Brian Zhang, Contributing Photographer

Spring afternoons at Claire’s Corner Copia look like hands clasped around cups of hot chocolate as streaks of rain pitter patter against glass windows. In a bubble isolated from the bustling streets outside, the voices of students and locals waft through the air, intermingling with earthy notes of tofu scramble and fresh chai. 

A city favorite since 1975, Claire’s is among the few vegetarian places in the downtown area that offer both kosher and gluten-free options. As the cityscape changes and unfolds — and as people grow up, come and leave over the years — Claire’s baked goods remain a household name through it all, with the restaurant’s signature Lithuanian coffee cake being replicated and shipped all across the country. 

“[We are] an integral part of New Haven,” Erin Guild, one of the current managers at the restaurant, said. “I’ve worked here for almost over 20 years [and] in my time here, I just really enjoy it because it’s a cross section of the university communities, the New Haven community [and] the Jewish community.”

When describing the people and atmosphere at Claire’s, Guild emphasized inclusivity as a core value that can be traced back to when the restaurant was first founded. Claire LaPia, the restaurant’s owner, previously worked as a registered nurse, and it was during her time interacting with patients at hospitals that she gained inspiration to enter the hospitality business. Guild said that LaPia believed that everyone, especially the ill, deserved access to healthy, tasty foods. After LaPia married Frank Criscuolo on Feb. 22, 1975, the two started their business later that year, weaving into their recipes their traditional Italian upbringing and household foods. A contest was then sought to determine the name of the restaurant, with two Yale students eventually winning and walking away with free cake for a year. “And the rest is history,” Guild said.

Beyond being accommodating to various cultures and dietary restrictions, Claire’s also puts sustainability at the forefront of its cuisine. The restaurant strictly follows the guidelines of the Environmental Working Group, trying its best to go organic and source ingredients locally. Since 2006, a number of environmental initiatives have been implemented, including a switch to Energy Star lighting, LED bulbs and compostable containers and utensils. 

At the end of the day, however, the menu is not all that the staffers pride themselves on. 

“[It’s] the people,” said Rose Murphy, who has been working as a counter staff barista at Claire’s for over a year. “Everyone is treated very well here. We have people from all different walks of life, different ages and different skill levels.” She especially enjoys talking with locals, her daily work routine centered around meeting new people and catching up with her regulars. 

There is one particularly touching moment that Murphy will hold close during her time at Claire’s, she said. She and a co-worker had just made a cup of hot hibiscus tea for an elderly cancer patient when he told her that it was the first time he could “taste again” since starting chemotherapy. 

For Yale student Sophie Bhurtel ’25, who went in with the intention of getting coffee but was pleasantly surprised by the variety of sandwich options, it was also these small moments that made her dining experience a positive one. She alluded to the “lively” atmosphere that made her feel at home, to the “kind servers” who complimented her outfit. 

“Our bottom line is people, and when you care about people, you want to feed them real food,” said LaPia, who is now also an author of several books. 

Claire’s Corner Copia is located at 1000 Chapel St., offering a pre-fixed menu of $20.22 for lunch and dinner as a participant in this year’s Restaurant Week.  

Brian Zhang is Arts editor of the Yale Daily News and the third-year class president at Yale. Previously, he covered student life for the University desk. His writing can also be found in Insider Magazine, The Sacramento Bee, BrainPOP, New York Family and uInterview. Follow @briansnotebook on Instagram for more!