T here’s something peculiarly relaxing about the sights and sounds of the water, boats bobbing in gentle waves, and that’s what you get on the deck of the Boat House Café, an unassuming eatery situated at the Quinnipiac River Marina in Fair Haven.
Owner Lisa Fitch, who owns the surrounding marina as well, opened the café for business in December 2012 after taking over from the building’s former occupant, Jenelle’s Waterfront Café. “I wanted to open it for my clientele and for the neighborhood,” she says. By clients, she means boaters who dock in her marina; by neighborhood, she means the many nearby residents who haven’t had many dining spots to call their own.
To that end, the café serves hearty breakfasts and lunches every day, and dinners three times a week. Fitch wants her customers, whether they’re “boat people” or not, to enjoy the homemade clam chowder or the pulled pork sandwich waterside, perhaps served with a cold beer or chilled glass of white wine.
Inside the modestly sized dining room or outside on the deck, nautical and local trappings are inescapable. The interior is decorated with old pictures of the neighborhood and a huge ship’s steering wheel. The deck, of course, features actual local scenery, and those boats. It’s also right next to a rather imposing light-blue rig for lifting boats into and out of the water, which requires a little getting used to if you aren’t one of those aforementioned boat people.
In the restaurant, Fitch keeps a copy of the limited-edition book Fair Haven, A Journey Through Time by Doris B. Townshend, published in 1976, so curious diners can get a quick history lesson about the neighborhood over beer-battered onion rings.
Bordering the Mill and Quinnipiac Rivers along the eastern part of New Haven, Fair Haven is best known for its rich maritime past. Very active in the 1800s, the riverbeds were a plentiful source of oysters and, hence, popular stomping grounds for commercial oystermen. By the latter half of the 19th century, though, business had become its own worst enemy; pollution and overharvesting put an end to the industry there. Although the state took measures to clean up waterways and some oystermen work there today, the neighborhood has never reclaimed its former prosperity.
Meanwhile, there isn’t much commercial property along the river. While Grand Avenue hosts a good amount of businesses in central Fair Haven, the Boat House Café is a bit of a rarity on Front Street, where waterfront space mostly mostly either residential or unoccupied.
Yet the riverfront is full of potential. The vista along the waterway, featuring boats and waterfowl and architecture across the water, is, in my opinion, one of New Haven’s best. Less than a half-mile downriver from the café is the extremely beautiful and underused Quinnipiac River Park, featuring a long grassy esplanade with a bench-dotted walkway at river’s edge.
Those are two reasons to explore the area around the Boat House Café, and there’s probably no better time to do so than after an early-morning, homestyle breakfast. Maybe you’ll get the Boat House’s Homemade Grilled Corn Beef Hash, $7.95, or a made-to-order omelet for just $4.50. Low prices are standard and a frequent diner made sure to tell me during my visit that the breakfasts are completely homemade and especially delicious. (Clearly, this is the sociable kind of place where people feel pretty comfortable talking to strangers.)
Lunch options include basics—Hummel Hot Dogs, Grilled Cheeses and burgers (veggie and beef)—as well as items that reach a little higher, like the slow-cooked BBQ Pork sandwich, also $7.95, served with French fries or potato salad.
Dinner, served Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, includes additional sandwich options as well as substantial entrees, like the Grilled Cod, which is served on a bed of sautéed spinach with “savory rice” for $12.95, and the Seafood Platter, a gut-busting combo of “fried clam strips, shrimp, fish fillet, onion rings and french fries, served with cheddar garlic biscuit” and cole slaw for $19.95. Homemade desserts—Fresh Strawberry Shortcake and Pistachio Pudding, when I was there—are listed on a board above the checkout.
Beer and wine prices can’t be beat, either. House wine goes for $3.50 a glass with the most “expensive” vintage costing a mere $5 (bottles are available too). Bottled beers and Mike’s Hard Lemonade range from $3.50 to $4.50.
As for the feeling you get while spending quality time with friendly people watching the boats bob up and down? That’s complementary.
Boat House Café at the Quinnipiac River Marina
307 Front Street, New Haven (map)
Mon-Wed & Sunday 7am to 3pm, Thurs-Sat 7am to 9pm
Written and photographed by Cara McDonough.