Rarely has a state been so rich in hidden-away dining spots known only to the locals. Part of this is Connecticut’s diverse geography, including small mountains scattered seemingly at random, creating isolated pockets of habitation; and a shoreline that undulates with such amplitude and frequency that bridges crossing inlets are sometimes rare. It is a state of mariners and landlubbers, the very poor and the very rich, trailer parks and mansions, community junior colleges and Ivy League universities.
So one late-spring day, Eater NY senior editor/photographer Nick Solares and I set out on an odyssey by rental car to investigate the Nutmeg State’s local cuisine, focusing principally on hot dogs, hamburgers, and clams in two frenetic days. (We’d save pizza and grinders for another trip.) In the process we unearthed some fascinating things little known to outsiders, including a frankfurter two feet long, a cheeseburger with four pieces of cheese sticking out like helicopter rotor blades, and some of the sweetest and juiciest fried clams you’ve ever tasted, served simply on a piece of buttered toast.
Denmo's Snack Bar
We started out early on a Tuesday under leaden skies, as a steady drizzle began to develop. Crossing the New York state line in the vicinity of Danbury, Connecticut, we proceeded northeastward up the Yankee Highway as dense pines whizzed by on either side. Our first day of travel would take us through Connecticut’s Rust Belt, which runs from west of Waterbury to the other side of Hartford, through a string of faded industrial towns with picturesque abandoned mills. Halfway to Waterbury we stopped just over the Pomperaug River at Denmo’s Snack & Dairy Bar, a low frame building with a peaked roof on the outskirts of Southbury. A friend who grew up a dozen miles away had warmly recommended it as a quintessential part of her childhood summers.
There was no indoor seating; just picnic tables placed under an overhang. Denmo’s specialty is foot-long hot dogs split and grilled so the inside surfaces blacken, deposited on the sort of top-cloven bun you normally associate with lobster rolls. Though the actual length of the dog disappointed (four inches short of a foot), it was tasty when crowned with the conventional mustard, raw onions, and kraut, from a choice of nine toppings. The thick burger was good, too, though upstaged by the supple Kaiser roll it came on. Best of all was a serving of whole fried clams deposited on a piece of toast in a paper boat, a bargain at $7.95, suggesting that even if you go to Denmo’s principally for the dogs, burgers, or plain sandwiches, an order of clams is compulsory.
We hadn’t expected such perfect seafood in a landlocked location — but then, anywhere in Connecticut you’re never far from the ocean. Our next stop was due south of Waterbury in Naugatuck, a town that I remember from a couplet learned in my Minnesota elementary school, intended to teach elocution:
Phoebe B. Beebee and her new canoe canal / In Saugatuck, near Naugatuck, Connecticut
Al's Hot Dog Stand
Al’s Hot Dog Stand is a rambling red structure that looks like it was constructed piecemeal 40 years ago. A hand-drawn sign sits atop, along with a neon hot dog. Specialty of the house is the foot-long frank, of which we ordered three. In this case, they were 10 inches apiece, and stuck rather absurdly out the ends of their regular-length, split-top buns. One feature of Al’s worth noting is that the place makes its own relish in three permutations. The one called Hawaiian is red and fiery. We loved it.
This was our first exposure to Hummel franks, pork-beef beauties made by Hummel Brothers in New Haven since 1933 and something of a statewide standard for quality. The foot-longs at Al’s had been lightly deep fried. We liked the Hippo dog best, topped with bacon, cheese, sauerkraut, and a brown ground-meat sauce I wouldn’t dare call chili though it works well in this context. Another thing we sampled was a humongous serving of so-called Texas fries: crinkle-cuts heaped with jalapenos, Whiz-like cheese product, and more of that "chili." Here comes heartburn!
BLACKIE'S HOT DOG STAND
We didn’t suspect that our next stop would furnish the most miraculous hot dogs of the trip. Blackie’s Hot Dog Stand began life as a gas station in 1925, but by 1928 had turned from fuel to franks. The appearance is arresting: a pair of octagonal towers joined by a pair of garages that may or may not have been part of the original gas station. Three neon signs that look like they were swiped from a Las Vegas casino glow on the roof, even during the day. Inside, a long red Formica counter provides most of the seating. At one o’clock the place was jammed with gray-haired customers, most still wearing their jackets against the chill outside. In the parking lot we’d seen a small, battered panel truck from Martin Rosol's (founded 1928 in New Britain, CT), which was something of a harbinger for what was to follow. The hot dogs were of conventional length, served in a conventional bun. They were deep fried, as they do it at Rutt’s Hut in Clifton, NJ, so that a rip appears on the side of each wiener. Two sorts of toppings were available in reservoirs at intervals along the counter: one a dark mustard, the other a freakishly brown, oniony relish that one regular described as, "just dumping a lot of things together." The exact recipe is a secret.
The links were firm textured and decidedly smoky in a way that didn’t seem artificial. The counter help, young and old, were super polite and earnest, and the beverage of choice was either chocolate milk in cartons or glasses of colorless and clear birch beer. You’re going to have trouble believing this, but the compact burgers smothered in melted white cheese were every bit as good as the franks, and bargain priced at $2.75 each. They were cooked only to medium and still juicy as hell. Not much else on Blackie’s menu besides chips and ice cream. The place is closed on Fridays, which probably hearkens back to the day when Catholics ate no meat on Friday as a religious observance. As we walked out into what had become a steady downpour, we were treated to the spectacle of the broken-down Rosol's truck being ferried away on a flatbed trailer. We waved a wan goodbye as it disappeared around a corner onto the main road.
While our eating expedition had taken us through verdant semi-rural areas, our next stop was in blighted New Britain, where we drove through a literal slum to find Capitol Lunch, across from a shopping center where some dodgy characters hung around in the parking lot. "Don’t forget to lock your door," warned Nick, conspicuously toting his entire bag of camera equipment with him.
Working-class refectories called "Lunch" are a thing in upstate New York, as evidenced by Famous Lunch (1932) in Troy and Newest Lunch (1921) in Schenectady, boxy utilitarian structures that have attained an aura of nostalgia from never having been renovated. Red Naugahyde, Formica counters, and well-buffed aluminum provide the surfaces, and a greasy film covers all. Founded in the early 1950s by Greek restaurateurs right before the Greek diner craze, Capitol Lunch is not of quite the same vintage as the upstate institutions, which specialize in miniature hot dogs on miniature buns, yet it replicates the formula: hot dogs and hamburgers served in no-nonsense surroundings, along with omelets and other breakfast items.
Made once again by excellent Rosol's, the natural-skinned frankfurters were of normal size and came on a regular bun, with another meat sauce that looks like bean-free chili, in this case called Famous Sauce. (In Troy, NY, it’s called Zippy Sauce.) The sauce consists of finely ground beef and minced onions in a dark gravy tasting faintly of nutmeg. The standard frankfurter topping combination at Capitol Lunch is Famous Sauce, chopped raw onions, and mustard, the latter probably reflecting the German heritage of the hot dog in some remote way.
The barebones cheeseburger was not as good as the hot dogs, but perfectly fine with its spare garnishment of onions and pickle chips, with the slice of white cheese underneath rather than on top. (White cheese rather than yellow is the cheeseburger standard across much of Connecticut.) The uneven fried onion rings were a highlight here, perfectly battered and tasting of strong onions. To wash everything down, "Cappy’s" has its own proprietary brand of sodas, including birch beer and cream soda.
Not much need be said of Doogie’s in Newington, on the southern edge of the Hartford metropolitan area, along a thoroughfare of vintage bowling alleys, cocktail lounges, and seedy motels. Doogie’s is a newish place, a franchise operation originating in Ogunquit, Maine. It offers three sizes of hot dogs, of which the longest is a mind-boggling two feet with a bun to match. The two-footer proved almost too floppy to eat: the one we tried was topped with liquid cheese and three strips of bacon laid end to end. The interior of Doogie’s is decorated with 45 RPM records from the 50s, a musical theme that extended to nearly every establishment we visited. We must have heard "Earth Angel" a half-dozen times on our trip.
Located about 10 miles east of Hartford in Manchester is Shady Glen — the name suggests its bucolic setting. Founded in 1948, it is descended from a dairy store, and the restaurant looks something like a brick bank building done in the Colonial style with a white tower. The Formica counter undulates around a room outfitted with vertically striped wallpaper; booth seating is scattered around. The place was gigantic compared to the other establishments we’d been to. It reeked of Yankee conservatism, with waitresses, many barely out of high school, dressed in starched green uniforms.
The cafe is famous throughout the state for an item known as the Bernice Original: a regular burger patty on a regular bun over which four slices of cheese are placed so that they protrude, then cooked in such a way that the cheese turns brown and crisp. Is it any good? Well, it’s more of a visual novelty than anything else. We also enjoyed the steak sandwich, which came on toast with a pickle chip and no other garnish, good onion rings, a mixed salad with Thousand Island dressing, and "pudding" ice cream tasting like a mixture of cherry and rum raisin.
As you might imagine, after eating six meals in as many hours we were as bloated as fish washed up on the shoreline. But seeing as how the next place was in the town we were staying overnight, we decided to persevere. Ted’s Restaurant has been a fixture in Meriden for over 50 years, which I suppose is what allows it to plaster "Famous" before the name on its sign. The premises is small and shack-like, with a handful of picnic tables on a makeshift patio, a small line of stools along a counter, and a booth or two. As we entered, Shark Tank was on the tube, engendering a lively discussion between the waitress and a table of regulars.
One of the hallmarks of Connecticut burgerdom is the use of weird contraptions for cooking. In this case, the hamburger meat formed into a rectangle was plunged into a metal steam bath before emerging well-done and nearly greaseless. A nice white cheddar slice melted on top served to hold the thing together. Where does all the grease go? We found out as our home fries appeared, dotted with little meaty bits of detritus and glistening with tallow. These spuds turned out to be one of the great highlights of the trip. Though Nick was unimpressed with the steamed cheeseburger, I’d get it again.
Sea View Snack Bar
After a twilight tour of Meriden we settled in for the night at a motel on the more prosperous east side of town. And started out early the next morning on what would be the maritime leg of our trip, leaving the Rust Belt behind. First stop: Mystic. We cruised into Sea View Snack Bar just as the place opened at 10 a.m., a low frame structure painted aquamarine. Though situated on the edge of a pleasure-boat inlet, craning one’s neck gave a view of the ocean. The fish and chips dinner with fries was made with flounder fillets and fairly delicious, and the fried whole belly clams big and filled with briny fluid. The gluey chowder was fine, too, though a little thick.
We made short work of Sea View and flew on to Kamp Dog, planted like an epiphyte on the side of a much bigger Italian restaurant. Kamp Dog has only been in New London for six years, but the premises feels old and worn. Co-owner Ken Hochstetler, who stood behind the lunch counter, readily confessed he was a chef and a champion of chili cook-offs, and had the certificate on the wall to prove it. The chili came heaped with raw onions and grated cheddar, and was loaded with cumin. As far as Texas chili goes, it was the real article. The regular-size dogs on split and buttered buns were classic, even better with the Dynamite sauce, which is a sweeter variation on the meat sauce mentioned earlier.
But the best part of our Kamp Dog experience was the corn dog, which was nearly twice as big as usual — not the weenie itself but the extravagantly inflated coating, swollen somewhat obscenely at the tip with a light, corn-based batter. The thing was delectable, especially when fresh out of the fat and smeared with mustard. As we gorged ourselves, the co-owner gave us a free bag of Frito pie, showing he was willing to go all the way to New Mexico for ideas, and also that he knew his chili con carne was damn good.
Captain Scott's Lobster Dock
Hidden on an obscure byway and also in New London, Captain Scott’s Lobster Dock was more upscale than all the previous establishments, a sprawling complex with outdoor seating for probably 150 selling a lobster-centric menu, but also including other seafood, plus hamburgers, frankfurters, and ice cream. It seemed more Maine than Connecticut. Captain Thomas A. Scott (1830-1907) was a prominent citizen of New London famous for his bravery, his charity, and his lighthouse design. He famously saved hundreds of passengers on a sinking ferry in New York City’s North River in 1870, as the website notes: "Using his own body, Captain Scott plugged a hole at the waterline of the listing boat. Scott’s arm which protruded through the hole, was severely lacerated by the ice cakes, but all aboard the vessel were saved."
We had gone specifically to sample the hot lobster roll, which may have been invented at Captain Scott’s. It came on a split-top bun of regular size, heaped with big chunks of lobster surmounted by a lemon wedge, making a nice color contrast with the fluffy pink meat. "Hey, where’s the mayo?" I blurted out, carefully inspecting the roll. Instead, the product was sopping with drawn butter. It was one of the best things tasted on the trip. On par with New York prices at $16.95, it bested anything I’ve had in New York. The belly clam roll also qualified as spectacular, the scraggly bivalves sinuous and plump. We washed it down with a blueberry soda, nibbled at an ear of buttered corn, admired the view of a working harbor, and then hopped in the car reluctantly to continue our quest.
Next stop, the appealingly named Clam Castle. Unlike the previous two seafood joints, it provided no view of the harbor, only a wide range of indoor and outdoor seating, and signage that showed smirking cartoon clams inside sand castles. Stars of the show here were a batch of fried oysters that outshone the fried clam roll, and a cup of Rhode Island clam chowder — something I’d never heard of before. Instead of the usual red or white chowder, it boasted a clear broth that was way bacony, and enough clams and potatoes that there was barely room for any liquid. It was supremely delicious. We also ordered something called potato cones. Shaped like pine cones, they were crumbed and fried and the mashed potato inside had been flavored with artificial butter. Yuck!
We saved one of the more spectacular destinations for last: Louis’ Lunch, a downtown New Haven fixture since 1895 occupying a squat brick building with mullioned windows in the quasi-Tudor style. Inside were a couple of wooden booths thickly carved with customers’ initials and a counter behind which two presided, one the clerk, the other the cook. This was another of those strange-contraption places, and the cooking of the burgers was accomplished by three devices on the counter that stood upright like ornate samovars. Every time one of the doors was open, gas flames flickered, and the burgers were broiled in racks that fit into the cookers vertically, a strange set-up to be sure.
Even stranger was that the burgers or cheeseburgers were ensconced between slices of bread, and the only garnish permitted was onion, lettuce, and tomato. No mustard, no ketchup. Louis’ Lunch is one of the places routinely credited with inventing the modern hamburger, and what it proved in this case was the genius of putting a burger in a bun rather than using nondescript bread. Soda, potato chips, and pie comprised the rest of the offerings — a totally enjoyable place, though Nick’s comment on the meat patty was, "Not enough sear."