See, early in my time there, I noticed that I was eating really well, and it wasn't just at the burger counter at the Doodle (may she rest in peace). In the past ten years, College and Chapel streets have proliferated with new restaurants. Now there's seemingly everything—upscale dining that rivals New York in the quality of tapas, Malaysian, and vegetarian food. I mean, the Burrito Cart on Park Street serves up the best burritos I've ever had. (And makes me want to buy a pair of chili pepper pants.)
In fact, by the time I graduated, it was hard to get a table at Bar or Pacifico or to find an empty leather chair at the Owl Shop because people from other towns in Connecticut were flocking to New Haven to eat. When I come back to visit, I find myself on a forced food march, trying to eat as many things as possible before I leave. It's not always possible to get to everything, but if I had an endless stomach or the money to go back for my Ph.D., these are the things I'd eat.
First things first. While Sally's and Pepe's have made New Haven famous, they're not actually on or in close proximity to the Yale Campus. (Close proximity in college means that you can roll out of bed in your sweatpants and get there in 10 minutes or less). I went to Sally's once during freshman orientation and heard of no one going there since.
The place to get awesome pizza that Yalies do frequent is Bar. They make their pies in a brick oven, turning out thin crusts that have just the right amount of salt, chew, and char. The thing to order if you've never been, or if you need to pad a stomach that's been indulging in their delicious signature brews, is the mashed potato pizza. I usually hate starch-on-starch, but the creamy potatoes sit on a bed of thyme, oregano, crushed garlic, and Parmesan, and the end result, especially when paired with bacon, has a shocking amount of salty, creamy, porky flavor. If you want something a little lighter, their plain margarita (which you'll have to order as a red pie with mozzarella and basil) is always a win.
Best Coffee Shop
With its study-friendly vibe and ample seating, Blue State Coffee is the working student's coffee shop. But the coffee is more than decent and the location on Wall Street has a nice view of Silliman College. Atticus Bookstore/Cafe is a nice place to sit down and have a cup after visiting the Yale University Art Gallery across the street. If you happen to stroll by at around midnight, keep your eyes peeled for one of the weirder sites in New Haven: students and/or bums rifling through giant bags of the day's leftover bread.
Full disclosure, I'm not a big burger eater. But all my friends are, and they say that Louis' Lunch is the way to go. I have to believe that half the fun of eating there is the satisfaction of well, eating there.
Louis' Lunch holds notoriously fickle hours, apparently opening and closing whenever it suits the owner's whim. If you actually get inside, you'll see the burgers coming off old-school vertical grill racks and placed between two pieces of white toast. No, you can't have condiments, and the only cheese available is Velveeta. It's a unique, some say rigid, system, but it seems to work. For those who want a more modern burger, hold off a few months. The first New Haven outpost of Shake Shack is under construction.
The thing about late-night food is that after a certain point, you don't care what you're eating. The 2 a.m. line at Yorkside isn't because they have the best pizza, it's because for the people left alone outside Toads, it's the closest possible form of sustenance. Those with a little more willpower might walk to A-1 or G-Heav, and that's fine if you want a super greasy slice, a late-night sandwich, or to play the game where you pretend that the plastic container of salad from the hot food table which you liberally topped with tater tots is more healthy than the first two options.
Personally, I like to hit up Ivy Noodle. The fried pork dumplings are a greasy yet tasty staple, but the Curry Tofu Noodle Soup is God's gift to the drunk, the hungover, and the hungry. Face plant into a giant bowl of steaming pink-orange broth and slurp up the noodles, stopping only to chew on pieces of fried tofu or to squeeze another round of Sriracha over the top, and you'll be feeling better in no time.
Runner up: The Wenzel from Alpha Delta Pizza. Named after a former Yale football player, it's a gloriously messy pile of fried buffalo chicken, hot sauce, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, and tomato between a sub roll. It's everything that you want for late-night: it's spicy, fried, and dripping with hot sauce and gooey melted cheese.
Best Grilled Cheese
It probably surprised no one that the Caseus Grilled Cheese truck was a hit in New Haven. Overworked students like nothing better than hot, gooey sustenance to get them through the day. But these are legit sandwiches, with flavors like Crimini Mushroom and Alter Schweizer Cheese playing to more advanced palates.
At first I was skeptical about finding goat cheese or potato skins in my sushi, and the first time you order at Miya's definitely requires a little faith. But I promise that the results are always interesting and most always delicious. It's a great date place for that reason—forget small talk about the latest lecture in Cold War or how Jonathan Spence reminds you of Sean Connery. Instead, talk about how you never knew that orange marmalade could taste good in nigiri, then order a carafe of "Chinese Firecracker", an aged sake they infuse with locally grown hot chili peppers. (Insiders tip: it makes an awesome in a sake-bomb).
Best Place to Take Your Parents
This one kind of depends on your parents. If they're the type who would enjoy elegant if unadventurous French food in a historic building that holds some good old Ivy League charm, head to Union League Cafe. (If they're really all about the old-school charm and care none about the food, head to Mory's).
If you're looking to show them how international Yale is and how much you're culturally maturing, go to Ibiza, where delicious, authentic Spanish food gets plated with a suitably fancy, refined presentation. If your parents have given up the ghost of your childhood and want to share a cocktail, definitely book a table at Pacifico. The "Nuevo-Latino Seafood cuisine" means super flavorful tapas and pan-Latin mains like grilled skirt steak with chino-latino stir-fried rice with sweet plantains and lobster. Plus, the drinks are killer.
Best Birthday Cake
For all intents and purposes, there is only one birthday cake option in New Haven, and that's the Lithuanian Coffee Cake from Claire's Corner Copia. It's a dense, moist, mildly spiced cake. Try to eat your slice such that every bite involves some of the inner vein of raisins and walnuts coated in brown sugar and coffee grounds. When that's run out, attack the thick, super sweet frosting. If you don't want to go whole hog and buy a cake (though they'll personalize the cakes with a birthday message and what kind of roommate are you), you can get a cupcake version which is just as good.
Best Cheap Eat
Rain, sun, blizzard, more rain: the burrito cart will be there, waiting on the corner of Park and Elm to give you the best hot, made-to-order burrito you've ever eaten in your life. The cart started as an offshoot of the restaurant Roomba, though the cart lost none of its class when the restaurant closed and it reinvented itself as the Tijuana Taco Cart. (Insider tip: no one will know what you're asking for unless you ask for "the burrito cart.") I love the vegetarian burrito ($5), because the grilled portobella mushrooms and onions achieve a smokey flavor perfection that I didn't know vegetables could reach. The carne asada is also killer; super moist and meaty. Make sure to get all the toppings, including avocado, cabbage, and salsas.
Unfortunately for dive bars, the obvious choice, Richter's, is no longer open. If you're on the TD side of campus, Anna Liffey's a pretty good Irish pub and, in my day, Toad's Place took the word "dive" to a whole new level. If you like a stiff drink, a cigar, or to pretend you're living in the 1920s, head to the Owl Shop. They make a mean Manhattan.
What about you, students and alums? Where do you eat around New Haven?