Miracle on Chapel Street

Miracle on Chapel Street

All things, even ancient and enduring ones, eventually perish. Old Heidelberg, the city’s oldest restaurant and bar when it closed in 1991 after an astonishing 234 years, was one more piece of evidence to the point.

Now, somehow, it is not. In August 2019, the subterranean tavern miraculously sprang back to life at 1151 Chapel Street, the very spot where it had expired nearly 30 years before. This was a miracle not because it couldn’t be explained but because the explanation was so unlikely. Large enterprises aren’t known for coming into town and exercising devotion to local history, but that’s exactly what the Graduate hotel chain, which bought the space along with the five floors above it, has done.

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Because of that devotion, the new Old Heidelberg isn’t a rebirth but rather a resurrection—what the original might very well have become had it never died at all. The sign outside, glowing ember-red once more, is original. The wooden bar with its Gothic golden lettering is original. Some of the tables and chairs are original, the former having been etched by eons of New Haveners. A lenticular partition inside the entryway is original, right down to the residue that had built up back when diners and drinkers smoked indoors. Many decor elements that couldn’t be salvaged and reused were carefully recreated based on renovation discoveries and historic photographs. One of those photos reposes against a wall near the bar, quiet proof of the physical accuracy with which Old Heidelberg has been revived.

But this is a resurrection in soul as well as body. In a February 1990 feature in Yale Alumni Magazine, longtime local chronicler Randall Beach observed that “home is a word often used when people try to explain the enduring appeal” of the old Old Heidelberg—a word Dominic Ruggieri, the Graduate New Haven’s general manager, uses as well. He says he wants the new Old Heidelberg to be a “second home” where people “can have free time and hang hat and have a drink and let things go.” Food and beverage manager Darryl Lyte arrives at the same point from a different angle, describing the bar as “a comfortable space for people to come and… create their own space.”

As a patron myself, I know it to be true. You can be a lone ranger sitting at the bar and feel completely at ease. You can just as easily settle with friends and a board game into a cozy, candle-lit booth. You can post up near the indoor cornhole station, a Graduate hallmark according to Ruggieri. The smell of complimentary self-serve popcorn might repeatedly tempt you away from your seat, because it’s really comforting to nibble on something light and savory and crunchy while having a drink. There’s no table service, which puts you in control of when or if you decide to get a second round—or even a first. Lyte notes with a hint of pride that some guests come in and don’t drink at all, a testament to both his and the bar’s inclusive, low-pressure approach. “It’s almost like hanging out in your living room,” Ruggieri adds, “but you’re able to be out and have other social interactions.” The overall feeling is classy but casual, not at all uptight or elitist, which sounds a lot like the original.

There are, of course, differences, even beyond the Graduate’s introduction of board games and cornhole and, also, a retro foosball table. At the time of its demise, the old Old Heidelberg seems to have been a dining establishment first, a drinking one second, but the new menu runs the other way. A tight list of cocktails and beers, including local options from East Rock and Counter Weight as well as $10 pitchers of Miller before 7, far outnumber the food offerings, which spanned pretzels and brats before the pandemic, with the bratwurst now slow to reappear. For cocktails, my go-to is the Boola Boola ($11), which I’m still surprised I like so much. Peach vodka, cognac, lemon juice and peach bitters are finished off with a squirt of grenadine syrup, which settles into a blush at the bottom and makes the drink look literally peachy. It tastes that way too, drinking fast and juicy, the sweetness cut with just a little sour. Lyte says his favorite is the Graduate Old-Fashioned ($11). I ordered one and watched as bartender Jules DePonte pulled out a torch, flaming a nice peel of orange rind before dropping it like a singed pool float into the drink, where it gave off a hiss and a curl of smoke. Ruggieri, for his part, prefers the Ward 1, featuring “Tennessee whiskey, maple sour orange bitters,” which I haven’t gotten to try yet.

It should be noted that Old Heidelberg wasn’t always where it is now. The tavern was established on Temple Street in 1757—preceding Mory’s by a mere 92 years—when the city was still a town, the state was still a colony and neither of them had even begun to think about independence from Great Britain. Along the way, Old Heidelberg moved just twice, to Park Street in 1871 and Chapel Street in 1959, where it continued its well-established habit of hosting boisterous, intergenerational, town-gown crowds who felt free enough to dig their pocket knives into the tables while chatting with total strangers and breaking into song.

Similar scenes may very well play out at Old Heidelberg this weekend, when the big Yale-Harvard football game draws alumni with long memories back to the city and whips them into a frenzy along with students and locals. Tens of thousands will likely watch from the stands of the Yale Bowl before spilling into downtown, although the most interesting way to watch The Game might just be from inside Old Heidelberg. Ruggieri hopes the bar will be able to screen it live on its small vintage cathode-ray television—perched behind the bar just where a similar set held forth some decades ago—using a Chromecast device and some chained adapters to convert a digital signal to analog.

If it works, just call it a minor miracle, to go with the rest.

Old Heidelberg
1151 Chapel St, New Haven (map)
Tues-Wed 4-10pm, Thurs-Sat 4pm-midnight
(475) 207-7070

Written by Dan Mims. Images 1 and 3 photographed by Steve Freihon and provided courtesy of the Graduate New Haven. Image 2, featuring the Graduate Old-Fashioned, photographed by Dan Mims.

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