Bill Contois and son

Speak Easy

The corner of Nicoll and Eagle Streets in East Rock seems mostly unremarkable, occupied by a tidy, old brick building, the upstairs levels respectfully residential.

But intrigue peeks out streetside, where a small sign in the window, backlit by an impenetrable hazy glow, reads “Contois Tavern.” Until last year, there was no sign at all.

The subdued signage situation might suggest a private club, intimidating and off-limits. Rumors of exclusivity—perhaps you’ve heard Contois is a cop bar, or a fireman bar, or an Irish bar, or an old man bar, or a Yalie bar—are legion, and all of them have merit. This mysterious enclave is presided over by Bill Contois (pictured left, above), the 3rd-generation barkeep/owner with a reputation of his own: as a no-nonsense tough guy who’s both loved and a bit feared.

It’s an old bar, buffing mugs since the Prohibition era, and the house claim is that it was the first speakeasy in town. After repeal, in 1934, Bill’s grandfather, Walter E. Contois, took the reins and the establishment turned legit. A certain old-fashioned bar decorum is still respected at Contois, and regulars know the rules: be silly, but not stupid; be opinionated, but not combative; and be chatty, but not a gossip—at least, not outside these walls.

Drunks and obnoxious behavior aren’t tolerated, but strongly held views are encouraged. Bill says one of the most memorable and vocal altercations occurred between a respected magistrate and a prominent town official debating a Yankees game, but this is no sports bar. The widescreen TV is turned on only occasionally, as Bill maintains his father’s philosophy that a bar should be a social experience, where ideas and opinions are exchanged with minimal distraction from the tube. Dad used to drape the offending box with a bar towel.

Bill’s gruff exterior belies a thoughtful man who sees life behind the bar as being on a “small stage with no makeup.” He has watched youngsters in tow with their parents grow up and return to Contois with photos and stories of kids of their own. He fondly remembers a parade of patrons now long-gone, feeling that their energy still echoes here. Bill feels a deep connection to the neighborhood as well, and has often lent a helping hand to those in need, to “pass it on,” as he says.

In its many decades, the tavern has been a haven for a panoply of colorful characters from weary off-duty cops to strategizing politicians to countless Yalies. Prescott Bush, grandfather to George W., tipped a glass or two here. Former Yale President Bartlett Giamatti, friend to Bill’s father, came in now and then. Mayor Dick Lee, central to New Haven’s “urban renewal” projects in the 50s and 60s, often made Contois his off-the-record sanctuary, a rare place where he could loosen his tie without fear of causing public controversy.

The tavern itself is cozy and softly lit, the bar extending most of the length of the single room. Six tables are available for more intimate gatherings, but sitting at the bar, watching Bill grill up a cheeseburger with caramelized onions while trading barbs with a regular, is probably more interesting. His son, also named Bill (pictured right, above), represents the 4th generation, efficient and charming in manning the counter when his dad takes a break.

The menu is limited—in fact, there is no printed menu—but what’s offered is top-shelf. Besides the generous, juicy burgers, which fans are known to contend are the best in New Haven, the tavern grills up steaks and tender chicken cutlets. A bountiful beef stew is often the headliner, as is a succulent and peppery clam chowder. Contois’s homemade pepperoni soup is quite popular, with one patron volunteering, “You’ll never eat another soup!” All dishes are between $5 and $6, owner Bill says, with meats coming from the Meat House in Branford, part of a high-end chain of butcher/grocer shops that cater to “foodies.” Not all meals are available on a daily basis, and, if it wasn’t already clear, vegans and vegetarians won’t find much to chew on. If asked, however, the bar might come through with a tasty grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, which could satisfy the latter camp.

Contois Tavern is old-school, and not for everyone. The customer isn’t always right. Your patronage might yield deep, enduring friendships or a place on the “permanent scratch list,” banned for life. It’s indelibly quirky and feisty but feels welcoming if you “get it,” and if it gets you.

Got it?

Contois Tavern
152 Nicoll St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Sat 11am-12am, Sun-Mon 11am-7pm
No phone; cash only.

Written by Janelle Finch. Photographed by John M. Columbus.

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