Oct. 28—There is no shortage of places to eat in Connecticut and author Mike Urban has made it his goal to highlight some of the most diverse eateries across the state in his new book “Unique Eats and Eateries of Connecticut: The People and Stories Behind the Food,” which was released about a month ago.
This is Urban’s fifth book. His first book, about the clam shacks of New England, simply called “Clam Shacks,” was released in 2011. He has since written a similar book, “Lobster Shacks,” as well as “The New England Seafood Markets Cookbook” and “The New England Diner Cookbook.”
A Chicago native, Urban and his wife are moving from Old Saybrook, where he has lived for 30 years, to New Haven.
His love for food, he said, comes from traveling the globe as editor and associate publisher for Globe Pequot Press, which in the 1990s was the third-largest travel guide publisher in the U.S.
“That’s where the food and travel bug bit me,” he said. “As I got older the three most important parts of travel were breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
“It’s a lot of fun: travel, fun eating, and interesting food, talking to various interesting people, taking photographs.”
He said he enjoyed visiting seafood shacks along the New England coast and convinced a friend of his who owns Cider Mill Press in Kennebunkport, Maine to let him write his first book, “Clam Shacks.”
“I spent the summer of 2010 running around visiting all these clam shacks,” he said. “Writing for me is more of an avocation. It’s more of a hobby for me.”
This is the first book of his that focuses specifically on Connecticut.
“It gave me a chance to explore locally,” Urban said. “I didn’t have to travel very far. I did a lot of day trips.”
He said he started working on it in December 2019. Then there was a delay about three months later.
“All the restaurants closed,” he said, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and Gov. Ned Lamont ordering the shutdown of businesses.
“I took some time off and went back to research,” he said.
Urban returned to visiting restaurants in July 2020.
“I could visit places carefully during the pandemic; a lot of times during the weekdays,” he said.
He said he had to work around all the new plastic barriers and facemasks to avoid the book being locked in the time frame of the pandemic.
The book is part of a larger series called “Unique Eats and Eateries,” he said. This is the first book in the series that focuses on an entire state instead of a city like New Orleans or Philadelphia.
“I wanted to have a good variety of restaurants and cuisine,” he said.
Geographical representation was also important, he said, acknowledging that he was less familiar with the northern part of the state, Fairfield County, and the Litchfield area.
“That gave me what I love to do, which is the opportunity to drive around and visit a lot of places I’d never visited before,” he said. “Most of these are mom and pop places. I have nothing against restaurant groups or marketing firms, but these are places that I like to refer to as organically-made, homegrown, unique, not realized on a spreadsheet. (It’s) mostly seafood shacks, diners, hot dog and hamburger stands, pizza places. It’s a nice little black and white book and it’s for people who want to explore places for a quick lunch or something like that.”
Of the 85 restaurants he writes about in his book, four are from the local area.
“There’s an interesting back-story to Pho 501,” Urban said of the Vietnamese place at 501 Main St., East Hartford. “The guy came over here from Vietnam. There’s the mural he has on the side of the building. It’s a gorgeous piece of art. For a lot of people, it’s the best place in the state where pho is being served. I went there two or three times. It was a wonderful experience.”
He also visited Rein’s New York-style Deli at 435 Hartford Turnpike in Vernon.
“There’s a great story about the guy who came up from New York City and couldn’t find a good corned beef sandwich so he decided to open his own place,” Urban said. “I know people who live in Boston and travel down to New Jersey to visit their relatives; they’ve got to go there. Just to look at the deli counter there and all the smoked fish, it’s the real deal. They didn’t seem to skimp on anything. And it’s playful. They have the Statue of Liberty model in the restaurant, different parts of it are named after different boroughs of New York City and the food is good.”
He also visited the Manchester staple, Shady Glen, at 840 Middle Turnpike East, to sample its famous “winged” cheeseburger.
“The food to me is good,” he said. “The winged cheeseburger is very unique. The ice cream is probably the star of the show. The sundaes are fantastic. As far as a quintessential unique restaurant, it’s not one of those places manufactured by a restaurant group. It’s been there since the ’40s or ’50s and they’ve kept the tradition going with the guys with the bow ties behind the counter, the waitress with the white aprons.”
The other local place he visited was Lilly’s Soul Food at 305 Windsor Ave. in Windsor.
“It’s a great spot,” he said. “More of a carry-out place than sit down. It’s a wonderful cafeteria style setup where you can point to what you want and they give you a copious amount of southern-style comfort food, soul food. You’ve got the barbecue, you’ve got the collared greens, all kinds of great stuff, the green beans, the sweet potato pie, and it’s right there in Windsor.”
“It’s getting out there,” Urban said of the book’s release. “It’s always available on Amazon, but I always encourage people to go to their local bookshop and pick it up there. Tourist shops should have it.”
Urban said he isn’t quite sure what he will write next, but said that he wants to revisit seafood, but on a national level.
“One thing I’ve wanted to do, I would love to do 100 best seafood shacks in America,” he said.
For coverage of local restaurants, cultural events, music, and an extensive range of Connecticut theater reviews, follow Tim Leininger on Twitter: @Tim_E_Leininger, Facebook: Tim Leininger’s Journal Inquirer News page, and Instagram: @One_Mans_Opinion77.