I t’s tempting to start with the fried clams at Lenny’s—crisp, buttery exterior housing the freshly caught bivalves within; crunchy, salty and slightly sweet, too.
Or with a cold Narragansett beer on a warm day, condensation on the outside of the pint glass, and that first, hoppy sip.
But we’ll get to the menu, including Lenny’s famous seafood, soon enough. The scenery is really the first course at this classic shoreline eatery.
Nestled snugly against Branford’s Sybil Creek tidal marsh, Lenny’s is awash in the sights and sounds of the Connecticut shoreline. Its deck looks out on sea grass waving in the lazy breeze. Gulls cry above. Just 15 minutes out of the center of New Haven, Lenny’s feels far away.
Inside, there’s a pub area, with a long, dark wooden bar facing shelves of liquor bottles and beer taps, many of which are dedicated to Northeast brews. There are televisions there for the sports-minded, but not in the dining area on the other side of the restaurant.
“This room, I save for families and conversation,” says Owner/Operator Chris Conlin of the dining room, noting the lack of media and other distractions. “Conversation” means couples and groups of friends bantering amidst favorite menu items, like the fresh-caught Steamers served in broth with butter, Baked Stuffed Scrod or Roast Beef on Rye.
Some of those patrons have been frequenting the family-owned establishment for years. Chris’s parents, Leonard (Lenny) and Teresa Conlin, purchased what was then known as the Indian Head Inn in 1968. That’s when it became Lenny’s Indian Head Inn.
To this day, it’s still got the foundational convivial atmosphere one might expect from a place that isn’t an inn yet calls itself one. Dotted with charming worn wooden furniture and natural light, it’s easy to feel right at home there. And while you can’t spend the night (or, at least, you shouldn’t), it’s not uncommon to stay awhile after finishing a meal.
That’s even more tempting now. Late spring and summer crowds are likely to flock to the deck for seats at umbrella-covered tables (as did the exuberant group pictured above) or to the bar, fashioned out of a salvaged racing boat. Live music keeps things lively from Wednesday to the weekend. Lenny’s also frequently hosts community fundraisers, like its 22nd annual “Tip-A-Cop” event on June 3, during which police officers will wait on diners and donate their tips to the Connecticut Special Olympics.
Beyond rejoicing in the end of a particularly long winter, this may be a particularly celebratory season for Lenny’s after struggling with, and recovering from, damages sustained after October’s Hurricane Sandy. “It was tough,” says Conlin. “It’s been draining emotionally and financially.”
Now that they’ve picked up the pieces (mostly, anyway; when I visited, Conlin was fixing an AC unit that was submerged during the storm), there are plenty of very tasty reasons to set your sails toward Lenny’s.
The regular menu is typical for your New England seafood restaurant, the kind that’s more clam shack than highbrow. It’s heavy on the fried seafood with plenty of broiled options and a full selection of sandwiches, steaks and a children’s menu.
For me, the fried fare is the high point. The dishes aren’t cheap when compared to typical seafood shacks—the Fried Shrimp and Fried Oysters both go for $18.50, while the larger Fried Seafood Platter, which includes shrimp, scallops, fish and clams, is $22.95—but the portions are enormous (you’ll have some to take home). Delicious, too.
Conlin says the freshness of their seafood is the reason why; Lenny’s receives regular deliveries from local fishermen, including Conlin’s son Blake. Extending the freshness theme, they make their own French fries, coleslaw and more from scratch. A tour of their cooler reveals the cabbage heads ready for shredding.
Conlin explains two other reasons their fried foods are superior: they don’t use cornmeal in the batter, and they do use high-end frying oil. I ask him if the specific recipe is a secret. “Yeah, kinda,” he tells me.
So you’ll have to try it onsite. While you’re there, order a cup of the Lenny’s Original Clam Chowder to start. With natural broth instead of cream-based, it’s lighter than its ubiquitous New England clam chowder cousin, highlighting the taste of fresh clams. Visit on a Tuesday for the lobster dinner for two, a bargain at $29.95.
The food and atmosphere has gotten Lenny’s a lot of attention over the years, including from the New York Times and USA Today, as well as a yearly Zagat inclusion. But the diners and drinkers here don’t seem to take note. They’re too busy choosing between the swordfish and the stuffed sole, sipping a glass of wine or a cold beer, content to sit and relax for an hour or two or three.
Lenny’s Indian Head Inn
205 S. Montowese Street, Branford (map)
11:30am to “close,” daily
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.