There’s no better place to eat by the water than around Norwalk Harbor. Waves lapping on the shore; sunlight sparkling on the water; and the perpetual display of birds soaring, paddling, stalking and diving all pull me to the shore like a magnet. The appetite-sharpening salt water breeze makes the delicious food taste even better.
Last Friday, on a perfect evening, we headed to the beach for a stroll and dinner at Ripka’s Beach Cafe (ripkasmarket.com). The tide was up, the breeze was gentle, and the sun was putting on a light show as it set. Norwalk’s beach parks – Calf Pasture and Shady – can’t be beat. With benches, play areas, ball fields, paths for strolling, a panoramic view of Norwalk’s famous harbor, and, of course, the beaches, there is something here for everyone.
With all that the beach had to offer on this perfect evening, it was not crowded. Sure, there were lots of people there from across the diverse spectrum of our city, but the spacious park has plenty of room for all. As usual, we bumped into several friends and neighbors, all out for dinner by the harbor.
At Ripka’s Beach Cafe, Clyde Ripka was calling the food pickups and giving each meal a final check as he passed it over the counter. Ripka has transformed the cafe from a hamburger and hot dog operation to a beach-side seafood restaurant with a full menu, drinks, and even a wood-fired pizza oven. Don’t worry though, bathing suits, flip flops, ,and sandy feet are still welcome.
A heap of crisply fried oysters topped with a kicky chipotle sauce generously filled the Portuguese roll of my po’-boy. Marsha’s tilapia tacos with pico de gallo were boldly flavored and properly messy to eat. We shared a clam chowder:: steaming hot and chunky with red potatoes and clams. “What, no lobsters?” Clyde asked as we picked up our food, but we already had plenty to eat.
Clyde was eager to talk about his wood-fired pizza oven, a new addition to the kitchen for this season. Set up outdoors at the corner of Ripka’s spacious picnic-table filled tent, the pizzolo makes the pies while you watch and flash cooks them in the intense heat of the wood fire. As the dinner rush tailed off, Clyde toured from table to table offering samples if his latest pizza brainstorm: oysters with goat cheese, lemon zest, and caramelized onions. The tangy cheese and bright lemon were a perfect foil for the briny oysters and sweet onions. All this on a crust, crisp and blistered from the searing heat of his new oven. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a keeper.
The Sunset Grill (SunsetGrill.net) in the Cove Marina offers another great harbor view along with fresh seafood. On a recent visit, it was a little too chilly for eating on the expansive decks, but inside we could still see the boats at the docks, marine traffic up and down the Norwalk River, and the magnificent sunset over the water.
I enjoyed my first lobster roll of the season – a toasted roll, packed with tender lobster lightly tossed with mayonnaise, and served with a stack of crisp fries. Grilled Mahi Mahi with shrimp and mussels, perfectly cooked, was Marsha’s choice. As the weather warms, the decks will be filled with happy diners, and the sun will reliably and colorfully set every evening. Dinnertime at the Sunset Grill is like a party every night to celebrate the season.
Further upriver, The Sono Seaport Restaurant (sonoseaportseafood.com) is all about dining on the dock. Just a few boat slips up from the Bloom Brothers oyster house, the seafood here is as fresh as it gets. Raw bar, fried shellfish, fish and chips, or broiled fillets, the menu covers the spectrum. In addition to enjoying delicious seafood meals, we’re there at least once a year for a celebratory lobster dinner. This is the place we take folks who don’t live near the sea for a taste of New England’s bounty.
To the east of Sono, on the other side of Veteran’s Park, Harbor Lights (harborlightsrestaurant-ct.com) is the most upscale of our harbor dining options. It’s a year round restaurant with great views over the boats, and marshes – enchanting at any season. With a full raw bar and an extensive array of chef prepared seafood, you may have trouble making menu choices. I’ve always been partial to the seafood risotto and swordfish in season.
Our beautiful Norwalk harbor is a unique resource we sometimes take for granted. I hope you’ll take some time to enjoy a dinner along the harbor shore this summer. There’s a good chance I’ll see you there.