Culinary Guide to the Connecticut Shoreline
As high temperatures and sticky humidity descend upon the East Coast each summer, residents start looking for places to escape the crowds, the smells, and the sweat. New Yorkers head to the Hamptons, Bostonians flood Cape Cod and Nantucket, and Rhode Islanders turn to Newport — but the popularity of these seaside refuges comes at a cost, literally. The prices in the Hamptons, Cape Cod, and Newport are sky-high during the peak season, and these buzzy hotspots can’t always deliver the soothing outdoor escapes and fresh seafood that made them popular in the first place.
The peaceful, warm-weather getaway still exists in Connecticut, on a 100-mile stretch of shoreline running from Greenwich in the west to Mystic in the east. Compared to other seaside retreats, the crowds are a little thinner, the air a little clearer, and the fresh-caught clams a little, well, fresher. Just an hour or two on MetroNorth from Grand Central Station, or the same by car from Boston or Providence, the Connecticut shore does draw in its fair share of visitors for public beaches, golf courses, vineyards and breweries, and B&Bs. Growing up in the beachfront town of Madison, I’d roll my eyes in typical teenage fashion when the “summer people” would start trickling into town after Memorial Day. But the return of these seasonal invaders also signaled a season of fun, from Good Humor ice cream trucks to roasting clams over beach bonfires — and there were never so many visitors that they killed the humble beach town vibe.
If you want overpriced mimosas, subpar seafood, and stiflingly packed beaches, go to the Hamptons. If you want to chill out with some apizza and a proper, buttery lobster roll, head to Connecticut.
What is Connecticut shoreline cuisine?
The culinary reputation of the Connecticut shoreline hinges on seafood. The Long Island Sound (the estuary that separates southern Connecticut from Long Island’s North Fork) is a prime body of water for clams, served whole, fried, and in rolls at countless local clam shacks, and for lobster, which ends up in the Nutmeg State’s classic lobster roll (though, as climate change makes it increasingly difficult to get a decent lobster crop out of the Sound, many restaurants import their meat from Maine). Unlike its cold, mayo-heavy Maine cousin, the Connecticut lobster roll showcases the natural flavor of lobster meat, which is served hot, nestled in a New England style hot dog bun (sliced on the top, not the side), and drizzled with warm butter.
Aquatic eats aside, no conversation about the coastal Connecticut food scene would be complete without a mention of the area’s most famous dish: New Haven-style apizza. Brought to New Haven by Neapolitan immigrants in the early 20th century, apizza refers to very thin-crusted, slightly asymmetrical pies cooked in blisteringly-hot brick ovens. The crust takes on a charred color and flavor, topped with tomato sauce and a light sprinkling of cheese (unless you request extra “mootz”). Of particular note is the white clam apizza, largely considered New Haven’s signature, which eschews the typical tomato sauce in favor of a sauceless white crust topped with juicy clams, plenty of garlic and olive oil, and a dusting of mozzarella and pecorino Romano.
What to know before you go
Clam shacks: Local clam shacks can be found all over the shoreline region serving whole clams, fried clam strips, and clam rolls. The vibe at these eateries is beach-bum casual; think swim trunks, flip flops, kids with sand buckets, and adults taking advantage of common BYOB policies. Most shacks are located within a mile of public beaches to refuel beachgoers after a long day of swimming and sunbathing. Lenny & Joe’s Fish Tale in Madison is a prime example of the form not far from the state’s largest public beach, Hammonasset Beach State Park. The shack serves some of the 3 million guests who visit the beach every year and pack into outdoor picnic tables to enjoy a menu of locally sourced “greatest hits” like clam strips, seared scallops, and clam chowder.
Food Truck Paradise: A large contingent of food trucks gather across from Long Wharf Pier on a stretch of I-95 in New Haven. The assortment of over two dozen trucks features a diverse range of Latin American foods, including Cubanos, pupusas, and empanadas. But the gathering is most famous for its tacos; some of the best can be found at Ixtapa, El Azteca 2, Tacos La Patrona, and Mexicalli Black Truck.
Fishing: Sailors love the Long Island Sound’s relatively small size, navigable tides, and plentiful ports. For summer fishermen, the Sound offers the chance to catch bluefish, striped bass, and black sea bass, while shellfish diggers can find several species of clams, horseshoe crabs, and scallops. There are many marinas for motorboats and sailboats of all sizes for anyone wanting to spend a summer day on the water, including highly rated options like Cedar Island Marina in Clinton, Mystic River Marina in Mystic, Norwalk Cove Marina in Norwalk, Three Belles Marina in Niantic, and Harbor Point Marinas in Stamford.
Town greens: Many of the towns in shoreline Connecticut feature a village green — a large, centrally located, open green space similar to a park. Town greens appear throughout New England (the Boston Common is arguably the most famous). Southern Connecticut’s greens all make for scenic picnic locales, and they’re great for picturesque walks before sitting down to a meal at a nearby restaurant. Connecticut’s best-known example is the New Haven Green, right next door to the Yale campus and home to popular local restaurants like farm-to-table brasserie Zinc and trendy burger bar Prime 16. However, our vote for best shoreline green goes to the Guilford Green, an expansive and beautifully landscaped town square in the heart of Guilford, where you can find French-inspired patisserie Hen & Heifer, plant-based cafe Three Girls Vegan Downtown, and laidback American restaurant and sandwich spot Chapter One.
Where to eat
Fairfield County: The majority of Connecticut-based commuters into New York live in Fairfield County, so there’s plenty of money to fuel some of Connecticut’s most celebrated eateries. Check out seafood shack and Connecticut lobster roll destination Knot Norm’s in Norwalk, beloved high-end seafood restaurant and raw bar the Whelk in Westport, artisanal bakery (and sourdough specialists) Flour Water Salt Bread in Darien, historic pub Colony Grill in Stamford known for its cracker-crust “bar pizza pies,” and seafood-forward Vietnamese bistro Mama Chow in Fairfield.
New Haven: The historic home of Yale University, New Haven is also one of the shoreline’s biggest urban centers and is the state’s undeniable hotspot for pizza. New Haven apizza fiends focus on the holy trinity of Frank Pepe’s Pizzeria Napoletana, Sally’s Apizza, and Modern Apizza. Frank Pepe’s claim to have invented the white clam apizza, but all three pizzerias do the style well, churning out pies from exemplary brick ovens. Other highlights of the scene include high-end French brasserie (and popular date spot) Union League Cafe, long-standing vegetarian enclave Claire’s Corner Copia, charming bookstore cafe and sandwich shop Atticus, iconic burger spot Louis’ Lunch (which was, according to legend, the first American restaurant to serve a hamburger), and falafel joint Mamoun’s imported from New York.
Branford, Guilford, and Madison: The shoreline towns just east of New Haven have a more relaxed vibe than their western cousins, and they fully embrace the powerful appeal of the casual seafood shack where there’s sand on the floor and customers show up in their swimsuits. Those eager to get their hands on a Connecticut lobster roll will find perfectly warm and buttery versions at the Guilford Lobster Pound. The Place in Guilford is a beloved seasonal destination for seafood lovers, who can sit around on tree stumps enjoying fresh-caught, fire-roasted fish, clams, and lobster. For upscale meals close to the water, try French-inspired bistro and wine bar Bar Bouchée in Madison or classic Italian trattoria LoMonaco’s Ristorante in Branford. Shoreline coffee enthusiasts flock to Willoughby’s, a local roaster with outposts in Madison, Branford, and New Haven. Ashley’s Ice Cream in Guilford has been an area favorite for cold treats for decades, while relatively new operation Tutter’s Treats in Madison channels some of the same old-school energy with their mid-century ice cream truck and menu of soft-serve cones, root beer floats, and malted milkshakes.
Clinton, Old Saybrook, and Essex: These central shoreline towns are perched between the Long Island Sound and the Connecticut River, with plenty of good eating to do in between at rustic fish shacks and lobster roll hotspots. Check out Lobster Landing in Clinton; modern American, seafood-focused dock restaurant Carlson’s Landing in Essex; and French bakery and brunch spot Cocotte as well as New American bar and bistro Rosemary & Sage in Old Saybrook.
Mystic: The easternmost stretch of the Connecticut shoreline, which borders Rhode Island, contains a region well-known for its port-town charm and as Julia Roberts’s fictional home in Mystic Pizza. Yes, Mystic, Connecticut, is a real village within the shoreline town of Stonington, and Mystic Pizza is indeed an operational pizzeria — but don’t let that stop you from checking out the other worthwhile eateries in and around town, like trendy artisanal bakeshop Sift, chic modern American restaurant and oyster bar the Shipwright’s Daughter, and locally adored taco spot and frozen marg destination Taquerio.
Where to drink
The Connecticut Wine Trail: Vintners have been growing grapes in the Nutmeg State for decades, and many populate the Connecticut Wine Trail: 23 wineries with tasting rooms and tours. Some notable stops along the shoreline include Chamard Vineyards in Clinton (a vineyard that grows chardonnay and riesling, and features an on-site bistro serving French-American fare), Stonington Vineyards in Stonington (which makes French-style wines with estate-grown chardonnay and cabernet franc), and Bishop’s Orchards Winery in Guilford (which specializes in fruit wines and ciders made with apples, raspberries, peaches, pears, and blueberries grown on site).
Stratford: Beer enthusiasts in Connecticut agree that the eastern Fairfield County city of Stratford is the place to go for quality local suds. The biggest name is Two Roads Brewing, a craft brewery and tasting room renowned for its flagship IPAs and popular seasonal releases. Athletic Brewing, a newer craft operation making a huge splash in the non-alcoholic beer market, is also based in Stratford.
Branford: Waterfront brewery Stony Creek Brewing has an impeccable reputation among Connecticut beer drinkers, and bar and restaurant owners. The brewery offers a wide array of styles, including hazy IPAs, smooth lagers, tangy sour ales, and rich porters. It makes a pleasant day trip, with abundant outdoor seating and an on-site New Haven-style pizza truck.
Where to stay
Madison Beach Hotel
A beautiful luxury hotel and spa overlooking the Sound, the Madison Beach Hotel in Madison is steps from the beach and a relatively quick one-mile walk to the heart of downtown. Many of the guest rooms include verandas with direct ocean views, and the spa offers hot stone massages, exfoliating scrubs, and mud masks. The hotel is also home to the Wharf, an upscale-casual restaurant serving seasonal and local seafood. Rooms start at $195/night.
Saybrook Point Resort & Marina
Boaters can easily launch into the water from the Saybrook Point Resort’s on-site marina. The oceanfront hotel features standard rooms, suites, and separate guest houses, along with a full-service spa and the Fresh Salt restaurant, which features a raw bar and a Mediterranean-influenced seasonal American menu. Rooms start at $265/night.
Delamar Greenwich Harbor
For a shoreline vacation with French Riviera vibes, consider this luxe, European-style resort directly on the harbor in Greenwich. Boaters appreciate Delamar’s 500 feet of private dock space, while guests who prefer to stay on dry land can enjoy the spa, spacious and dog-friendly rooms, and celebrated Southern French restaurant L’Escale. Rooms start at $329/night.
A landmark hotel in Essex that’s been operating since 1776, the Griswold Inn has become something of a de facto community center for central shoreliners, fondly referred to as “the Gris.” For guests, there are comfortable rooms packed with bits of old-timey flair, but the action is down in the tavern and taproom, where you’ll find pub grub, local beers, and the locals themselves. Rooms start at $220/night.
Taylor Tobin is a freelance food and lifestyle writer (with bylines at HuffPost, Insider, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, and Allrecipes, among others) who currently lives in Austin but grew up in the shoreline town of Madison, Connecticut. She spends at least three months a year with family on the shoreline to visit her favorite clam shacks, apizza places, and breweries on a regular basis.