A summer tour of Connecticut's roadside burger/hot dog stands
I'd scattered some images and commentary across other threads, but I decided that I was going to a sufficient number of these places to give them their own.
Here's the thing: I didn't grow up with these roadside joints.
I grew up in the middle of the Quad-Cities, one of the larger urban areas in the Midwest. I went to school in one of the cities; my parents worked in two of the cities; we ate in all four of the cities. When I was little, glimpsing the countryside usually meant that we were going to one of three places: the Showcase Cinemas theater in Milan, my aunt and uncle's place in Blue Grass, or, for whatever random reason, Des Moines. These trips were direct, and we did not eat on the way.
That was the '80s, when Interstate highways had already been around for a long time. When my sister and I left for college in the '90s, we attended Iowa State University and the University of Iowa, respectively; for us, roads had become neatly categorized into city streets, I-80, and I-35. That was it. We had no reason to bother with those weird state highways, or, more unsettling still, county roads
. None of our friends lived out there, Showcase Cinemas had opened up a theater in the QC, and some family drama, the exact nature of which I am still blissfully ignorant, led my parents to cease communication with the aforementioned aunt and uncle. If there were, indeed, weather-worn stands serving up classic American greasefare - and one imagines there must have been, in a state that big - I never once had occasion to encounter them. Food meant whatever was near our colleges (and, thankfully, some of those local gems are still around).
I didn't start exploring restaurants until I moved to Kansas City in 2004 with my very own car, and I didn't start seriously
exploring until I moved to Connecticut in 2012. By a happy coincidence, I had discovered the Roadfood website only a year before, thanks to a thread about Italian steak sandwiches in the KC area. I pivoted from that to Connecticut grinders, and branched from that to pizza, Italian, Polish, traditional diner fare, and the other varied eats that this state does so well. (Unfortunately, I don't do seafood.) Having not grown up with roadside burgers, or, really, a burger tradition of any kind, I just didn't have them on my mind to seek out in CT... until I saw Michael Stern's entry for Clamp's
out in New Milford.
What I'm finding, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that these establishments seem local in a way that's closer to the grinder shops I've visited than to Sally's or Louis' Lunch. The latter two are iconic, and if you want them, you drive to New Haven, period. While grinder shops certainly specialize in different things to distinguish themselves as individual destinations, such as roast beef or chicken cutlets, if you want a sandwich (likely huge) prepared with skill and quality ingredients, you're probably all set no matter where you are in Connecticut. Hartford has Franklin, Maple, Corner, and, a little ways south, the Wethersfield Pizza House; Torrington has Carbone's Market; Mystic has Pasta Fresca & Piadina; New Haven has Vito's and many other places. Likewise, every region appears to have its own longstanding roadside joint. New Milford has Clamp's; Colchester has Harry's Place; Higganum has Higgies (the Pilot House in nearby Haddam seems to be closed this season, but hopefully not for good); Naugatuck has Al's. They're not drowning in Yelp reviews, but the ones that are there often talk about how the place was a family tradition when they were growing up. It's hard for me to not feel a little jealous.
There's some overlap with places that are more known for hot dogs, but the format of the restaurant is, I think, the deciding factor: you get your food through a window, and you eat outside, watching the traffic go by. As for the food itself, the cheese on your burger is inevitably white. Grilled onions are mandatory. Fries are probably crinkle-cut. Chili and/or relish are homemade. Hot dogs are Hummel's, Rosol's, Thumann's, or another recognized northeastern brand.
I've discovered all of this in 2017, at the age of 36. To say that I'm late to the party would be an understatement... but I'm not too
late. Many of these places are still around. I try to ignore the threats from time's passage that loom over them all, and I'm grateful to be able to replicate an experience that generations of folks have had since before rock and roll was even a thing.
Here's where I've gone so far this summer. Clamp's
, Rte. 202, New Milford, est. 1939
I know I just separated these places from the likes of Sally's and Louis' Lunch, but Clamp's hours reminded me of them a little bit. They're open at the weird hours that they're open, and you will just deal with it. They don't adapt to you - you adapt to them.
Two big things to recommend here: the onions, which are piled on more generously than at any other place I've tried, and the homemade chili, beefy and balanced.
Prepare for grease. Neither the onion rings nor the fries take any prisoners.
Oh yeah, and not cheap by any means, as I mentioned in another thread, but I'll pay it.Harry's Place
, Rte. 85, Colchester, est. 1920
They're a bit different from Clamp's, in that they've obtained official recognition (they're on the National Register of Historic Places), and they make more of a deal about themselves.
Clamp's wins on onions, but Harry's wins on the beef patties. I'm guessing they're seasoned a little more.
The chili... eh. Not much of it, and what I did taste didn't impress me.
The fries were a good deal less greasy than Clamp's. Whether or not that's a good thing, I leave open to you. The cheese sauce was pretty comparable.Higgies
, Rte. 154, Higganum, est. 1945
A solid burger, although nothing about it really stood out. I'd still gobble down a second without hesitation.Very
good chili. A little more kick to it than Clamp's.
This was the first place I'd seen that offered fried pickles. How could I not?
Again, not cheap. The tables outside were covered in caterpillars, so I ate awkwardly off the hood of my car.
Honestly, I'd say it's worth a stop simply because it's the only place of its kind in the immediate area, at least until Pilot House reopens (assuming it does).Pilot House
, Rte. 154, Haddam, est. 1945
This photo is from Google Maps. I've driven by on three occasions, at different seemingly-optimal times of day, and it's always been empty, with not even a "Closed" sign up. There are no remarks from people on Yelp, Facebook, or anywhere else indicating that it's shut down permanently; in fact, the most recent Yelp review is from this May. So I don't know what the deal is. I'll keep checking online and maybe try once more later in the season.
That one is from Yelp. Apparently they're known for this relish. I sincerely hope I get the chance to try it.
post edited by Ketteract - 2017/07/15 17:49:38