Saturday, April 19, 2008

Stonington Borough

New England in spring and summer is unbelievable. I really love visiting here. Prior to a few years ago, I was unfamiliar with the area. It was simply a place I wanted to go someday. You know, as a southerner, New England is known for its fall leaves and lobster but it just lacks any reputation for personality, right? Boy was I about to be pleasantly surprised. Sometimes its good to be wrong.

It all began with a job interview in a small town outside of Providence, RI about 5 years ago. One thing led to another and I accepted a position that required extensive travel, including about 6 or 7 visits a year to the home office in a town on the Connecticut/Rhode Island border.

That first year was an eye opener. I was hired in November. Now- I live and have spent most of my life in Florida. For those of you who live in Curacao, you might not see any significance in the November thing, but I was in for a shocker. It’s cold. Damned cold. Polar ice cap cold. If you think that’s an exaggeration, and perhaps it is, that’s what it felt like to me. And the whole “driving in the snow” deal is insane. A local colleague warned me one night after leaving a restaurant to be careful driving because, “You’re not used to driving in this mess.” I made it back to the hotel just fine but she skidded on the road and turned her car on its side. She’s fine. My driving skills have since been honed and my sweater and long coat wardrobe have expanded.

Then on a spring visit, I was quite surprised to see that it was still cold. Well, cold to me. It’s not uncommon to have temperatures in the 30’s in April. Did I mention I was from Florida? But I noticed something else. There were plenty of days that crept up into the 60’s. And with sun shining, the previously day-light deprived New Englanders began coming out to soak in the weather. From the first glimpse of greenery through the end of summer, these days are coveted. And after my first impression being winter, it’s easy to understand why these folks don’t take these lovely days for granted. They are as savored as a cinnamon spiced cider by a huge fireplace on a cold winter’s day. Intoxicating is the scent of the wildflowers and endearing are my images of people enjoying a relaxing day at the lake.

And on the corridor of sea side communities between New York and Boston (to include Long Island towns), there’s a certain magical feeling here in the summer; a shedding of the doldrums from the cold. Since my experiences here are limited to a handful of small towns, I can only comment on them. But I picture these places as a quintessential sampling of all of New England and I have grown quite fond of them.
So off the beaten path of Route 1 about an hour south of Providence, RI is one such little town. It’s a jetty really; a tuft of terra firma on the coast with a unique artisan community perched atop. You could casually walk from one end to the other in less than an hour I suppose. Along Water Street, the main drag in town, there are several little shops and restaurants that draw the upper scale sea side residents out. And of course, the curious visitors from other areas (such as myself) marvel at the eclectic hand made offerings in the shop window. This is the community of Stonington Borough. I don’t know its history or even one of its residents but I do know where it sits in my mind.

Stonington Borough

A couple of nights ago, I was lucky enough to drop into this great town for a meal at one of my select restaurants in the area. I suggested to a few colleagues we head to a place I’m quite familiar with called Water Street Café. The contemporary New England style menu changes daily. They used to hand write it and pass it around the table but today, its printed on a simple piece of copy paper and everyone gets their own. There are some staples that are usually on the menu such as the Duck and Scallops or the Hangar Steak with Gorgonzola but it looks to me like there are always some new adventures.

The décor is difficult to describe. While the lighting is a bit dark, the colors are vibrant. You can’t help but get drawn in. It’s not a large space either so it’s always pretty busy. The bar is a fantastic place to eat when dining alone. The locals are friendly and always willing to chat. While I’m a t-shirt and jeans kinda guy, there are plenty of cardigans and sport coats. Both seem equally welcome.

Water Street Cafe

Grilled Hangar Steak

My favorite thing about New England is that as fantastic as I think Stonington Borough is, you don’t have to go there to experience its ambiance. While Water Street Café has its own personality, to be sure, there are plenty of places from Connecticut to Maine that have a similar air. So if the opportunity ever presents itself, put on a pair of clam diggers and get your feet sandy. Look for the shack with a lobster roll that is served on a plain hot dog bun (unpretentious lobster is still lobster). Get up early enough at least one day to sip a coffee while the sun rises and sea breeze rustles your hair. You will be better for it, I promise.

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