
In a true began-at-the-bottom story, Ulises Jimenéz, who embarked on his restaurant career a couple of decades ago as a busser and barback at Barcelona Wine Bar in Norwalk before eventually ascending to the head chef position, has opened this hidden gem along the Milford Green. Family has clearly been a source of inspiration for Jimenéz, as the restaurant’s name honors his wife’s recently deceased father and he turned to his own mother for some of his recipes.
Jimenéz’s flavors are authentic and flavor is maximized in every dish, as revealed in customer favorites like his esquites (Mexican corn salad) with chipotle aioli and Cotija cheese; spicy beef empanadas with smoked tomato sauce; and sweet plantains with crema and queso fresco. His tacos must be considered in any discussion of our state’s best. Let Connecticut’s “taco faithful” make the pilgrimage to Milford for his beef birria, shrimp, Baja fish, chicken adobado, pork pastor, pork belly, ribeye asada, butternut squash, roasted cauliflower, and five-spice duck tacos.
Notwithstanding the authenticity of his Mexican flavors, Jimenéz’s menu, jaunty approach and rigorous sourcing of pristine ingredients appear more Nuevo Mexican, a label he welcomes. Selling briskly alongside more traditional offerings are delights like his bacon-wrapped jalapeños stuffed with herb queso; roasted Brussels sprouts with queso fresco and agave-jalapeño vinaigrette; and kale salad with dried figs, sunflower seeds, pickled red onion and quinoa in an apple cider-orange vinaigrette. “I wanted to do something different and good,” Jimenéz says.
Mission accomplished. Every day this charmer wins new converts. — FC
TAO Asian Bistro & Lounge, Uncasville (Mohegan Sun)
Opened in March after a few COVID-influenced delays in construction and setup, TAO’s colorful visuals, ambiance, appetizers, soups and drinks have been earning raves even as it deals with living up to the weight of upscale prices and expectations in the hotel-level space that once housed Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain.
The visuals and quality of the pan-Asian food (Chinese, Japanese and Thai) are generally excellent, including a Pad Thai with mushrooms and peanuts, a perfectly done side dish of bok choy and numerous sweet-and-spicy appetizers that steal the show when paired with a cocktail such as the Ruby Red Dragon with grapefruit vodka, yuzu citrus and pomegranate. Asked about popular offerings, assistant general manager Christina Chiu points to the signature satay of Chilean bass appetizer and the king crab egg drop soup with corn, crab and chili oil (which plays hot on the throat, be warned), an “Asian spin on chowder” in New England, Chiu says.
The signature entrée at Mohegan’s grandest eatery is the regally appropriate Surf and Turf. A sum of $199 gets you a 2-pound tomahawk steak with a 1½-pound lobster, noodles and vegetables. Another top entrée is a Peking duck for two, which Chiu describes as “air-dried and slow roasted.” For value-seekers, you can stick to the appetizers such as the sea bass skewers, sweet/hot chicken satay, pork potstickers in a chili sesame glaze, chicken wing lollipops and chicken gyoza. Patrons will also find surprisingly good desserts, including a giant fortune cookie stuffed with vanilla and chocolate mousse, doughnuts with dipping sauce, creamy gelato and a rich chocolate lava cake.
The atmosphere is swanky but casino-casual, with a DJ feeding upbeat tunes into the colorful space dominated by a 16-foot Quan Yin statue that occasionally changes hue. A server informs us that the modest volume goes up and the lighting goes down during the latter part of food service. Service is strong and capable, and staffers on a recent visit say the restaurant has been averaging about 200 diners a night, a promising number given the lingering pandemic effects. — JA
4 Seasons Mediterranean Cuisine, Danbury
With its location in a small storefront on an out of the way stretch of Route 37 near Danbury’s border with New Fairfield, 4 Seasons is easy to miss but impossible to forget once you’ve stopped in. Jose Marin and chef Segundo Chicaiza’s family-owned and -run restaurant specializes in classic Italian cuisine.
The housemade pasta dishes are a highlight and include favorites such as rigatoni bolognese, gnocchi in a brown mushroom sauce, lobster ravioli and penne vodka. The chicken parmesan is another classic done exceptionally well, as are appetizers such as the fried calamari and eggplant rozini appetizer. There are frequent excellent dinner specials, and a recent crème brûlée for dessert was not to be missed. The restaurant is small but has classic old-school charm with white tablecloths, a romantic feel and waitstaff that cleans the table between courses. 4 Seasons is a hidden gem worth seeking out. — EO
Le Gamin Café, Sharon
The first temptation in describing Le Gamin Café, opened in 2021 in a small shopping plaza in pretty and rural Sharon, is to say it has a certain je ne sais quoi. Those who travel well in France and Europe will recognize a cornerstone of the almost indescribable appeal — this haven provides a perfect experience at almost any time of the day. Brunch/lunch begins at 10 a.m. at Le Gamin, for example, and while the star of the show may be dinner featuring French classics, you can also stop by between lunch and dinner for a café au lait and a croissant. The authentic casual French ambiance, the signature crepes, and dishes like moules (mussels) marinières, steak frites, duck confit, and lobster risotto draw raves from the local dining cognoscenti.
The back story is riveting. The original Le Gamin Cafe/Crêperie was founded by the French owner, Robert Arbor, in 1992 in Soho. Early adopters included Kate Moss, Brad Pitt, Uma Thurman and Johnny Depp. More outlets followed in the city, and in 2021, with restaurant space available next to the family farm in Sharon, Arbor expanded the Le Gamin culinary savoir faire to the country. Watch for the special events; a recent one was a French-Japanese dinner with guest chefs. — DPC
The Spice Palette, New London
Located on Bank Street about a mile west of downtown, this Indian eatery housed in a former Howard Johnson’s and Iliano’s restaurant building is a breath of fresh air on the New London dining scene. Chef/owner Lijoy Verghese and his cheerful family bring decades of experience to this revelatory Indian culinary outpost. Lijoy has served as chef and owner at a number of Indian restaurants in the Northeast, including Tandoori Taste of India in Stamford. Together with his business partner Ali Kazmi, and Lijoy’s wife, brother and daughter, this experienced team delivers on great food and hospitality.
The menu is broad and varied, befitting a restaurant attempting to pay homage to the vast array of cuisines from the Indian subcontinent. Start with dosas, a south Indian rice and lentil crepe served plain or with a half-dozen different fillings. Other standout starters include veg samosas, spicy garlic chicken wings, and the Spice Palette Shrimp, deep-fried and drizzled with a creamy pepper sauce.
Entrées hail from all corners of India, even crossing political and cultural borders with several Indo-Chinese specialties. Tandoor offerings are extensive, including several of the seafood variety. Chef Lijoy takes particular pride in his outstanding rack of lamb and whole Malabar snapper. Four different chutneys, nine different types of naan, and several types of rice accompany the kaleidoscopic entrée offerings, many of them vegetarian.
Be sure to check out the beautifully painted dome in the main dining room, lovingly rendered a glowing, iridescent blue by members of Lijoy’s family. There’s a wonderful lunch buffet on Fridays and Saturdays, a great way to sample all that Spice Palette has to offer. — MU
Hindsight BBQ, Waterbury
Opened in October 2020, Hindsight BBQ has already become a go-to destination for barbecue lovers in the state who gleefully share photos of their meals on social media. The restaurant was born out of Jeff Schmidt’s quest for barbecue perfection. His slow-cooks begin at 4 a.m. most days and result in top-end barbecue. The signature beef brisket is tender and juicy with the cut-with-a-spoon goodness you want.
Other highlights include pulled pork, burnt ends and ribs. In warmer months you can enjoy these in an outdoor beer garden-type setting, but until then there is ample room inside within a former diner space. Located just off Route 8 and within striking distance of I-84, the restaurant is a great stop off for those traveling between Hartford and Danbury. — EO
The Charles, Wethersfield
Weathering its pandemic-year opening in 2020 thanks in part to a tent-covered patio and relaxed lawn dining on a residential corner of Old Wethersfield, The Charles is one of those restaurants that just feels authentic, fresh and satisfying in this Hallmark Channel movie setting on Main Street. (In fact, a couple of holiday-themed cable films were shot nearby.) The nicely restored circa 1790 E.G. Robbins House, also remodeled in 1850 and later known as the Pyquag Inn, is steeped in local history. Today it is named after owners Bryce and Kerri Hardy’s grandfathers, and its motto is “Vintage feel. Modern taste.”
A resident of Old Wethersfield gave us a quick list of the eatery’s attributes: “The creativity of chef Tom Kaldy, the amazing cocktails with fun names (Pear Pressure, Beast of Bourbon), the neighborhood feel yet high quality of the food and the use of the historic building in the heart of Old Wethersfield.” For families, there’s the bento-style kiddie menu, with fruit, veggie sticks and cookie included, and parent-pleasing appetizers, sandwiches and entrées such as housemade whipped ricotta, le French dip with roasted prime rib, and the chef’s deft twist on chicken and dumplings. For this writer, it was a grilled double-cut pork chop paired with a salad and bourbon cocktail. Historic indeed. — JA
Noble Smokehouse, Mystic
There’s a long list of must-haves when you’re eating at Noble Smokehouse. Like the brisket macaroni and cheese, a moist concoction of pasta shells blended with cheesy lusciousness and bite-size chunks of tender, flavorful brisket. The dish is served as a side at this tiny restaurant next door to the train station in Mystic, but it’s a hearty meal in itself.
Equally as good are the pork belly burnt ends, which are dusted with a house rub, glazed with a Memphis barbecue sauce and smoked to perfection. Try them with a side of the cowboy beans and a big slice of the warm jalapeño cheddar cornbread.
The comfort food is sinfully good at this barbecue joint, helmed by chef Christopher Lusk and owner Joshua Feldman. Opened at the end of 2020, the roadside place is modest with just a half-dozen tables inside, but with the big Myron Mixon smokers out back, you can smell the ribs, chicken, brisket and turkey slow-cooking from at least a block away.
There are multiple sauces to choose from to go with your meat, from the popular Kansas City and Memphis to the lesser-known Alabama White, Luxardo Cherry and Ring of Fire. The latter combines the two most popular options with sriracha, and sambal and Mae Ploy chili sauces. For sides you choose from Southern standards like collard greens, a baked sweet potato, slaw or that naughty mac and cheese, with or without the brisket. — AB
Nana’s Bakery & Pizza, Mystic
Like the mom-and-pop pizza shop in Mystic Pizza got a rave review from the “Fireside Gourmet,” Nana’s was recently honored by Esquire magazine among the Best New Restaurants in America. New Haven, you have company. World-class pizza and Mystic — it’s a thing.
Nana’s list of pies extends from classic white, wild mushroom and Bolognese to specials like a kimchi cheeseburger pizza. Nana’s is so much more than amazing pizza, though. The menu also features salads, risotto balls, sandwiches and more. And, oh yeah, Nana’s is also a full-scale bakery serving scratch-baked goods and sourdough bread made from organic local naturally leavened dough — as well as coffee and espresso drinks. Does it get any better than this? (The answer is no!) In Esquire, Jeff Gordinier said the sourdough doughnuts “taste like melting cumulus clouds.”
The Nana’s phenomenon comes as no surprise given its leadership team which includes visionary chefs James Wayman (Grass & Bone) and David Vacca. Julia Roberts certainly made good on her promise that she wouldn’t be “slinging pizza” for the rest of her life, but she might want to come back to Mystic to enjoy Nana’s finest pies. — DPC
The Wheel, Stamford
The anchor restaurant in the collaborative space known as The Village, The Wheel has become an instant hit in Stamford’s Harbor Point neighborhood. A buzzing, often busy dining room boasts an incredible seasonal cocktail program designed by Employees Only and The Aviary alum Kyle Tran. Warmer months feature spritzy, fruity tiki drinks, while colder temperatures see the inclusion of stronger, bolder rye- and bourbon-based beverages.
Eats at The Wheel are predominantly New American with a focus on quality ingredients mostly from local farms curated by Mike Geller of Mike’s Organic. Culinary director Chris Shea’s menu has handhelds in the form of a big, beefy burger and a butter-poached lobster roll, plus plenty of small shareable plates, ample seafood and meat choices, and enough gluten-free fare to choose from. There’s Neapolitan-inspired pizza, too, that’s equal parts crispy, chewy and appropriately bubbly thanks to a custom Marra Forni oven. That same oven sees additional action when it’s used to finish a spectacular beer-brined brick chicken with color pops from charred broccoli rabe, confit tomatoes, and creamy salsa verde.
But the dessert at The Wheel is a must. No, seriously. It’s not just an afterthought, nor do you just need a spoonful to balance out all the savory. Pastry chef Alessandra Altieri Lopez — who worked with Thomas Keller for nearly a decade — has made The Wheel’s sweet treats mandatory. A few of her post-dinner mainstays so far have been a “Root Beer Float” (housemade Madagascar vanilla bean ice cream, stout cake, and Foxon Park Root Beer granita) and a pistachio cheesecake that’s not overly sweet with a texture that’s like biting into a cloud. — AD
The Shipwright’s Daughter, Mystic
When a favorite local restaurant, Bravo Bravo, had to vacate space in the Whaler’s Inn in downtown Mystic, regulars worried they would lose a much-loved eatery. Instead, they got two superb restaurants — Bravo Bravo moved into a beautiful new space directly across East Main Street and The Shipwright’s Daughter moved into the old Bravo.
Shipwright’s opened in June 2020 and immediately received high praise. Executive chef David Standridge left New York City (where he earned two Michelin stars with the late French chef and culinary titan Joel Robuchon, among other accomplishments) to help design and open the new Mystic restaurant.
Standridge’s menu changes frequently and is heavily dependent on what is fresh and local. He’s on a first-name basis with farmers and fishermen and prepares whatever they are harvesting, butchering or have caught.
A swordfish special is just that, grilled with seven spices and served with charred eggplant, Jimmy Nardello and pickled Biquinho peppers, and a chili swordfish jus. A friend proclaimed it the best she ever had and threatened to lick her plate. Another favorite is the 20-ounce organic pork chop with baby beets, cumin-roasted carrots, and creamy mustard sauce. It is moist, flavorful and a lot to eat.
Shipwright’s interior is modern and sleek, with big windows overlooking the street and seating at tables or banquettes. Better yet, take a seat at the bar for an awesome view of the choreographed kitchen staff, directed by Standridge, creating their incredible food. — AB