L ena’s Cafe and Confections sits right in the center of Westville, where Central Avenue meets Whalley, so it’s a good place for getting together.
Especially on sunny Sundays, Lena’s buzzes with smiling friends and family meeting up, closing out weekends over brunch specials like Strawberry-Lemon Pancakes; Challah French Toast stuffed with sweetened ricotta and smothered in Bananas Foster; or the Seafood Omelet, incorporating lobster, crab, shrimp and crawfish plus a hunk of corn bread on the side. There’s the regular breakfast fare too—staples like Steak and Eggs, Bagel and Lox, omelets of all sorts, corned beef hash and fresh pastries.
Like much of the food, the ambiance is comforting with some edge. Light pours in through tall windows in the front of the cafe, where the prime people-watching seats are situated. It’s pretty easy to while away a few hours there, clutching a hot cup of coffee.
If there’s a lengthy wait (as there often can be on weekends), take a seat on one of the plush couches toward the back. Play Trivial Pursuit. Flip through a magazine. Chat with your pals. You can still have your coffee: the couches sit across from a wooden cart topped with about a half-dozen carafes of different kinds. Just walk right up and serve yourself as much as you’d like.
Variety is regular at Lena’s. Owner Christine Casinghino and chef Steve Swanson change the weekend brunch specials weekly. “When I go out to eat,” she says, “even if it’s a small bistro, I get excited about specials.” Every three or four months, the rest of the menu gets an update.
Due in part to those ever-evolving brunch choices, the cafe has attracted plenty of weekenders, and Casinghino wants to keep them eager and surprised. She says she’ll often see a dessert somewhere and think: “Hm. You could turn this into a pancake.” A week later, something like Peach Pecan Pancakes pop up on the menu, featuring peaches picked by Lena’s staff from Lyman Orchards in Middlefield, CT.
During the week, between 11:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., Lena’s lunch service sends up humongous fresh salads, sandwiches, burgers, wraps and paninis. Casinghino recently designated the Whole G bakery, located in New Haven’s Mill River District, as her main provider of breadstuffs. (The “G” stands for “German,” not “grain,” though the bakery claims its bread recipes contain higher levels of whole grains than the average.)
It was a sensible, thoughtful change. The bread is good, of course. But Casinghino also wants to support growing local businesses, and she hopes to continue finding local vendors.
She owns one, after all. Casinghino purchased the business in 2011, six years after it first opened. “I knew I didn’t want to start fresh,” she said, “especially when the economy was so volatile.” She considered becoming a Dunkin’ Donuts franchisee, then toyed with the idea of running an ice cream shop. Then Lena’s.
Two years in, Casinghino seems pleased with her purchase. She thinks she has a solid relationship and rapport with customers. “It’s good to get to know your neighbors,” she says with a wide smile.
She tells of a regular who almost always orders the same dish. He ran in for lunch one day recently, waving his hands madly and shouting “Wait, wait! Don’t start!” knowing the cooks had probably seen him walk by and were likely in the midst of preparing his meal. Indeed they had begun, but stopped when they heard the shouts. He got to the counter and said breathlessly, “I want something new.” It’s a small, cute moment, one that Casinghino treasures.
Lena’s Cafe and Confections
873 Whalley Ave, New Haven (map)
Mon & Wed-Fri 8am-3pm, Sat-Sun 8:30am-3pm
Written and photographed by Jake Goldman.