Here, in alphabetical order, we sing the praises of our Best Restaurants 2021 Experts’ Picks in the category of Overall Excellence. These are the 15 Connecticut restaurants that we believe represent the very best of the best dining in the state.
See the entire list of Best Restaurants 2021 Readers’ Choice winners and Experts’ Picks here.
Arethusa al tavolo, Bantam
Fresh, local and seasonal are all terms that get thrown around a lot in the restaurant industry. None of those descriptors is an exaggeration for Arethusa al tavolo, whose dairy farm and garden are both less than 10 minutes up the street. At this fine-dining gem, expect a showcase of butter, milk, cheese and seasonal produce all farmed and crafted by Arethusa. Everything else, including beef, lamb, chicken and more, is obtained from nearby purveyors who practice the same sustainable ethics. Dishes here switch up often, so think light and bright in warmer months, and comforting when the weather cools. A recent autumn visit involved hot honey-glazed Peking duck with five-spice spaetzle and a new-age take on a classic steakhouse combo: fork-tender, garlic-crusted strip loin with a spinach tart and a trio of blue cheese croquettes. Arrive early to visit their coffee shop, Arethusa a mano, across the street or their scoop shop for a homemade waffle cone — because dessert before dinner is allowed — located right next door to the restaurant. Either way, arrive at least once. Arethusa al tavolo is a food lovers’ destination. — AD
The Cottage, Westport
A lot has happened for Brian Lewis since he opened his Westport flagship, The Cottage, back in 2015. The Cottage has been the recipient of an “Excellent” review from The New York Times, it helped earn him a place in the James Beard semifinals for Best Chef: Connecticut, and he has even slayed Bobby Flay with a pasta dish on national television. Though Lewis has expanded his culinary reach with two Japanese-inspired OKO locations in Westport and Rye, New York, it’s The Cottage that was his launchpad to all the accolades. It’s also his playground where he marries American, Italian, French and Asian flavors with a fresh, local, constantly evolving menu. While you might not know what you’re getting into on a given night, there are Day 1 dishes that a newbie should not miss. Melt-in-your-mouth tender wagyu brisket steam buns with crunchy, funky kimchi napa cabbage is a perfect Asian-American mashup to kick off your meal. Diners should expect to encounter Lewis’ creative Japanese small plates like spicy scallop nigiri or what’s usually a picturesque sashimi dish, because The Cottage, after all, is where OKO was born. More substantial offerings range from housemade pastas to dry-aged steak and the crowd-favorite confit duck fried rice with a half-dozen sunny-side-up quail eggs on top. And don’t miss their guilty-pleasure warm peanut butter and hot fudge ice cream sundae at the end of your night. — AD
Elizabeth’s Farmhouse, Putnam
Eclectic is the word to describe the eatery Heidi Hoenig Bouchard opened three years ago in a building set among old mills and warehouses in Putnam, capital of Connecticut’s Quiet Corner. Bouchard grew up working at her father’s business, the Raceway Restaurant in Thompson, then launched a career as a decorator and designer, and she brings both skillsets to bear in a stylish restaurant named for her grandmother. Elizabeth’s Farmhouse exudes DIY flair. Bouchard and a cousin spent a year renovating the place, and deployed found objects — old tractor seats, lengths of barbed wire spray-painted gold and wrapped around lamp shades — to create a distinctive mojo. The tavern-like interior is intimate, with just 13 candlelit tables; ladderback chairs, stone flooring and black-painted barnwood are offset by such novel decor as a bronze pig wearing a pearl necklace.
The menu offers American food — that is to say, every kind of food, from everywhere. Kung pao Brussels sprouts, Kentucky pimento cheese spread, pizza margherita, German onion soup, Rhode Island stuffies (quahogs with chorizo, peppers, onion, cheese and bacon), and an array of pasta-chophouse-seafood entrées fill out a menu graced with touches of wit (the mashed potatoes served with meatloaf, for instance, promise “death by butter”). In-house desserts and baked goods include delectables, such as a pineapple carrot bread, that regulars rave about.
Not a trained chef, Bouchard owns hundreds of cookbooks — “I live for food,” she says, “and I’m passionate about feeding people.” She also has a great eye, a sense for beauty and whimsy that lends the Farmhouse its industrial-rustic chic, and makes this stylish, cozy, surprising restaurant a destination. — RRC
Grano Arso, Chester
The 2018 Newcomer of the Year, and 2019 Connecticut Restaurant Association Restaurant of the Year lands another win with our experts. Grano Arso has survived and thrived to offer some of the most creative, delicious Italian food in a state which features stiff competition in the category. The former turn-of-the-century bank building provides an attractive setting throughout, with a special private dining room made from the vault, recently used to feature a cocktail made in partnership with Highclere Castle Gin of Essex and the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon. A recent trip had us snacking on farinata (like a chickpea cross between pizza and crêpe) from an iron skillet, topped with grilled eggplant, garlic, tahini and balsamic vinegar, before moving on to their signature nutty, toasty orecchietta. It’s not all bread and pasta, as chef Joel Gargano makes full use of seasonal produce from the local farmers market, which convenes a stone’s throw from the restaurant, and Wellstone Farm in Higganum. From drinks to small plates to pastas made from the burnt grain which gives Grano Arso its name, we’re thrilled. — JG
House of Naan, New Haven
Chef Harinder Singh began with tried-and-true Indian favorites at his family’s restaurant, Sitar, in New Haven, but has since made a departure from both at House of Naan. The House opened in late 2016 with a few nods to the old ways — importing spices whole from India, then crushing, roasting and preparing them in-house — then uses the ingredients for craveable tikka fries, naanaco tacos, tandoors and chaats with a twist. Speaking of twists, the House cocktail selection, with drinks like the Howe Street Tea (including Bulldog gin with Asian botanicals, Darjeeling tea syrup, and chickpea water) are as flavorful and on-brand as the food. Our writers agree: this modern Indian kitchen is a gem of the Elm City. — JG
Connecticut restaurants look ahead to life after COVID and the changes we can expect.
Kawa Ni, Westport
A perennial favorite on this and many other Connecticut best restaurant lists, chef Bill Taibe’s ode to a Japanese pub is a one-of-a-kind restaurant. The menu is anchored by slow-cooked ramen broths, but that’s just the beginning of the culinary delights here. The pork & garlic ramen is a tonkotsu “pork bone” broth bonanza with noodles and thick slabs of some of the best pork belly I’ve ever had. The ramen is on par with world-famous ramen spots in New York City. Other highlights of the menu include the trout mazeman, a cold noodle dish without parallel in Connecticut and appetizers such as a variety of bao and banh mi. The cocktail program is equally as elite. In pre-COVID times a favorite option was the bartender’s choice, and on one trip it resulted in a banana-infused bourbon cocktail with a slightly sweet flavor that was one of the more interesting cocktails I’ve had in recent years.— EO
Max Downtown, Hartford
Rich Rosenthal is Connecticut’s Danny Meyer, a restaurateur-Midas ruling an empire of trattorias, taverns, luxury burger joints and seafood emporiums. The flagship of his Max Food Group resides in CityPlace I, Hartford’s prime power building and the tallest in the state. Everything about Max Downtown is big, whether the 25-foot ceilings, the front awnings printed with “M” scaled to appear on Google Earth, or the array of Goliath-size steaks.
Extensively renovated three years ago, Max exudes a sleek, masculine vibe, with hardwood tabletops, backlit whisky shelves, and a glassed-in wine room. The kitchen, under the able direction of Chris Sheehan, offers beef for every preference. Chophouse specials might include the classic tournedos Rossini, seared foie gras piggybacked on twin filet mignons in a truffled Madeira reduction. And if a diner can’t decide which sauce to partner with a mammoth cowboy-cut ribeye, the obliging waiter will bring all five, from béarnaise to bacon marmalade. Is it déclassé to turn your dinner into a sloppy dipping session? Perhaps, but this is Max. “Our servers,” says managing partner Steve Abrams, “should make you feel they’re working for you, not us.” Bingo.
While steak reigns supreme, excellent alternatives exist, whether duck or chicken, salmon or scallops. Desserts include such traditional favorites as chocolate soufflé and baked Alaska. Everything about an evening here impresses. “There has always been a larger-than-life aspect to Max,” Abrams says. “Our portions are large, our martinis are large, our snifters. It isn’t cheap to eat here. But the value is high.” A third of a century after its opening, Max remains the standard-setter, reminding you that a well-run restaurant is a thing of beauty. — RRC
Metro Bis, Simsbury
Since 1998, chef Chris Prosperi and his partner, Courtney Febbroriello, have been delighting regulars with bistro food showcasing a broad range of culinary influences and local, seasonal ingredients. Since 2019 the restaurant has occupied the rambling ground floor of a gorgeously renovated 1906 brownstone mansion. One dining room, in a former study, boasts wood paneling, a carved mahogany fireplace mantel, and Art Nouveau light fixtures salvaged from the Paris Métro.
The kitchen turns out fare to match the stylish setting. Starters feature such artful novelties as cauliflower waffles, while entrées favor the hearty: a peppery duck confit, or flat-iron steak paved with a crust of gorgonzola. There’s upscale comfort food, such as jumbo shrimp atop cheddary grits and braised collard greens in a smoked bacon and tomatillo gravy. And then there’s the ultra-opulent Metro Bis meatloaf — ground tenderloin in an intensely flavored wine reduction with wild mushrooms — that Prosperi jokingly calls “the bane of my existence,” since he has to make such colossal amounts. Sometimes the chef’s bane is the customer’s blessing.
Prosperi notes that nowadays he serves the grandchildren of couples present at Metro Bis’ beginning. “We’re a fixture here,” he says. “We’re part of the town, and these customers are part of our family.” This is can’t-miss dining, put forth by a restaurant continuing to operate at the peak of its power. — RRC
If there’s an award for restaurant creativity during COVID, Top Chef alum Tyler Anderson should win. During lockdown he offered family-style takeout specials. After reopening, he scrambled to reorganize his restaurant — located in a historic mill — for alfresco dining, placing tables on the footbridge over the mill pond and at water’s edge, then setting up an outdoor mobile kitchen to service them. In the parking lot, meanwhile, a food truck equipped with a wood-fired smoker began cranking out tacos and ’cue to appreciative, socially distancing crowds. Anderson’s wife is immunocompromised, “and that ups the importance of safety for me,” the chef says. With winter approaching, Millwright’s has installed heated mini-greenhouses to maintain outdoor dining during what Anderson calls “the wild ride of this pandemic.”
All the creative adaptation enables diners to keep enjoying the inventive cooking that has won acclaim for Millwright’s — and no fewer than seven James Beard nominations for its chef. Anderson was trained in classic French technique, but more casual items figure prominently in the Italian-California-Spanish-New England mélange of his cuisine. There is an un-showoffy complexity to his approach. Clam chowder — the dish fans watched Anderson make on Beat Bobby Flay — floats a small egg-and-tapioca custard on the creamy broth, topped with clams and bacon. Fried chicken one night came in the form of a roulade, the chicken pounded thin, rolled up with sausage filling, poached sous-vide, then dredged in buttermilk and fried in duck fat.
Such preparations encapsulate the rewarding back-and-forth between classical and colloquial in Anderson’s cooking. The chef favors what he calls the “grandma techniques” of pickling, preserving, canning and jarring, and everything is done in-house. From opening day, Millwright’s has been serving food prepared with exceptional brio and care. Anderson’s balance of arty and hearty both dazzles and delights; sophisticated enough to impress, it’s simple enough to make you feel at home. — RRC
Oyster Club, Mystic
Oyster Club was named the best restaurant in eastern Connecticut by the Connecticut Restaurant Association, one of America’s top 25 best oyster bars by Travel + Leisure, and for over a decade has been telling the story of Connecticut food to delighted diners. Local fish, shellfish, pasta made on site, and meat from partner craft butchery Grass & Bone make up their full and everyday a la carte menus, with a special four-course tasting menu “Dinner Party” offered four nights per week. A daily happy hour features half-price oysters and drink specials including a solid lineup of some of Connecticut’s best craft beers. We love the intense focus on farm- and sea-to-table ingredients in dishes which can either explore creativity or provide the soothing comfort of familiarity done exceptionally well. After closing over the summer for renovations, Oyster Club reopened in the fall with a spruced-up interior and an enhanced tiered outdoor dining deck, the Treehouse. — JG
See the entire list of Best Restaurants 2021 Readers’ Choice winners and Experts’ Picks here.
Restaurant Bricco, West Hartford
Chef Billy Grant’s Restaurant Bricco is celebrating 25 years this month. It’s a scratch kitchen, and Grant is there every day. The restaurant was born from “Mom’s spaghetti carbonara,” but any of the simple, rustic, time-honored Italian dishes will hit the spot. And they will hit the same spot every single time.
Grant says no less than seven members of the kitchen staff have been with him for over 15 years, and that consistency is one of the keys to Bricco’s success. The menu changes daily but the quality remains the same. Twenty-five years is a lifetime, maybe more, in the restaurant business, and that doesn’t happen by accident.
Bricco’s menu is larger than one might expect from an upscale establishment, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a weakness. The housemade pastas are perfectly done, the wood-fired, brick-oven pizzas are phenomenal and the appetizers and entrées offer something for everyone. — MW
In a humble location in a small dining area next to the now-closed Bethel Cinema, owners Jeff Taibe and Steph Sweeney have created something special. While many restaurants claim a farm-to-table-influenced menu, Taibe and Sweeney co-run nearby Holbrook Farm with other restaurant owners, and you can taste the changing seasons on their menu. This fall, one appetizer featured persimmons fresh from the autumn harvest while locally grown basil powered a pesto gnocchi dish offered briefly this spring. Prior to COVID hitting, my favorites at the restaurant included the fast-food burger (think a Whopper but actually made well), chicken sandwich (the best I’ve had) and Korean fried chicken and slow-cooked ramen. The latter two dishes originated at the restaurant’s pre-COVID, not-to-be-missed Japanese pop-up event, which took place once a month. During the pandemic, the restaurant has not missed a beat and has launched a food truck and unrolled globally inspired specials ranging from tacos to laksa. Recently each Sunday, Taproot has featured a smoked barbecue menu, and Taibe has unveiled an epic 15-course tasting menu. — EO
Tavern on State, New Haven
From the very beginning in June 2019, owners Emily Mingrone and Shane McGowan wanted Tavern on State to be a community-oriented establishment where people could get quality food and drink. Tavern immediately wove itself into the fabric of East Rock without pretense, using simple, straightforward ingredients and methods.
The food and drink menus rotate with the seasons, and now Mingrone has the luxury of full access to a whole animal butchery just a few doors down on Upper State Street. Spawned by the pandemic, Provisions on State was launched this fall to not only serve the neighborhood but to provide Mingrone with even more options to feed her creativity.
Tavern on State was recognized as Newcomer of the Year at the Connecticut Restaurant Association awards in December 2019. And as much as Mingrone and McGowan talk about their local community, a meal at their restaurant is worth the drive from anywhere in Connecticut. — MW
Union League Cafe, New Haven
One of Connecticut’s finest restaurants since opening in 1993, Union League Cafe across from Yale University on Chapel Street is the equivalent of “a man for all seasons.” The French-inspired brasserie with an elegant but welcoming atmosphere is that rarefied establishment that flawlessly delivers fine-dining experiences of several different types to its varied clientele.
Old-world charm, including a hearth fire in chilly weather, renders the main dining room the most formal space, and most suited to a lingering, three-course meal that might feature the signature escargot dish, served with garlic, parsley, tomato concassèe, and croutons, and the Lobster & Jura Wine entrée, a half, butter-poached Maine lobster with butternut squash risotto, Oregon chanterelles, sautéed chestnut, Jura wine and lobster bisque. The wine list is deep and fabulous, and particularly strong in red and white Burgundies.
Meanwhile, the bar in the back offers a more casual space for enjoying Prince Edward Island mussels with a glass of Loire Valley white wine — or a craft beer like Lawson’s Sip of Sunshine. In the summer, guests flock to La Terrasse to dine outside over bottles of chilled rosé, and Sundays bring a different opportunity, brunch with a side of live jazz.
Throughout these “seasons” of dining, chef and founder chef Jean-Pierre Vuillermet and executive chef Guillaume Traversaz use their culinary alchemy to turn the freshest local and organic ingredients into superb dishes inspired by French classical tradition, updated with a more contemporary approach to flavors, textures — and aesthetics. Everything at Union League is tres magnifique. — DC
Winvian Farm, Morris
A bit of a hidden gem in the Litchfield Hills, Winvian Farm might seem inaccessible to the uninitiated. The “farm” in the name can throw you off, and the primary association for many is the fact that there’s a full-size Sikorsky helicopter inside one of the luxury inn’s 18 themed guest cottages. And there’s a gate out front, so you have to be buzzed in.
Gourmets looking for a nonpareil dining experience without the overnight shouldn’t be deterred. Winvian’s “secret,” apart from being home to one of Connecticut’s premier restaurants led by chef Chris Eddy, a wizard with flavors and presentation, is that it’s highly accessible, welcoming, and led by a team dedicated to dispensing enjoyment you can’t find in the same way elsewhere.
So here are a few basics to whet the appetite and spur the process of discovery. It’s called Winvian Farm because there’s a working farm outside the fire-lit, 18th-century dining room that fuels chef Eddy’s seed-to-table operation.
It’s difficult to recommend specific dishes as Eddy’s menus change every day, but as the weather turned colder he was featuring creations like housemade crispy polenta filled with charred greenhouse peppers topped with flake salt, grilled octopus, roasted quail, and veal ravioli. Pasta is made fresh daily, and desserts get creative, like banana & yuzu cremeux with banana crumble.
The wine cellar is world-class, and Winvian also serves lunch.
We saved the scoop for last: This past fall Winvian reimagined the former games room to create Maggie’s Tavern, featuring an expanded bar and beers on tap. The fieldstone floor, leather club chairs, stone fireplace, and beamed ceilings create the perfect rustic ambiance for an approachable, more casual experience. Amid COVID, the space was only available to lodging guests, but look for it to go public as we round the corner. — DC
860-567-9600 • winvian.com • Instagram: @winvianfarm
See the entire list of Best Restaurants 2021 Readers’ Choice winners and Experts’ Picks here.
Joe Amarante, former arts & entertainment editor of Hearst Connecticut Newspapers (Twitter: @Joeammo)
Winter Caplanson, Connecticut Food & Farm magazine (ctfoodandfarm.com, Instagram: @connfoodandfarm)
Douglas P. Clement, freelance writer, former senior and digital editor of Connecticut Magazine (Twitter: @DouglasPClement)
Rand Richards Cooper, longtime restaurant reviewer for Hartford Magazine and The New York Times, whose writing has also appeared in The New Yorker, Harper’s, GQ, Esquire and The Atlantic
Teresa Dufour, host of CT Style on WTNH-News Channel 8 (Instagram and Twitter: @teresadu4)
Lora Karam and Bev Canepari, founders of Unlocking Connecticut (unlockingconnecticut.com, Instagram: @unlockingconnecticut)
Eric D. Lehman, author of History of Connecticut Food and contributor to Edible Nutmeg (ericdlehman.org)
Erik Ofgang, writer at Connecticut Magazine (Twitter and Instagram: @erikofgang)
Chef Plum, host of Seasoned on WNPR and Plumluvfoods LIVE (Instagram: @chef_plum)
Kara Sundlun, co-host of Better Connecticut, and news anchor at WFSB-Channel 3 (Twitter and Instagram: @karasundlun)
Chrissy Tracey, Test Kitchen host at Bon Appétit magazine (Instagram: @eatwithchrissy)
Mike Urban, contributor to Yankee Magazine and author of the forthcoming book Unique Eats and Eateries of Connecticut (Reedy Press) (mikeurban.net)
Mike Wollschlager, writer and editor at Connecticut Magazine (Twitter: @MikeDoubleU_)