If there is one known tourist destination in the state of Connecticut, it is the coastal town of Mystic. Whether it’s the harbor museum commemorating its maritime heritage, the sea lions and beluga whales in the aquarium, or the charming downtown, dense with shops and anchored by a drawbridge celebrating its 100th anniversary, about 1, 5 million out-of-towners visit each year, according to the Grand Mystique Chamber of Commerce.
But these days, people descend on the city of just 5,000 people for a more specific reason: food. In fact, there’s a whole section of southeast Connecticut that’s experiencing a culinary resurgence.
The area has long been associated with weathered shacks serving clam strips and lobster rolls. Today, you’ll find just as much barbecued monkfish cheeks and empanadas stuffed with local calamari, perhaps accompanied by a hibiscus margarita or an orange pét-nat. The transformation is profound.
It all started with a bakery
You could say that a bakery was the tipping point. In 2016, Adam Young, who was executive pastry chef at the luxury Ocean House resort in Watch Hill, RI, opened his French-inspired bakery, Sift Bake Shop, in Mystic. It caught the eye of a local crowd for its 81-layer croissants and sticky rolls dipped in caramel sauce. Then Mr. Young landed on Food Network’s “Best Baker in America” in 2017. He won in 2018. Madness ensued.
“It was like Disney,” Mr. Young says of the early days. “You would queue outside for 30 minutes, then walk through the door, and there would be another line inside.”
Over time, Mr. Young and his team redesigned the space and process inside the clapboard building on Water Street to be more efficient. They also added a rooftop bar and opened Young Buns Donuts around the corner from Mystic’s main street. Although waits at the Sift Bake Shop are now shorter, lines of eager guests still arrive daily.
Not that croissants alone put Mystic on the map. When Dan Meiser and James Wayman opened Oyster Club, a seafood and local produce restaurant on Water Street in 2012, it sparked a desire for sophisticated cuisine. Although there were many dining options then, none was necessarily a destination.
“We saw an opportunity to take advantage of the region’s incredible agriculture and fishing and create a restaurant that was part of the regional, if not national, conversation,” says Meiser.
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Oyster Club, now part of Mr. Meiser’s group of restaurants, 85th Day Food Community, continues to serve local vegetables, meat and fish with a new version. The native monkfish, for example, is made with shio koji buttermilk and corn-based polenta from Davis Farm, which has been in business since 1654.
Mystic seems to be the busiest place in New England these days. Places like the Port of Call, a nautical-themed lounge bar that features drag shows and serves up small plates like crispy boqueróns made with local smelt and beef tongue gyros, and Nana’s Bakery & Pizza ( co-owned and run by Mr. Wayman, who parted ways with Mr. Meiser last year), which offers made-to-order donuts and pizzas from organic, naturally leavened dough, lands on “best of” lists . The Shipwright’s Daughter, which anchors the Whaler’s Inn, a century-old property across from the Mystic River that’s been updated to feel contemporary beach-chic, is the newest award-winning restaurant for its world tour on the fruits of sustainable seas, like Block Island Sound’s lucky shot, drizzled with herb romesco sauce and served with roasted summer squash. It is run by David Standridge who was drawn from New York by the beauty and bounty of the region.
“It’s kind of a paradise,” Standbridge says of the beaches, farms and boating community. Sure enough, look out the window of the restaurant’s elegant dark blue dining room and you’ll see kayakers and sailboats floating along the Mystic River, surrounded by green hills.
Beyond the mystical
The fanfare is not limited to Mystic.
Old Saybrook, about 22 miles to the west, has had its ups and downs as a popular seaside town over the decades. Its bustling center with big-box retailers belies a perimeter of breathtaking beaches and verdant waterfront properties.
The Rat Pack used to play at the former Terra Mar Hotel – now the luxurious Saybrook Point Resort & Marina – and, after spending her childhood summers in the borough of Fenwick, actress Katharine Hepburn turned to retired there until her death in 2003. This is a point of pride for the town. The Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center – the Kate – sits on Main Street in what was once City Hall, with a museum and performance space that sees a rotation of concerts, theater productions and films, including including Hepburn classics.
This is now where two renowned chefs thrive.
“Old Saybrook is set to become the next Mystic,” says Colt Taylor, the chef and co-owner of Essex, which opened a stone’s throw from the Kate in December 2021. It’s a stylish restaurant that a few years ago hardly has it attracted diners for its five- and seven-course tasting menus as it currently does. Mr Taylor had launched the restaurant in 2017 in Essex, north along the Connecticut River. While the Los Charros taco restaurant that sprung up here in 2018 is booming, the appetite for an upscale dining concept never took hold the way it does now in Old Saybrook.
Foie gras “Popsicles” and lobster served on a bed of beet fusilli may sound stuffy, but Mr. Taylor wants it to be anything but. An open kitchen, chef’s counter, and sea-themed mural above the expansive bar are more fun than formal.
The desire to upset expectations is also Joel Gargano’s intention. In late July, the chef and his wife, Lani, opened Gargano Pasta & Italian Market – also on Main Street – which they describe as Eataly with a New England twist. “We need to get out of the stigma of dockside places,” said Mr. Gargano, a Connecticut native, lamenting the shoreline’s reputation for being competent only with fried food.
In addition to Italian pastries, salumi and formaggi, prepared and made-to-order dishes, there will be a pasta lab, where you can see chefs at work and get their recommendations on which sauces go well with pasta. “We want to offer products that we like to use,” says Ms. Gargano. “It’s a form of our hospitality, of ‘This is what I have to give you.'”
The 8,000-square-foot food hall also offers bread made from local grains, such as red fife wheat from Skowhegan, Maine, and spelled from Oechsner Farm in New York. This bread, as well as dishes like integral rigatoni, which uses a toasted rye from Maine Grains that stands up to a hearty beef Bolognaise ragù, is a favorite at the Grano Arso de Garganos restaurant in nearby Chester.
The polished Italian spot brought luster to the small town when it opened in 2017. An artistic enclave of 3,800 residents, Chester was settled along the Connecticut River in 1692. The town has a history of shipbuilding and milling , and is filled with colorful 17th and 18th century houses, as well as oaks and maples, some as wide in diameter as golf carts. Now it, too, is enjoying a revival backed by a strong food scene.
It was Chester’s Sunday market that initially attracted the Garganos to the city. Vendors selling fresh produce, baked goods, cheeses, fish and meat to the beat of live music close Main Street for a few hours every Sunday from mid-June to mid-October. Residents’ pride and delight is best exemplified by chef Jonathan Rapp of River Tavern, another famous Chester restaurant that champions local produce. It’s where he draws inspiration and ingredients for Dinners at the Farm, a Sunday night series that runs for 10 weeks each summer and can include dishes like fresh pepper and heirloom tomato soup with panzanella and pesto, and a peach and blueberry cake. with ice cream from neighboring Honeycone Craft Ice Cream.
“The biggest part is the contagiousness of it,” Mr. Gargano says of the appetite for more refined, creative cuisine that he and other chefs are seeing. “Four years ago we weren’t selling so many tasting menus and that’s really exciting.”
Now the question is: will the same magic happen elsewhere? Later this month, Sift will open in Niantic, halfway between Mystic and Old Saybrook and the River Towns. It will be in a new building, housing other restaurants.
Niantic, a village in the town of East Lyme where I grew up (thanks to the Vikings), has had a slow but steady rise as a tourist destination. A 1.1-mile boardwalk along Niantic Bay was completed in 2016, after more than a decade of work. Main street chains like McDonald’s and Friendly’s have been replaced by independent establishments like Dev’s on Main, serving Asian and Latina small plates, and Gumdrops & Lollipops, a classic candy and homemade ice cream shop. Last year, La Llorona opened its doors, bringing flavors and ingredients from southwestern Mexico to a region that hasn’t seen much spice.
“It’s very mystical, circa 2015,” Young says of Niantic’s momentum. “There are a lot of talented business owners coming to town and starting to make investments.”
The feedback so far has been very satisfactory.