NEW HAVEN -- About 10 years ago, hard on the heels of a sustained economic downturn, New Haven had an image problem. Unemployment was high, and vacant buildings lined downtown streets. Students considering attending one of the country's premier universities balked at the city's homicide statistics. Something had to be done.
"We decided to play to our strengths," says Henry Fernandez, the city's economic development administrator. "We have world-class theater, a world-class art scene, an Ivy League institution." A coalition formed by the town administration, local businesses, and Yale University undertook a dramatic and highly ambitious revitalization effort, including historic renovations, small-business initiatives, and a massive cleanup. "We wanted New Haven to be historic and beautiful, as opposed to just old," Fernandez says.
Today, the Elm City bears little resemblance to the blighted urban casualty it once was. It's now a cultural hub with a thriving nightlife. The residential streets are quiet and peaceful, the town green is well lighted and inviting. But on a recent visit, what I saw above all was a pedestrian-size town with big culinary ambitions. My mission: to find out how big.
My guides to this dining renaissance were Clare Murumba and Robin Goldstein, recent Yale Law School graduates and coauthors of "The Menu: New Haven" (Off the Map Press, $12.95; www.newhavenmenu.com), a comprehensive and, in their phrase, "relentlessly opinionated" guide to the city's restaurants.In a city where the new attitude seems tirelessly upbeat, Goldstein and Murumba don't pull punches. Of a Tex-Mex dive known for hard drinking, they declare, "Perhaps when you're seeing double, everything about El Amigo Felix seems twice as good, or at least half as bad." They aren't shy about describing the clientele at a local pizzeria: "caffeine-wired zombies lugging around organic chemistry textbooks."
I set off to meet them from the centrally located Three Chimneys Inn, whose well-upholstered and carefully-appointed rooms are the very picture of Yale prosperity touched with signs of a rakish humor ("Street girls bringing sailors into hotel must pay for room in advance," reads a deadpan sign by the check-in counter).
Despite their talent for turning out zingers, the pair turned out to be soft-spoken in person. They promised I would see the best of what New Haven's chefs and line cooks had to offer. We would sample the whole spectrum, from burger joints to temples of haute cuisine. And they were true to their word.
We began in the very heart of New Haven: Chapel Street, where bustling small businesses and inviting storefronts jostle one another in the shadow of Yale's Gothic towers. At Ibiza, a shiny renovation of a onetime tapas bar, we sampled the virtuosic fare produced by chef Luis Bollo (clearly influenced by the surrealist cuisine of Barcelona's Ferran Adria, with prices to match). Wood-roasted piquillo peppers, still tasting of the fire, were stuffed with saffron rice; black and pungent baby squid was served in its own ink; lamb and porcini ravioli came with a minuscule but potent drop of black-olive vinaigrette and bacon-sweet potato puree. It was two hours before we realized with remorse and a touch of fear that we had many, many more meals in store.
We moved on, casting a sidelong glance at Louis' Lunch, which claims to have invented the hamburger. Examining ourselves for signs of an appetite and finding few as yet, we walked on.
Perhaps it wasn't the best idea, but I next demanded a grilled doughnut at Yankee Doodle, a primeval New Haven institution where, according to "The Menu: New Haven," "everything is slathered in butter and tossed on the grill." This includes frosted doughnuts. I gazed at mine in disbelief as the owner insisted: "Less fat than a bagel with cream cheese!"
It was time to move on to Caffe Adulis, whose exposed-brick walls, glamorous wait staff, and blend of Mediterranean and African cuisines made olive oil seem sexy again. ("An ideal blend of hip and laid-back," according to "The Menu.") There we sampled date-studded shrimp barka and a not-too-sour injera, the soft sourdough crepe of East Africa. Outside, the lights of the Shubert Theater ("birthplace of the nation's greatest hits") gently illuminated the sidewalk.
After a couple of hours to clear our wine-soaked palates, we addressed the problem of dinner with renewed appetites. My cousins joined the movable feast at Bentara, a phoenix risen from the ashes in the historic Ninth Square District. There, we fell upon dish after dish of coconut curries, sambals, and pristine seafood. We cleaned our plates -- high praise after a day when we had eaten so much.
But the evening was far from over. At Roomba, "the sexiest restaurant in New Haven," we shared a dessert of tres leches: banana ice cream, sponge cake, and a plantain chip, permeated with three milks: evaporated, condensed, and heavy cream. Strangely, we didn't feel outrage at this excess. The mojitos, served in tall sea-green glasses with sugar cane, were so good, there seemed little point in counting how many of these Cuban cocktails we had.
We stumbled into the Anchor, a bar just around the corner on College Street, for last call, and came across a completely different cross section of New Haven: businessmen, students, residents -- all having an uproarious time.
The following morning, feeling none too steady, we met at Scoozzi for a charming Italianate brunch. Live jazz and fresh warm foccacia so revived our palates that within moments we ordered sausage pizzette, smoked duck salad with cherry vinaigrette, and eggs Benedict (generously swaddled in hollandaise) with pancetta.
Later, near the gray portico of the Yale Center for British Art, we passed cultured-looking tourists who would scarcely have dared set foot here a decade ago. Goldstein was suddenly overtaken by an urge for toasted cranberry nut bread from Atticus, a bookshop cafe with an impressive array of fresh breads. Just when we thought we could eat no more, Murumba and Goldstein led me to Wooster Square, the old Neapolitan district. There Frank Pepe's and Sally's Apizza have been duking it out for generations, each claiming to make the best traditional crisp, thin-crusted, wood-fired pizza in town. Goldstein and Murumba anointed Pepe's as "quite simply one of the best pizzas you can get in North America." Standing outside, one could not help but succumb to the warm, enveloping smell of yeast and roasted garlic; we were drawn in as if by sorcery.
From table 26 we could see the vast brick-lined oven and feel its heat. Our clam and bacon pizza arrived still sizzling. A golden haze hovered over pale, rosy ingots of bacon and a whole head of chopped garlic -- softened, caramelized, and tinted with bronze. The clams, still tasting of the sea, met the smoky bacon in a passionate embrace. A lesser soul might have wept. But we'd been hardened by 36 hours of gastronomic bravura. I dabbed at my eyes only briefly as I sped north on Interstate 91, a small leftover-pizza box by my side.
T. Susan Chang is a freelance writer who lives in Western Massachusetts.