Let’s begin with Dorothy Staley, the mother of Diana and Paul Staley, who run Branford’s Reverie Kitchen. It’s in homage to her favorite sauce —Bearnaise — that Filet Dorothea, a recent dinner special, is named.
The Bernaise sauce, which tops the All-American grilled Black Angus Filet of Beef, is French.
That might explain how the Branford Hill bistro prevailed as serving both the Best American and Best French cuisine on the Shoreline.
Branford’s Le Petit Cafe and Union League Cafe in New Haven were also winners in the French Cuisine category, with voters naming Red House in Deep River and Guilford’s South Lane Bistro for Best American cuisine.
Another reason for Reverie Kitchen’s rare double win is the sublime talent and creativity of chef Paul Staley, who followed an apprenticeship to Jacques Pepin as a teenager with ever-ascending positions in a series of world-class restaurants.
But back to Dorothy.
“She was our inspiration,” said Diana, recalling her lavish dinner parties at the renowned General’s Residence in Madison, where she and Paul grew up. “She taught us never to settle for anything but the best—the best ingredients, the best recipes, the best everything.”
It’s the younger generation that’s provided inspiration, and support, for owner and head chef Rick McLane. Literally. His daughter Natasha, for whom Nataz was originally named, holds the reins at the restaurant’s new Clinton location — housed in the Clinton National Bank building—which readers named Best New Restaurant in the area.
Madison’s Seahouse and Olmo in New Haven were also winners.
As with its North Branford and Southington locations, the quietly transcendent Nataz features a prix fixe menu that includes inspired creations like a Fred Flinstone-sized double veal chop bedded in risotto, New Zealand rack of lamb bathing in onion juice, and a Panko-encrusted Black Label Chicken.
Note to reader: The restaurant is BYOB.
Family also figures significantly at Luigi’s Restaurant in Old Saybrook, a winner, together with The Bistro in Guilford, and Clinton’s Log Cabin, of Best Italian Restaurant on the Shoreline.
It’s not just the family photos populating the walls and, as owner Len DiBella told the ShoreLine Times, an atmosphere in which it’s common for “people in one booth to talk across to someone in the other booth.”
At Old Saybrook’s longest running restaurant — it was established in 1956 — DiBella maintains the tradition started by his grandfather and grandmother, Luigi and Gioseppina, of offering wholesome, home-cooked dishes like chicken parmigiana, manicotti, and fried calamari from recipes going back generations.
Mr. J Asian Bistro might not have the longevity of Luigi’s, but it’s also a family affair. Mr. J refers to Jiang, who operated a Chinese restaurant in Brooklyn before opening the Village Walk Bistro in 2012. Mr. J cooks both Thai and Chinese. His son, Wayne Jiang works the sushi bar. His wife Lynn, sister Maggie, and mother Chen all pitch in.
With that pan-Asian array of options ranging from spicy Shrimp Pad Thai to General Tso’s Sesame Chicken to a tasty Godzilla roll, topped with fresh avocado, it seems only natural that readers recognized Mr. J, along with Saigon City of Old Saybrook, and Clinton’s Taste of China, as offering the Best Asian Cuisine on the Shoreline.
Then there’s the mother-son team of co-owners Alex Oranzo and his mother Marjorie at Deli Unlimited, which was named Best Deli, along with Mindy’s Deli in Old Saybrook and Simon’s Marketplace in Westbrook. Apparently there’s some magic in the collaboration, with the pocket-sized space, housed within a Guilford gas station, prevailing as Best Deli on the Shoreline, along with Mindy’s in Old Saybrook and Westbrook’s Simon’s Marketplace.
After all, Deli U, as it’s called, has been going strong since 1985. No wonder, with such classics as the hot-pastrami-on-rye New Yorker, as well as the Ol’ Bessie, with its roast beef and cheese piled high on a hard roll, and the Spicy Bird, packed with smoked turkey and garlic dressing.
It’s in part that same encyclopedic menu of mouth-watering options that voters likely took into account when naming Branford’s Parthenon Diner, along with Guilford Diner and Vegetarian Enclave and Brownstone Family Restaurant, a Best Diner on the Shoreline.
Except, unlike Deli U, the Parthenon never closes and doesn’t distinguish between meals. That means it’s possible to order a Philly Cheese Steak at 8 a.m. and a full stack of buttermilk pancakes at 11 p.m., or scrambled eggs and sausage with a screwdriver at 1 p.m. or 1 a.m.
Or, if you’d prefer, a bottomless cup of coffee. The only constant, it seems, is second-generation owner John Sousoulas invariably asking if everything was to your liking.
Juan J. “JJ” Rubio, the new owner of Genaros Pizza & Italian Restaurant in Branford, practices that same kind of hospitality, which he learned from his mother and grandmother while growing up in Ecuador. They also encouraged his early interest in cooking.
In an implicit nod to their influence, voters named Genaros pizza, with its startlingly fresh ingredients, sheer variety of specialties — mashed potato pizza, anyone? — and exquisitely charred crust as Best Pizza on the Shoreline. Deep River Pizza and Centro’s in Guilford were also winners.
While Rubio opened Genaros earlier this year, Lenny and Joe Goldberg have been at it since 1979, with a roadside clam shack and four picnic tables.
Forty years later, Lenny & Joe’s Fish Tale has locations in Westbrook, Madison and New Haven.
That’s due to the relaxing and casual atmosphere, the prompt and cheerful service and, above all, to a host of fresh seafood favorites like its famously creamy and briny Fish Tale Chowder and the generously portioned and buttered hot lobster roll, that make the popular destination eateries feel like summer no matter the season.
It’s also why readers voted Lenny & Joe’s, together with Old Saybrook’s Liv’s Oyster House and Lenny’s Indian Head Inn in Branford, Best Seafood Restaurant on the Shoreline.
Taqueria Cinco food truck in Guilford, which scored a win, along with Tequila’s in Old Saybrook and Branford’s Jalapeno Heaven, in the Best Mexican Cuisine category, also features freshly caught fish. It’s within a taco and that fish taco produces a taste so authentic that, it’s been said, you might as well be in Mexico.
The same goes for all of Beto Carvente and Irma Janani’s tacos — Beto’s brother Nicolas runs the Madison food truck — which they craft with care, layering each ingredient on top of the other until it’s overflowing. Other favorites include the otherworldly chicken mango burrito and Carne Asada tostados.
Autentico. Delicioso. Fanastico.
Those words (in Hindi) likewise apply to the cuisine at Guilford’s Kamana, a Best Indian Restaurant winner, along with Tandoor in Middletown and New Haven’s Sitar.
It’s not just the impossibly tender Tandoori Chicken, the textural miracle of the Lamb Korma, and the vividly spiced Shrimp Chicken Vindaloo, as well as the extensive selection of vegetarian dishes.
It’s also the warm and welcoming staff headed by owner Ram Shrestha, the simple and classical decor, and soothing ambiance.
Speaking of ambiance, is there anywhere on the Shoreline that’s more exquisite than a soft summer evening on the outdoor deck of Bill’s Seafood, listening to the strains of Dixieland jazz or swing, as you sink your teeth into a soft shell crab sandwich, while the waters gently lap under the Singing Bridge?
Readers said no, with the exception of The Place and Ballou’s in Guilford, all of which prevailed as the Best Place to Dine Outside.
For those that don’t identify as carnivores or pescatarians, there’s G-Zen, which readers selected, along with The Wheat Market, Chester and Claire’s Cornucopia in New Haven, as the Best Vegetarian Restaurant in the area.
No wonder, with the serene, relaxed ambiance — Zen-like, as its name would suggest, and the inventive menu of raw foods and cocktail elixirs, from the Thimble Island Vegan Crab Cakes and Downward Dog Burrito with sweet potato fries, to the Bunny Zinger, a fresh-squeezed carrot, celery, and ginger juice.
Of course, Tofu Napoleon might not be for everyone. Some might crave the opulent joy of Griswold Inn’s grilled New York strip which, in its top-drawer cut and expert preparation is “a thing of beauty,” as one diner put it.
That’s presumably had voters recognizing the Essex institution as the Best Steakhouse on the Shoreline. Brushmill in Chester and Westbrook’s Braise and Brew were also winners.
It also might explain why the 243-year-old tavern prevailed as the Best Place for a Romantic Dinner, along with Goodfellas and Pacifico in New Haven.
That’s only natural, arguably, with a valentine of options that include a quiet corner for two in the wine bar, the spirited atmosphere of the Tap Room (named by Esquire as one of the top 100 bars in America) or the art-filled historic dining room to savor comfort food and conversation.
No doubt the words of food critic Spencer Caldwell, though referring to The Gris, might be describing any of this year’s winners.
“It’s thrown down the gauntlet to the Shoreline’s best.”