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DINNER FOR TWO: A GUIDE TO GETTING THE MOST FROM CONNECTICUT'S VIBRANT RESTAURANT SCENE

Trendy Chefs, Global Flavors, Spectacular Décor and Breathtaking Settings Shape a Multi-Faceted Dining Experience where Even 'Ye Olde New England' Has its Surprises

HARTFORD --- October 21 -- Antique dining tables strategically placed around the fireplace, side dishes of corn relish and cottage cheese, names beginning with "Yankee": For decades, if not centuries, dining in New England was defined by a romanticized notion of the past, a superficial rendering of colonial life. Those days are gone in Connecticut, where trendy chefs and innovative restaurateurs influenced by flavors and culinary traditions from around the world are creating an extraordinarily vibrant, multi-faced restaurant scene. Even "Ye Olde New England" offers up surprises and delights.

The greatest challenge for restaurant goers may be to choose among the tantalizing menus, the national cuisines, the stunning decors and spectacular settings to find a perfect ambience for a special meal or evening out. Here are some suggestions for getting the most out of Connecticut's dining scene:

Follow the Stars: Connecticut restaurants have more than their share of celebrity chefs making waves on the regional, national and even international stages. Pick your favorite and try their kitchen. A small sampling includes: Todd English (Tuscany), of worldwide fame, and Jasper White (Jasper White's Summer Shack), one of New England's best known chefs, both at Mohegan Sun Resort. For those who don't care if the celebrity is actually a chef, the Michael Jordan Steak House is another option at Mohegan Sun (888-226-7711).

Thomas Henkelmann's Homestead Inn in Greenwich (203-869-7500), an elegantly restored 18th century mansion, is the perfect example of the surprise in store for anyone with outmoded notions of New England hospitality. Among many other publications, Andrew Harper's Hideaway Report has praised Henkelmann for being a "purist" providing a "new England sanctuary that offered serious French cuisine." Not far away, in South Norwalk, Marc Lippman is another celebrity chef stirring up the culinary scene at the new Ocean Drive (203-855-1665), named the best seafood restaurant in Fairfield County by Boston.com. Lippman had served as executive chef at one of Mexico's most luxurious resorts - Las Ventanas al Paraiso - which Travel & Leisure rated as the world's best hotel restaurant.

Woodbury, Carole Peck has earned celebrity status with her nationally acclaimed Good News Café (203-266-GOOD) that was named Best American Restaurant Statewide by Connecticut Magazine's 2005 Readers Choice Poll. And, in New Haven, Claire Criscuolo has earned a substantial following for her highly praised and hugely popular vegetarian restaurant founded over 25 years ago, Claire's Corner Copia (203-562-3888). Focusing on locally grown and organic produce, it is a city landmark.

Follow the Fad: What's hot in restaurant trends? One of the latest in Connecticut is Nuevo Latino, a zesty fusion of traditional culinary traditions from the Caribbean (especially Cuba) and Latin America with contemporary style and pizzazz. In the New Haven area, the very lively Roomba (203-562-7666) combines old-world Cuba with hip. Not far away, Ibiza (203-865-1933) where award winning chef Luis Bollo adds a Spanish influence to Nuevo Latino, breaking away from more mainstream "tapas" restaurants to serve more sophisticated shared dishes that reflect his Basque roots. Pacifico (203-772-4002), another relatively new restaurant serving Nuevo Latino cuisine, is the inspiration of its chef and cookbook author, Rafael Palomino and is particularly popular for late night diners.

Go for Ambience: Sometimes the feel of a restaurant, its decor or its perfect setting is just what is required for a satisfying culinary adventure. Among those restaurants whose décor, ambience or setting have earned particular attention are the bar and outdoor deck of the French/Mediterranean L'Escale at the DELAMAR at Greenwich Harbor (203-661-9800), one of coastal Connecticut's hottest spots to see and be seen, and Paci, in Southport, distinguished for winning the James Beard Restaurant Design Award for its renovation of a 135-year old railroad depot. Serving modern interpretations of classic Italian dishes, Paci (203-259-1636) also has won the Wine Spectator Award for the last six consecutive years. In New Haven another landmark restaurant renowned as much for its non-restaurant identity as for its food is the Atticus Bookstore & Café, famous for its black bean soup, Chabaso bread, breakfasts and lunches.

The weather may be turning colder but waterfront dining is always an option, whatever time of year. The reviewers at www.CTNow.com offer their top ten, which include Skipper's Dock in Stonington Village (860-535-0111) situated on a pier along the coast, and Harbor Park Restaurant in Middletown (860-347-9999), on the Connecticut River. Readers of the New Haven Advocate named the Sage American Bar and Grill and Oyster Bar in New Haven their favorite (203-787-3466).

Look for the Unexpected: In Connecticut, restaurant appearances can be deceiving and even when they're not, the most traditional of New England restaurants can often hold surprises. Built in 1780 as a stagecoach stop, Pettibone's Tavern in Simsbury (860-658-1118) has every indication of being what it is: it's just the ghost that haunts the dining room that makes it a little unusual. Even older (1685), Randall's Ordinary, in North Stonington (860-599-4540) offers not just colonial ambience but an actual return to the 1600's, complete with 17th century recipes and libations served by wait staff garbed in period clothing. And the 1756 Bee and Thistle Inn Restaurant in Old Lyme (860-434-1667) combines history with romance; in fact the most romantic restaurant in the state, according to readers of Connecticut Magazine.

The Vanilla Bean Café (860-928-1562) in Pomfret appears to be a pleasant roadside stop and turns out to be one of the busiest, most popular casual restaurants in northeastern Connecticut, offering imaginative sandwiches, award-winning chili and more (Coca Cola launched its Vanilla Coke advertising campaign here last spring). Nearby, The Harvest, also in Pomfret (860-928-6511) is a caution to guests not to make assumptions based on its quintessentially New England exterior because, inside, they will find one of the region's best sushi bars, a sleek and modern wine collection on display and a menu of very innovative takes on classic Continental and American dishes. Altnaveigh Inn, in Storrs (860-429-0371) is another restaurant with a charming and elegant colonial New England ambience and a decidedly up-to-date menu.

In the Litchfield area, one of the best kept secrets is Belgique, in Kent (860-927-3681), one of the rare restaurants in New England serving Belgian food, including the famous Belgian beers. It rated an "Editors Pick" from Yankee Magazine and the Hartford Courant's food editor said, "Best place I've ever eaten in the state." And speaking of national cuisines that might come as a surprise in rural Connecticut, Bangkok, in Danbury (203-791-0640) was the state's first Thai restaurant and has won three stars from The New York Times. 3W & The Blue Bar, in Litchfield (860-567-1742) itself, is another eclectic eatery that surprises, with its "hot" bar scene, serious sushi and what Executive Chef Erly Gallo calls healthy "new-American" dishes.

Find Out What Others are Saying: Thanks to clever interactive websites, diners can easily find out what fellow diners think before trying a new restaurant. Log on to www.tripadvisor.com to find restaurants recommended by ordinary travelers and restaurant aficionados rather than professional food critics. What's the No. 1 in Mystic, for example: Kitchen Little (860-536-2122), a tiny, unpretentious landmark only minutes from Mystic Seaport that was singled out by Jane and Michael Stern in Gourmet Magazine and USA Today. Mystic Pizza, rated #4, by the way, inspired the movie that made a very young Julia Roberts a star. In Hartford, Max Downtown (860-522-2530) takes #1 honors among readers who appreciate the sophisticated urbanity and eclectic California/international/steakhouse menu. The #1 barbecue place in Waterbury? Tripadvisor and www.hartford.citysearch.com readers say Uncle Willie's (203-596-7677). And, in New London, the Thames River Beanery & Greenery (a casual coffee house and bakery with splendid views of the water), comes out on top at Tripadvisor.

Another amusing website that features consumer restaurant reviews of the "Wonderful, superb!" or "Awesome!" variety is www.ctnow.com, which allows diners to send in their favorite spots for Brunch, Italian, Mexican, Seafood, Thai, and other categories of dining. No one seems to agree on much but that's what makes dining out so much fun. In addition to these and other "review-oriented" websites, be sure to check www.CTvisit.com and www.connecticutmag.com  for extensive restaurant descriptions by region of the state.

For further information about the 52 Getaways to Connecticut, restaurants, resorts, country inns, B&Bs and other places to stay in Connecticut, please call 888-CTvisit (888-288-4748) or log on at www.CTvisit.com. Connecticut offers visitors a multi-faceted wealth of attractions, historical, cultural and recreational activities, diverse and beautiful natural landscapes, parks, beaches and wilderness sure to fulfill any getaway need.

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