O lde School is so well named. Those two little words capture the warmth of a bistro/saloon that, although only two years old, is so comfortably broken-in, it feels as if it’s been on the New Haven map for decades. Beloved by locals and academics alike, and drawing a crowd with an astonishingly broad spectrum of ages and backgrounds, the bar scene at Olde School is lively and full of surprises. Karaoke Tuesdays, for instance, has a loyal following of enthusiastic songsters, many of whom can actually sing. On Wednesdays, it’s Ladies’ Night, featuring tarot readings, massages and manicures; Fridays and Saturdays showcase live bands drawn from the local talent pool; and on Sundays, there’s a newly-introduced Jazz Brunch that seeks to fill a niche that opened up when Scoozzi’s closed.
Every night features drink specials: select dollar beers on Mondays, $5 Stoli drinks and house wine on Tuesdays, $6 martinis on Wednesdays, and so on, all served by a staff that is both friendly and professional, whether you’re downing a $3 Narragansett or sipping an $11 glass of single malt. As good as the drinks are, however, they’re not the main reason that people come early and stay late: that would be the food.
“I always wanted our food to be the sleeper,” says chef/owner Jeffrey Arnold with a smile. Well, the secret is out: Chef Jeff turns out some of the best food in New Haven, without pretense or a hefty price tag. And there’s enough variety on his menus that most everyone can be happily fed, from
Olde School Saloon and Bistro
418 State St, New Haven | 203-772-0544
Mon-Thurs 11:30am-1am | Fri-Sat 11:30am-2am
vegetarians to pizza-eaters and burger-lovers to white tablecloth snobs (like me).
Where else could you sit with your elbows on the bar and share a bubbling ramekin of escargot drenched in garlic herb butter, all the while listening to the legendary George “Guitar” Baker? Or how about that same scene played out with braised rabbit, osso bucco or Alaskan King Crab legs?
Arnold’s creations can also be enjoyed in the dining room (known as “The Bistro”). There, you and your significant other can share a quiet table and avoid the hubbub on the other side of the wall, even if you’re having simpler fare (a corned beef sandwich, the popular O.S. nachos, or a refreshing grilled asparagus salad).
Bargains abound: From now until March 29th, Olde School is offering a $20.12 prix fixe dinner menu with choices of five appetizers (such as pasta fagioli and pane cotto); two salads; and five all-star entrees, including zuppa di clams and braised beef short ribs, Sundays through Wednesdays. What’s more, lunch is on a similar limited-time special for only $8.
If you detect an Italian accent to Olde School’s menu, that’s because Arnold spent
many years heading up the kitchen at the dearly departed 500 Blake Street Café, known as a powerhouse of New Haven-style Italian cookery. But Olde School’s menu speaks many languages, with such surprises as righteous barbecued spare ribs, grilled shrimp with Thai chili mussels, and vegetarian favorites including yucca fries, veggie burgers and a daily veggie soup, as well as meat-free pasta dishes.
With such modern sensibilities in the kitchen, you may wonder: What’s so old about Olde School? For one, the décor. Situated in the James English building, built in 1864, the restaurant has a distinctly vintage feel and is decorated with relics from bygone New Haven (including a few choice items from 500 Blake Street). Downstairs, the Rathskeller Room looks like the bar that your Uncle Buster built in his basement to escape the womenfolk, complete with an eight-track tape player (yes, it works). Just off that space is an even deeper man cave – nick-named the Boom-Boom Room – whose rough-hewn stone walls are part of the building’s foundation. In spite of three cozy Salvation Army sofas, the remote room is a bit chilly and damp, and no wonder: it is directly underneath State Street.
With all the upgrading that’s constantly being done by Arnold and his General Manager, Adam Ganzle, and considering that Olde School is open seven days, it seems nearly impossible that both men also have day jobs. In fact, they both work at ACES – Adam as a behaviorist, Jeff as a Certified Vocational Culinary Instructor – helping better the lives of at-risk kids.
“Being that I was a troubled youth, we get along just fine,” grins the chef. Indeed, Jeff Arnold is determined to give his two “beautiful kids” the life he never had. “I had a humble beginning, so I became a workaholic,” he says. “Luckily my wife is very supportive.” This leads to always tweaking the menu and the entertainment options to see what works. “When it’s your place, you really dig deep and do your best.”
Written by Todd Lyon. Photographed by Hayward Gatling.