Everyone loves to argue about where to get the best burger or snag the best slice in New Haven, so I’m not going to waste your time. Here are 5 “Best of” selections that you might not have thought of but are well worth your attention and attendance.
Best Restaurant (When Rick Levin’s Paying): Ibiza (39 High St.)
One of the best restaurants I’ve had the privilege of dining in, Ibiza is absolutely world-class. Yours truly is far from the first to sing the praises of this High Street hotshot, and in addition to extensive praise from local papers, Ibiza has been lauded by Mark Bittman in the Connecticut section of The New York Times. Ibiza serves a wide variety of Spanish dishes that blend the traditional with the cutting-edge. Head Chef Luis Bollo has been compared to the eccentric and innovative Spanish chef Ferran Adria, and you’re as likely to encounter saffron-infused abalone foam as you are paella. While out of the price range of your average Yalie, Ibiza is also far better than your average New Haven restaurant. If you get a chance to eat here, take it.
Best-Kept Secret: China Great Wall (67 Whitney Ave.)
Hidden in the back of the Hong Kong Grocery on Whitney Ave., past the myriad dried fish products and just to the right of the noisome fresh fish products, you’ll find a restaurant no bigger than a dorm room that serves up top-notch Chinese cuisine at bargain-basement prices. Everything here is great except spoken English, so your best bet is the buffet bar built into the counter. Point at what you want, and the friendly staff will heap it into a rice-padded styrofoam container. The large size costs $5 and contains enough food to supply the Boxer Rebellion, so there’s plenty to share. You can get four or five different dishes in one box, so you should definitely be adventurous and try some of the more authentic, non-General-Tso’s dishes.
Another great option is the steamed buns — a Dim Sum staple — available right by the door to the restaurant. Available in pork, red bean and plain varieties, the buns are chewy and delicious, and at $2.50 for a bag of seven, they’re an even better bargain than the buffet. China Great Wall is a safe bet for lunch or dinner, whether you’re a Sinophile or just a cheapskate.
Best Bar: Sullivan’s (1166 Chapel St.)
I’ll never hear the end of this choice … or at least I wouldn’t if anyone actually took me seriously. Everyone has his favorite watering hole, and nearly every saloon in town has some great aspect to recommend it: Rudy’s has frites; Anna Liffey’s has that great Irish pub feel; TK’s has wings; Richter’s has beers served in glasses that look like 19th-century science equipment. They’re all good places, and each has a legion of screaming lunatics to claim their beloved beer garden as No. 1.
I enjoy all of these places and their respective assets, but in my humble opinion, these things just distract from what a bar is meant to be: A place to drink and socialize. Many bars (in New Haven and elsewhere) involve more elbow jostling and deafening noise than beer drinking and conversation. Even when it is crowded, Sullivan’s feels spacious, and the noise level always hits a sweet spot somewhere between awkward silence and permanent hearing damage. There are several good beers on tap, and the food is surprisingly tasty. With a laminated leprechaun stuck to the mirror behind the bar, Sullivan’s doesn’t exactly scream authenticity, but for a nice place to share a brew — and conversation — with friends, it’s tough to beat.
Best Car-ride Away: Katz’s Deli (1658 Litchfield Tpke)
No, not that Katz’s Deli, the Katz’s Deli 15 minutes down Whalley Avenue. Beyond sharing a name with the Houston Street landmark, Katz’s shares something else with its more famous New York counterpart: first-class deli food. Whether it’s pastrami on rye or bagel and lox, Katz’s serves up mouth-watering deli classics that will make you a regular. With prices for a la carte sandwiches clocking in around $8, you’re not likely to make it out of Katz’s for super cheap, but the food’s worth it.
Best Overlooked Eats: Gastronomique (25 High St.)
Maybe I just travel in the wrong circles, but Gastronomique doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves. Wedged into a claustrophobic box of a space on High Street, Gastro serves up extraordinary French cuisine at reasonable prices. There are daily specials and the menu changes seasonally, so you’ll never get bored here.
The daily risotto is hit or miss, but every other item I’ve had from Gastro has been delicious. There’s also a juice bar that produces some decent smoothies, but the best weapon in Chef Marc Woll’s arsenal is butter, not beet juice. The fare here isn’t light, but it isn’t greasy either. Anything on the menu is worth a try, but if you’re a burger fanatic, go for the Crispy Burger — a rich and hearty creation topped with caramelized onions that gives Louis a run for his money.