A Punky Moms Guide to New Haven, Connecticut
If you’re familiar with the Dreamworks film, Madagascar (and frankly, we’re a group of parents, so who isn’t?), you may remember this exchange:
Alex: “Come on! What does Connecticut have to offer us?”
Melman: “Lyme disease.”
Tick-borne diseases named after one of its towns aside, Connecticut has a lot to offer. Especially in the city of New Haven, situated between New York City and Boston on I-95. Home to Yale University, the (arguably) best pizza in the United States, and a vibrant music, art, and performance culture, I’ve called it home for 13 years and am thrilled to share its secrets with you.
Cultural & Educational
Yale University takes up the majority of space in downtown New Haven. While this means crowds of future captains of industry and the professors who teach them, it also means there are excellent cultural activities in this city – many of them free!
For skulls and bones you can actually visit without hazing, the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History is fun for kids and grown-ups alike. The Great Hall of Dinosaurs is one of the better dinosaur exhibits I’ve seen anywhere. There are also displays on mammalian evolution, human origins, and native cultures. There are many hands on demos for kids and they also host summer camps, if you are planning on staying in town for a while. This museum has an entrance fee, but check the “Visit” tab on the website for all sorts of ways to see the collection for free.
Two other museums on Yale’s campus are always free to visit – the Yale Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art. The Yale University Art Gallery has a rotating collection of over 200,000 items and is the oldest University art gallery in the United States. The Yale Center of British Art is housed in a Louis Kahn designed building and is the largest collection of British works outside of the United Kingdom. It is currently being renovated, but will reopen in the summer of 2016.
All three of these museums are closed on Mondays. Check the websites for hours, which can change seasonally.
If theater is your thing, there are several venues in New Haven to see performances.
Yale Cabaret is a theater and restaurant that showcases experimental and innovative plays and performances by Yale students. Yale Repertory Theater and Long Wharf Theater are both Tony Award winning theaters, with larger scale performances of new and classic works, often with nationally renowned actors and directors. Both theaters have been the starting places for shows that have eventually moved to Broadway.
In the summer, New Haven is also home to the International Festival of Art and Ideas, with mostly free art, music, and dance performances throughout the city.
Places to Eat
New Haven style pizza, or “apizza,” pronounced “abeetz,” is a regional delicacy and a national treasure. If you only eat one thing while you’re in town, this should be it. Based on the classic Neapolitan pizzas, New Haven pizza has a super thin, somewhat asymmetrical shaped crust; blistered and burnt in places by the coal and oil fired ovens used in the holy trinity of local pizza joints – Frank Pepe’s, Sally’s, and Modern. The oldest of these is Frank Pepe’s, founded in 1925. The standard pizza here is tomato based, with only pecorino romano grated over the top. If you want mozzarella, you need to ask for it. Even better than the traditional pie, is the white clam pizza. This has an olive oil and grated cheese base, with fresh clams, oregano, and garlic. It is amazing. If the kids won’t eat it, do yourself a favor and get a small one for yourself. It’s truly a culinary wonder, and unless you’re vegan or allergic, you’d be missing out on one of the most unique and delicious things on this planet.
Sally’s, started in 1938 by a family member of Frank Pepe, is right down the block from Pepe’s (sick burn, dude) in the Little Italy of New Haven – Wooster Street. Sally’s is super tiny, only takes cash, and invariably has a line that I have yet to be patient enough to conquer myself. On the other hand, this was Sinatra’s favorite place, so take that for what it’s worth. The pies to get here are the garden special – their take on the margherita, and the white potato and rosemary pizza.
Both of these places serve Foxon Park Sodas, made in East Haven, Connecticut by the same family since 1922.
The third of the magical New Haven pizza triptych is Modern Apizza. Modern is on State Street, nowhere near the other two, and was started in 1938. They utilize an oil fueled brick oven, unlike the coal fired ovens of the Wooster Street establishments. Their crust is puffier and a little moister as a result.
Of the three, I prefer Pepe’s. However, the slightly burnt crust is an acquired taste, as evidenced by the fact Modern’s pizza has repeatedly won blind taste tests of the big three pizza joints in town. The big deals here are the Italian Bomb – an Italian meat-fight of a pizza and the Clams Casino with clams, peppers, and bacon.
Burgers are also big news in the New Haven area, with Louis Lunch located in town. Louis Lunch is rumored to be the first place you could get a burger in the United States. They serve it one way – their way. It’s served on white toast with the option for cheese, tomato, and onion. There are no other condiments and you will be sneered at if you ask. They also serve Foxon Park sodas, pie, and surprisingly good potato salad. The guys behind the counter are mostly friendly and the tiny building is like stepping into the Tardis of meatiness. It’s bigger on the inside than the miniscule brick facade lets on. With carved wood individual seats and tables, it feels every year since it’s 1897 opening inside. But, it’s clean as a whistle and your burger will be cooked in a one-of-a-kind antique vertical grill that looks like something Jules Verne would have installed on the Nautilus, had he known about it. How’s the burger, you ask? Excellent. There are several great burger places here, including one of Danny Meyer’s excellent Shake Shacks, but stick with Louis’ if they are open and you have never been.
If this is all a little flesh-centric for you, Claire’s Corner Copia has been in its corner spot, across from the New Haven town green, since 1975. They can accommodate veggie, vegan, and gluten free diners and have an overwhelming selection of gorgeous, health(ier) baked goods. They serve all meals here, but breakfast is the hands down winner, whether you are of the veggie inclination or not.
New Haven may be home to jazz clubs and big nightclubs with all the “boots and cats” music you care to hear, but its heart is filled with old school hardcore punks, metal heads, and the scene where punks go when they can’t mosh anymore – rockabilly. Bridging the gap between all three of these scenes, as well as jazz, country, and a healthy dose of burlesque, too, is Café Nine . They call themselves “The Musicians’ Living Room” and that’s pretty much the case. It’s teensy, but national acts play here frequently. As do all of New England’s unsigned and unsung bands, if they are willing to drive. The drinks are stiff, the sound guy cares, and it’s cozy as all get out. Three Sheets is another cozy abode for local musicians. It used to be an old Yalie joint called “Rudy’s,” which inexplicably moved a few blocks down. But the wood paneling and tables bear years of names, hearts, and epithets carved with dining utensils. Three Sheets is now a “gastrodive” with a better-than-necessary food menu, a solid beer selection, a pool table in the back, and a small stage which hosts live music and occasionally, “puppet slams” with local puppeteers (seriously).
College Street Music Hall is a recently renovated and reopened theater from 1926. It’s a beautiful place, with a modern floor set up that allows for chairs or standing room. I recently saw the Jesus and Mary Chain here and I highly recommend seeing a show here if you can.
Not exactly in New Haven, but within a 25 minute drive, are two great music venues I can’t help but mention. In Hamden, a largely residential suburban town, is an old office compound that has been converted into a group of music venues – The Space, Outer Space, and Spaceland Ballroom. The Space is an all ages venue with open mic nights, video game marathons, and even some all ages friendly national acts. Outer Space and Spaceland Ballroom are 21 and up and have hosted Andrew WK, Sebedoh, and The Melvins. They have their own parking lot, a fabulous beer selection, and really good sound guys. Cherry Street Station in Wallingford is the hub of the Connecticut metal scene. It’s a weird venue. Like a stage and a bar landed in your neighbor’s house one day. Everyone at this place genuinely cares about music and the local bands that play there. Friendly, grungy (but with clean bathrooms), and a good beer selection – bands play here virtually every night of the week.
There are quite a few excellent bands here in Connecticut.
Here’s links to a few bands worth going to see if you’re in the area:
Sludgy doom metal – Mind Over Master
Stoner two piece with a female drummer – Bedroom Rehab Corporation (*editors revision, they are from New London CT)
Holy crap, why aren’t these guys huge? fuzz rock – Lord Fowl
Shameless plug for my husband. Southern/desert/psych rock – Pinto Graham
Mamas to Know
Reach a hand out and grab a person at any metal show in Connecticut and chances are, they’ll have at least one tattoo by this gifted mama, Sarah “Sugarbean” Lindsey. She works out of West Haven Tattoo, less than ten minutes from downtown New Haven.
Sarah is a mom of three girls, a fixture in the punk and metal scenes here in New Haven, and probably the best kept secret in a state with almost as many tattoo shops as pizza joints.
Sarah’s sister, fellow mom and force of nature, Brenda St. Amant is the front woman of Continuum – a local metal band that has opened for national acts like Overkill, Dillinger Escape Plan, and Shadows Fall. Even if progressive metal is not your thing, it’s hard not to be impressed by Brenda’s siren meets banshee vocals.
Dot Mitzvah is a doyenne of the very active New Haven burlesque scene and mom to one “Tot Mitzvah.” Dot’s specialty is a performance style she refers to as “Operalesque,” which fuses the more traditional mix of cheesecake and vaudevillian comedy with her serious opera singing chops.
You made it all this way. How can you not see Mystic? About an hour Northeast of New Haven off of I-95, the Mystic Seaport is just wonderful. It has boat building classes and lectures. Exhibits in the past have included, the connection between sailors and tattoos and it hosts a sea shanty festival, as well as haunted lantern tours in October.
Mystic Pizza? Aw hell no. I just gave you three of the best pizza places in the country. Do not eat here unless you like mediocre pizza and Julia Roberts with big hair. I love Lily Taylor, but still, eat at Abbott’s instead. They are a real deal New England lobster shack with picnic tables on the water. Although you should note, it closes intermittently from Oct 13 through May 6.
Downtown Mystic is adorable and quaint. Get some ice cream and stroll around the waterfront.
Driving: I-95 North in Connecticut, from exits 47-49.
By Train: From NYC, take the Metro North New Haven line train to New Haven/ Union Station.
Amtrak also stops at Union Station on its Washington, D.C to Boston route.
Cabs are available out in front of the station to take you into downtown.
By Air: Tweed International Airport via US Air, or an hour drive south of Bradley International Airport in Hartford, CT.
By Bus : Greyhound, Peter Pan, and Megabus all stop at Union Station.
The Study at Yale, $$$ www.studyatyale.com
The Omni Hotel, $$$ http://www.omnihotels.com/hotels/new-haven-yale
New Haven Hotel, $$ http://www.newhavenhotel.com
Airbnb accommodations are available. Feel free to reach out to me to check neighborhoods out before you book, as there are some rough areas in town.
Midpriced chain hotels tend to be in semi-dicey areas, so be aware when you book.
Another option is to stay about an hour away at Mystic, where the chain hotels are nicer and just a day trip from New Haven.
JD is a wife of a musician , a mother of an adult, a recent empty nester, a picker, a grinner, a lover, and a sinner. Travel has become the passion and priority in her and her husband’s lives. You can follow their exploits at IG @ososdeaventura.