Y ou don’t have to go to college to learn about New Haven.
Just go to College Street. Downtown, the thoroughfare runs between the first and second columns of the city’s original nine squares and bridges the gap between major symbols of its dualistic nature: to the west, Yale’s Old Campus, home to a necessarily select crowd of students and academics, and to the east, the treasured New Haven Green, a large commons open to all.
But maybe you’re less interested in examining New Haven’s big picture than you are in finding lunch. On the southwest corner of College and Chapel Streets, a small enclosed INFO New Haven booth is there to supply you with a map of the area and recommendations for food, drink or diversion. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. on Sundays, an attendant was even there during yesterday’s big snowstorm.
Also open seven days a week is the busy, homey restaurant Claire’s Corner Copia, which wraps around the INFO New Haven booth and has egresses on both Chapel and College. Offering a vegetarian, organic, Kosher and multicultural menu—from burgers to curries to burritos to a signature Lithuanian Coffee Cake—it’s been representing New Haven’s progressive bent on College Street for nearly 40 years, joined more recently in that endeavor by College Street Cycles several doors down.
In-between, the oversize-neon-signed Anchor Restaurant, with its trademark vinyl turquoise booths, retro wood-paneled walls and jukebox streaming jazz and Motown, proves there are corners of New Haven where progress isn’t the point. At the bar, Bryan and Charlie, both legends in their own rights, fix drinks and serve whiskey wings or corned beef sandwiches.
Smoke curls up into your nostrils as soon as you open the vintage doors of Anchor’s longtime neighbor, the Owl Shop, a smoke shop opened in 1937 by married Greek immigrants Joseph and Catherine St. John. Exempted on a technicality from Connecticut’s 2004 ban on smoking inside bars, it’s the only one in the state where it’s still legal to smoke indoors. The place sells quality tobacco, often mixed by Joe Lentine, a fixture here since 1964. It stocks cigars from as far away as Greece and Turkey, pipe tobacco from Kentucky and North Carolina, pipes, music boxes, cutlery, backgammon and chess sets, has a specialty coffee bar and sells paninis and biscotti. Since 1998, it’s been owned by a fellow named Glen Greenberg, who’s maintained the distinct character of the place.
Over the years, College Street has also seen plenty of characters—New Haven’s many quirky denizens, yes, but also fictional inhabitants of silver screens and spotlit stages. Long ago, two College Street movie houses entertained the city: the “Loew’s Poli College,” named after owner Sylvester Poli, and the Roger Sherman Theatre, which became the Palace Theater, which in turn became the Palace Performing Arts Center. The Palace’s sign still hangs right across from the alive-and-kicking Shubert Theater, which is now mainly a stop for traveling productions of proven successes, in addition to occasional locally rooted engagements.
Once upon a time, however, the Shubert was a prime testing ground for Broadway-bound stage shows. According to the Shubert’s website, more than 600 pre-Broadway tryouts have graced its stage, along with “over 300 world premieres and 50 American premieres.” Legend has it that dramatic arts titans like Van Johnson, “first lady of the American theater” Helen Hayes, Edward G. Robinson and Alec Guinness would stroll across the street for a cigar at Owl Shop or for a meal at Kaysey’s Restaurant, which served “à la carte” meals at a time when that was still, apparently, a point of distinction worth advertising. Kaysey’s was run by Hyman “Kaysey” Kuritch and his wife Esther, referred to as the “restaurant of the stars.” It was also known for its dessert cart, wheeled to your table to achieve a degree of enticement a mere menu probably couldn’t.
Neighboring the Shubert is a new pre- and post-show dining and drinks favorite: ROÌA, the jaw-droppingly elegant French-Italian fusion restaurant co-owned by Executive Chef Avi Szapiro and wife Meera Laube-Szapiro, situated in the restored and renovated former dining room of the famed Taft Hotel (now the Taft Apartments). Across the street is the colorful, flavorful Oaxaca Kitchen, where owner/chef Prasad Chirnomula branches out (from the Indian cuisine he’s known for at Thali and Thali Too) into Mexican food. Up that side of the street, back toward Owl Shop and Anchor and Claire’s, is the young, chic dining establishment Briq, serving “table plates” like Truffled Almonds and “table-style” options including a DIY Taco Tower, with fillings delivered to you in a stack of individual containers, to be picked and placed into your tortillas as you please. The restaurant itself is multi-level, with a bar and dining/event room downstairs and a good-sized rooftop patio, plus additional indoor seating, upstairs.
Back across the street, helping ROÌA anchor the Taft is the high-end, much-beloved unisex beauty spot Karma Salon. Owner Cheryl McMahon and a team of stylists serve customers looking for haircuts, highlights, perms, keratin treatments, waxing, makeup applications and even home visits for weddings. McMahon mentions that College Street was once covered with cobblestones, long gone but still missed.
College Street: a mixture of New Haven’s old and new, its lost and found, its everyday and its glory days—past, present and still to come.
Written by Bonnie Goldberg. Photographed by Dan Mims.