New & NowAmerican

New Haven: Lots of Grilled Cheese, Lots of Pizza & Some Other Stuff Too

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Every week we'll be asking you to come with us to some of our favorite small towns and cities—and we'll show you the places, secret spots, and nooks we love. 

Today: If you're visiting New Haven, you likely won't have papers to write or exams to study for—and that means you can take advantage of all the charming places, Gothic-style buildings, and cheese.

For the sake of being honest with myself—and for fear that my college friends will call my fib in the comments—I must admit that I spent 90% of my four years in New Haven in the library.

But, if I could go back and do it again, I'd spend less time poring over Spenser and more time on a picnic blanket with a pizza; I'd spend less time running awkwardly between classes, my 50-pound backpack flopping up and down behind me, and more time scurrying to the top of East Rock to catch views of the city at sunset; and I'd spend less money on espresso and more on eating out. 

Lucky for you, if you're visiting New Haven, you likely won't have pressing paper deadlines or looming exams, and that means you can take advantage of all the charming streets, Gothic-style buildings, and ways to eat cheese. These are the New Haven coffee shops, restaurants, parks, and markets—mostly within walking/biking distance of Yale's campus—that I miss the most and that I hope you visit. Please leave your suggestions in the comments below!

If you need caffeine, a muffin, and/or a good book:

  • Blue State Coffee: If you’d like a seat at Blue State on York Street or Wall Street, you’ll have to get in line for your latte early—really early. During the academic year, these centrally-located campus hubs are packed with students who use the cafés as library offshoots. Get the chaider (chai plus apple cider) in the fall and a grilled cheese with tomato in the summer. Or, get a face-sized chocolate chip cookie, grab a seat, and take in the frantic energy. 

Chaider from Blue State Coffee and Cheese Truck grilled cheese with tomato soup (photos courtesty of Rebecca Levinsky via Instagram)

  • Koffee?: If Blue State is mainstream pop music, Koffee? is the grunge scene. Farther from campus, it’s a quieter space decorated with local artwork and photography. Their menu includes the rarely-ordered “747” (7 shots of espresso, 4 shots of cream, 7 teaspoons of sugar, and a liability waiver). I opt for the muffins (which come in regular size, as well as mini and micro) and a coffee. Come back after 5 P.M. when Koffee? serves wine and alcohol.

  • The Book Trader Café: Browse the selection of used books, then order a sandwich with a literary name: My favorite is the Tempesto, but you might opt for the Sense & SensiBLT or Melville’s Tuna F’ish-mael. Insider tip: Ask for your sandwich to be grilled (it's not advertised on the menu).

  • Atticus: Skip the $1 coffee and focus on the shiny, beautiful books, letter-pressed cards, and small gifts like stationary and fancy teas. The hummus is exceptional—grab a container and a loaf of bread to go. Cross Chapel Street and have an impromptu picnic near the art museum. You can also sit down at the café, but be warned that the service can be slow.

If you need a quick, cheap bite to eat, or groceries:

  • The Caseus Cheese Truck: These sandwiches are so good that they inspired our very own mrslarkin to come up with a copycat recipe. Say yes when they offer you cornichons and grainy mustard on the side. If you fall in love with a certain sandwich combination, maybe you’re ready for the Cheese Truck Challenge: Create a sandwich, order ten, and eat them all within one hour. Not only will you eat for free, but you'll also get to name the sandwich. If you lose, you must pay in full. 

Mrslarkin's Ode to the Caseus Cheese Truck (photo by Joey De Leo)

  • For such a small city, New Haven has a disproportionate amount of good food trucks. On weekdays, they congregate on Science Hill (Prospect Street north of Grove Street) and near Yale-New Haven Hospital. Try Ay! Arepa for arepas, burritos, and quesadillas, Fryborg for hand-cut French fries, and Jasmine Thai Cart for pad thai. 

  • Seek out fresh produce at Wooster Square Farmers Market, where there is live music on most summer Saturdays (fun fact: our very own Kenzi Wilbur used to organize and book this music). Arrive hungry: The Cheese Truck is known to park nearby and New Haven's most famous pizza restaurants (see below) are in walking distance. In the springtime, Wooster Square is abloom in cherry blossoms—the perfect spot for a picnic. 

  • Sababa and Tikkaway Grill are both inexpensive, make-your-own style restaurants, for falafel and Indian wraps respectively. I like to get a $4.79 falafel sandwich from Sababa and eat it while walking north on Whitney Avenue towards East Rock. If you're craving falafel late at night (maybe after Toad's?), don't worry: Mamoun's is open until 3 A.M. 

  • Claire's Corner Copia: Some people love this vegetarian institution that's been serving New Haven since 1975, and some people don't. I am one of the lovers. I broke Passover my senior year of college with a Claire's pizza bagel, and I still ask my New Haven friends to bring the mini bread loaves that come with soups and salads to New York. If you're only going to order one thing, get the Lithuanian coffee cake with extra frosting. I'm convinced that no one graduates from Yale without having at least two slices of this cake.

Extra icing on my "Claire's cake," please! (Photo couresty of Elizabeth Eats)

  • Ashley's Ice Cream: New Haven has a lot of frozen yogurt places, but skip that and head straight for the ice cream. I like to get one scoop of Nutella Chip and one of Coffee Oreo. If you're with a big group, get the "Downside Watson": 7 scoops of ice cream and 9 toppings, served in a frisbee.

  • Pick up a half-dozen square donuts from Orangeside Luncheonette. I repeat: square donuts. 

If you're willing to wait in line or spend a little money:

  • PIZZA! I would argue that New Haven pizza (which, according to Wikipedia, is known is pronounced "a-BEETS!"—use that information at your own risk), with its charred and chewy crust, is the best pizza in the United States. I like Modern Apizza, which is a bit off-the-beaten-path compared to Pepe's and Sally's (both located on Wooster Street, near the farmers market). Go to Modern at off-hours (or on a weeknight) and you just might get a table without waiting.

    If you have a car, drive to Zuppardi's in West Haven. It's where I ate my first slice of white clam pizza and with it, my first piece of seafood. For less traditional, but still delicious, pizza, try Kitchen Zinc or BAR (where you should get one topped with mashed potatoes and a pitcher of Toasted Blonde beer). 

Mrslarkin was also inspired to recreate Pepe's famous White Clam Pizza (photo by James Ransom) 

  • Miya's Sushi: Devotees flock to take advantage of Miya's late-night specials of their consciously wacky sushi rolls. Night owls, arrive for specials between 10 P.M. and midnight on Thursday through Saturday, and 9 P.M. to 10 P.M., Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday.
  • Caseus: The same people who run the Cheese Truck also operate Caseus Fromagerie and Bistro, where you can pick up smelly cheeses and olive oils, charcuterie, and spices before sitting down to eat in the cavernous restaurant. The grilled cheese is bigger and badder than the mobile rendition; one sandwich is made with an entire 1/2 pound of cheese. 

  • If you're staying downtown and willing to walk (or drive) to brunch, commit to The Pantry in the East Rock neighborhood or Lena's, located in Westville. You're likely to wait in line at both, but the cinnamon roll pancakes and hashbrowns (at The Pantry) and the omelettes (at Lena's) are worth it.

The Pantry's blueberry pancakes; Beinecke Rare Books Library

If/when you need a drink:

  • Ordinary: Small and wood-paneled, this is a romantic spot for an after-dinner drink. Order some cheese (it's from Caseus), a warm, salt-flecked chocolate chip cookie, and a bottle of wine. 

  • Rudy's: Former New Haven resident Kenzi Wilbur says, "For beer and burgers, belly up to the bar and drop 'Old Rudy's' into a sentence; you'll be treated like a local." Insider tip: Rudy's also serves one of the best brunches in New Haven.

  • 116 Crown: With mod booths and a huge cocktail menu, this bar would be right at home in a much larger city. Don't skip out on the food, either. 

If you brought your walking shoes and need some fresh air:

  • Yale Campus: Walk through Old Campus, where freshmen live, and peek inside the newly-renovated Sterling Memorial Library. Don't miss the free (!) museums: Yale University Art Gallery, the Yale Center for British Art (temporarily closed until spring 2016), and the Beinecke Rare Book Library. If you can, get an undergraduate to let you into the Branford courtyard (the fictional home to Rory Gilmore of "Gilmore Girls" fame). 

Sterling Memorial Library (image courtesy of intexp7 via Flickr); Beinecke (image couresty of Lauren Manning via Flickr) 

  • East Rock Park: This is my favorite place in New Haven. Walk north on Orange Street past lovely blocks of Victorian-style houses and stop by Nica's Market for a pressed sandwich. In a couple of miles, you'll reach a sharp rock face. You can either walk alongside a stream for something more leisurely, hike up a steep path to get to the top, or follow a meandering road to the peak. If you do reach the top, take in the views while having a picnic. 

View of Hamden, CT from East Rock Park (image courtesy of chrissam42 via Flickr)

  • In the East Rock area, you'll also find the smaller Edgerton Park. Get there by walking down St. Ronan's Street, where you'll admire some of the grandest houses in New Haven. You can also walk up Prospect Street, which will take you past Yale's science buildings, the Divinity School (which looks like it belongs at the campus of Yale's not-to-be-named rival), and the college greenhouses.

Lighthouse Point Park (image courest of versageek via Flickr) 

What are your favorite spots in New Haven? Share with us in the comments below!

Tags: New England, Travel