Food writer profiles 85 great Connecticut restaurants in new book

Mike Urban of Old Saybrook knows New England restaurants better than just about anyone. He has written about the best clam shacks and lobster shacks in the region, as well as cookbooks from diners and seafood places. He has written about restaurants and food for Yankee magazine for six years.

In his latest book, Urban zeroes in on his home state. “Unique Eats and Eateries of Connecticut: The People and Stories Behind the Food” (Reedy Press, 195 pp., $22.50) was released in September.

The book profiles 85 restaurants, food trucks, dining halls, dairy barns, candy stores, cheese shops, delis and gourmet markets, some seasonal and some year-round, that are exceptional each in its own way.

“What I was looking for was quality of food, that was paramount to my mind. But what I figured out early on was that these unique places for the most part were mom- and pop-owned. That makes them organically unique. They were not created by restaurant groups or marketing firms,” Urban said.

New Haven’s apizza places are world-renowned and everyone knows about the seafood shacks on Long Island Sound. Urban includes those and other famous eateries: Rein’s Deli in Vernon, Arethusa Farm in Bantam, Shady Glen in Manchester, Ted’s in Meriden, Griswold Inn in Essex, Louis’ Lunch in New Haven.

Urban also dives into places unknown to people outside the state, and some unknown to people outside the restaurants’ neighborhoods. Covering all eight counties, “Unique Eats and Eateries” is an excellent guide to keep in the glove compartment for whenever you need to pull over for a bite.

Urban began research for the book in December 2019. “I got a roaring start and then three months later the pandemic hit. The last place I went to was Staropolska in New Britain in mid-March. The owners were pretty freaked out. That was a Saturday and on Monday all the restaurants closed,” he said.

Urban paused until restaurants could welcome him again, delaying the release of his book by about 10 months. It speaks to the 85 businesses’ beloved status in their communities that all of them survived the economic catastrophe caused by the coronavirus pandemic, which doomed many eateries.

Urban will do readings on Oct. 28 at 6:30 p.m. at Acton Public Library in Old Saybrook, Nov. 4 at 6:30 p.m. at Essex Public Library and Nov. 16 at 6:30 p.m. at Guilford Free Library. In advance of those readings, Urban chatted about some of the places that he included in his book.

A little bit of soul

Andre and Kimberly Lilly have operated Lilly’s Soulfood at 305 Windsor Ave. in Windsor for decades, first as a catering business, later expanding to a cafeteria-style takeout place for Southern cuisine: fried chicken, pork chops, barbecued ribs, whiting fish, candied yams, collard greens, black-eyed peas, mac and cheese, sweet potato pie. “It’s a great place to get that comfort food and it’s all delicious,” Urban said. He wrote in the book, “Be thankful there’s a lid on these containers, as it’s virtually impossible to finish all that Lilly’s dishes up.” Urban gave a shout-out to the restaurant’s sweet tea. To top off the homey meal, The Lilly Pad Dairy Bar sits adjacent to Lilly’s Soulfood.

One for the books

Off eastbound I-84, just before the Massachusetts state line, is an unmissable yellow sign at The Traveler at 1257 Buckley Highway in Union: “Food and Books.” “The owners are bibliophiles,” Urban said of Karen and Art Murdock. “It’s a nice restaurant with good food and there are shelves and shelves of books in this knotty pine setting.” Everyone who eats at The Traveler gets three free books from the upstairs library. In the basement, there is a used book store where people can buy other books. The menu has sandwiches, burgers and wraps with literary names: “White Fang,” “Scarlet Letter,” “Mark Twain,” “Lonesome Dove,” “Red Badge of Courage.”

WilliBrew? Of course he will!

Willimantic Brewing Company was founded in in 1997 by David Wollner, one of the first brew pubs in the state. “At first I wondered, should I include brew pubs in this list? There’s a microbrewery on every corner in the state now. But this is the great granddaddy of them all,” Urban said. He was captivated not just by WilliBrew’s beer, food and ambience, but by the architecture. “It’s in a beautiful old building, a former post office on Main Street,” Urban said of the 1909-era limestone building at 967 Main St. Menu items evoke nearby towns, reflecting the post-office setting: Canterbury chili, Preston jalapeno poppers, Somers peach grilled salmon, Stonington sausage platter, Tolland tuna melt.

Ahoy, mateys

Architecture is also an allure at Norm’s Diner at 171 Bridge St., near the Thames River in Groton. “It’s a classic old diner. It still has that griddle right across the counter. In most places it’s been moved to the kitchen,” Urban said of the 1954-era building. “Those diner traditions are slowly fading away.” Norm’s draws a largely nautical crowd, befitting the Submarine Capital of the World. “People from the sub base, the Coast Guard Academy, Electric Boat, they go there,” he said. “It’s a community place where people know each other, and it’s open all night for the drinking crowd.” The diner has changed hands over the decades, but the old-style diner menu has remained the same.

Canoe believe this place?

Bohemian Pizza and Tacos, at 342 Bantam Road in Litchfield, took Urban by surprise. “Litchfield is a very sophisticated town, where a lot of New Yorkers have second homes, with high-end restaurants. Then here is this place, a shingled shack or even just a shed, with surfboards, fake palm trees, Christmas lights,” Urban said. He was swept away by the restaurant’s fun atmosphere, where an upside-down graffitied canoe hangs from a ceiling covered with record albums. Jason Mackenzie and Gary Copeland’s kitschy road house serves pizza and tacos, as well as wings, burgers, wraps, a “big-a** pretzel” and other foods perfect for accompaniment by the eatery’s eclectic beer menu.

Hail Colombia

Like Litchfield, Norwalk is a municipality with a sophisticated foodie vibe, but its demographics are more racially diverse than Litchfield. Immigrants make up a good percentage of the population. “There is quite a large Colombian community in Norwalk, and it’s growing. Antojos is one of several restaurants that cater to that community,” Urban said. “This restaurant is a great representation of that food. It’s very casual, a long, narrow room where you walk up and order through a window, and it’s not expensive,” he said. Menu items at the 115 New Canaan Ave. eatery, open since 2016, include corn cakes, empanadas, arepas, plantains, rice, beans, with fried eggs on top of many dishes.

Fill your belly

Italian restaurants dominate Waterbury’s culinary landscape, but Urban is fond of Sultan’s, a Turkish eatery at 586 Plank Road. “The restaurant is warm, brightly lit, with paintings of Istanbul and the Bosporus and a nice representative Turkish menu,” Urban said. Offerings by owner Tannel Atkas are dominated by kebabs in chicken, salmon, shrimp, beef and lamb and combinations, as well as moussaka, seafood and a variety of desserts including baklava. Appetizers include hummus, baba ganoush, a feta platter, stuffed grape leaves, calamari, falafel and eggplant. “Saturday nights are the best nights to go. They have belly dancing. It’s an interesting, festive place,” he said.

Smoking hot

In a state full of barbecue, Taino Smokehouse — named for the Caribbean tribe that originated barbecue — is Urban’s favorite. “Their brisket and chicken are more tender than lots of other places, and they have interesting appetizers” including bacon pops, barbecue egg rolls, shrimp cocktail and deep-fried shrimp. Chris Szewczyk’s eatery at 482 South Main St. in Middletown may be hard to find. Visitors may want to follow their noses. “The building is attached to an Ace hardware about a mile outside of downtown, on the side of the building. There’s this wonderful smell wafting out of the smokers, like something out of Valhalla,” he said. Taino has a satellite at 1388 Main St. in Meriden.

Susan Dunne can be reached at [email protected].