Quarter Century Sign Post
July 28 was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we decided to do what we love so much – meander through small towns and on back roads to reach our ultimate destination…fabulous food of course!
We had heard and read about a restaurant in Willimantic, Connecticut called Cafemantic and it sounded like the perfect place to celebrate our big event. More on that later.
The City of Village Charm
Heading east, we cruised through Bart’s hometown of Manchester, CT. Settled in 1672 as a farming community, Manchester evolved into a thriving industrial town known for its paper, lumber and textile mills. Manchester boasted the Hilliard Mills, the oldest woolen mill site in the country, and Cheney Mills, which at one time was the world’s largest producer of silk. The mills, owners ‘gorgeous homesteads, and the preserved homes of the workers are now part of the Cheney Brothers Historic District, a 175-acre National Historic Landmark.
Main Street, still picturesque, was once a thriving town center and shopping district.
Hold Your Noses
Moving along from a more urban setting to bucolic rolling hills and dairy farms, we entered the small town of Coventry (pop. 12,435). We knew we had left the “big city” when we spotted this sign in front of a dairy farm!
Just another reason why gardening is not one of Rorie’s favorite pastimes!
Following a scenic winding road, we found the Nathan Hale Homestead and Museum (http://www.ctlandmarks.org/page/nathan-hale-events).
Built by Hale’s father in 1776, it was home to his 8 sons (not a sister in sight!) including Nathan, CT’s Revolutionary hero and patriot. The Georgian style home is virtually intact, furnished with family pieces and period antiques. It’s a really beautiful place in a beautiful setting. For those who skipped that history class, Nathan Hale was convicted as a spy and hanged by the British in 1776 at the age of 21. His famous last words were, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
UConn or Bust
Next stop was Storrs, CT, home of Bart’s alma mater, the University of Connecticut and his beloved UConn Huskies basketball teams.
This village, in the town of Mansfield (pop. 24,558), is named after the Storrs brothers who founded UConn. We drove around the campus “oohing” and “aching” over how big the school is now, and marveling at how much construction continues to expand the campus. One recent mega-project resulted in the creation of an award-winning, pedestrian friendly town center with shops, restaurants and housing.
If you ever visit the campus, there’s one institution not to be missed. That’s the famous UConn Dairy Barn. It features delicious ice cream made from milk gathered from UConn’s own cows. Can’t get any fresher than that. You can even watch folks making the ice cream through an observation window. Now that’s farm to table. What a treat.
Realizing how hungry we were, it was clearly time to head towards our final destination, Cafemantic in Willimantic (pop. 17,737). Bart had been hearing and reading about this place for months (see NY Times food critic article – http://nyti.ms/1KD2HhM) and we were intrigued by the glowing reports. Located on Main Street in a revitalized part of downtown Willimantic, the restaurant is a hip combo of industrial meets rustic (interior photo credit to The Times).
The open layout, large front windows and touches of wood, brick, copper, and glass all work to create a casual and welcoming vibe. The restaurant uses local and sustainable products and actually lists the sources of the evenings featured foods on the menu. Really nice to know where your next meal is coming from.
Cafemantic serves small plates perfect for sharing. Given everything on the menu looks awesome, it’s a great strategy to order a lot so you can try it all. Trust us, WE DID order a lot and we can assure you that small plates add up to one big meal and two very stuffed eaters. But so worth it!
Hearing it was our anniversary, Sous Chef Tyler Southwick sent out some magical dishes for us to try. What a lovely and unexpected gesture. The entire staff, including Manager Max and our attentive and knowledgeable server Mary Leigh, made the whole experience even better.
But wait, there’s more! After agreeing we couldn’t eat one more bite of pork belly, charcuterie, mussels, parmesan-encrusted roasted squash, Thai cucumber salad, roasted bacon wrapped dates, jerk chicken, leek tart, stuffed mushrooms and boquerones – AKA anchovies – (yes, we really did eat all this), Mary Leigh showed us the dessert menu. We couldn’t resist the pistachio raspberry cake with vanilla bean ice cream and fresh raspberry sauce. Frankly, nobody should walk out of this café without dessert. The perfect end to an amazing day, where everything came up roses…
Next stop on the Discover Small Town America express? Possibilities include Port Jervis, NY, New Castle, DE and Staunton and Lexington, VA. Stay tuned…
Special Note: If you happen to be on the road next month and are near Lebanon, KY (pop. 5,629), you should take in the town’s inaugural Mayberry Pie Festival August 13-16 (http://visitlebanonky.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/FinalMayberry-Pie-DaysRobincolor.pdf). Don Knotts daughter Karen will perform her comedy show “Tied Up in Knotts”. Comedic impersonators Michael J (Barney) and Joey I.LO. (Otis, the bumbling town drunk) will perform “Barney Fife Fully Loaded”. The Festival also features a pie eating contest, music performances and a Pub Crawl with “Otis”. Should be a blast!