Claire’s Corner Copia, Engendering Infatuation in New Haven
When it comes to love and affection, some declare that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. But regardless of gender, patrons of Claire’s Corner Copia can agree upon the infatuation that the historic restaurant’s menu choices engender. In New Haven, amid the city’s acclaimed dining scene and a whisper away from Yale University’s world-class art museums, “love” is clearly a culinary term, embodied both in spirit and practice by Claire Criscuolo of Claire’s Corner Copia.
“Love is, without a doubt, in every single detail,” Claire says when asked about the hallmark of her gourmet vegetarian and vegan restaurant that celebrates its 41st anniversary in September. “And the bottom line is always people.”
Not only does Claire still work full days after all these years, but she remains the most enthusiastic, cheerful, engaging voice in the landmark space at the corner of Chapel and College streets. This is one of those truly rare restaurants where the owner and staff want to know exactly what each customer wants.
Choosing what you want is the difficult part, as Claire’s Corner Copia takes a big bite when it comes to the various menus offered. For breakfast, you can enjoy “The Good Egg Sandwich,” a fried organic egg with two strips of soy bacon and/or cheddar cheese on an organic wheat English muffin. The weekend brunch menu adds French toast: cinnamon and organic-egg-infused whole grain sliced bread with warm fruit and pure maple syrup.
From there, Claire’s leaps into sandwiches, salads, Mexican entrées, quesadillas, burritos, flatbread pizzas, veggie burgers, and dishes like eggplant parmigiana and a roasted organic vegetable plate.
Most first-time guests would be forgiven for assuming it’s a coffee shop or dessert spot, as the first thing you see from the Chapel Street entrance is a bounty of cakes and sweet things, including their famous Lithuanian Coffee Cake. “Our sticky buns are pretty criminal,” Claire notes. “We make them vegan.”
The house coffee is an organic fair trade medium roast from Mexico; the teas are also organic, and the extensive menu of smoothies has something for everyone. Other creative cold drinks include ingredients like house-made syrups, organic lavender, and hibiscus.
If you’re unsure, Claire’s philosophy is: “Try it.”
“We do something called ‘no thank you tastes,’” she explains, of a practice that goes beyond sample spoons and deep into the philosophy of changing palates for the better. Claire tells an anecdote about a child, a regular, who tries and rejects many things – until he tastes pasta puttanesca and is in heaven.
“Whenever we have those opportunities, whether it’s with an adult or a child, why blow it?” Claire says
It’s love, again; it’s in everything that happens at Claire’s Corner Copia – that, and a serious approach (Claire has called it “hardcore”) to organic, pure foods. In August 2014, Claire received the Organic Leadership Award from NOFA, the Northeast Organic Food Association, for supporting organic farmers. These days, she’s sourcing as much as possible from women-owned and women-run farms, including Hepworth Farms in New York, an organic farm that has been passed down for generations.
To understand Claire’s Corner Copia means knowing Claire, herself. Claire LaPia, then a registered nurse, married Frank Criscuolo in 1975. Both came from traditional, Italian-American families, and Claire’s mother was obsessed with good, wholesome food made with real, fresh ingredients. Claire and Frank opened Claire’s Corner Copia on September 17, 1975, and much later, Frank’s longtime dream spawned Basta Trattoria, next door.
Frank Criscuolo died in December 2011, and Claire soldiers on with admirable enthusiasm for the mission. Even four decades in, there are always new things happening. Just this summer, a farm scene mural by Holly Whiting arrived at Claire’s Corner Copia. Customers – even regulars – are so spellbound by the food that most miss this significant aesthetic change, Claire says, not missing the unintentional compliment.
But not all the changes are merely decorative. The next big thing may involve manufacturing dry mixes for delicious things from Claire’s that customers could make at home, like hot chocolate, cakes, and pan-blackened seasonings.
“It’s a huge project,” says Claire, whose motivation isn’t to create a new revenue stream but rather to launch a local jobs initiative. “We would make them in the neighborhoods where they’re most vulnerable with jobs,” she says, thinking always of ways in which her restaurant can support its New Haven neighborhood. “Whenever we make a decision, one of our first questions is, ‘How does our community benefit from this?’”
To count the ways to answer that question would keep Claire too long from her kitchen, but it would be remiss to neglect the common denominator among them: that Claire’s long and successful history of serving delicious, nutritious, and environmentally conscious meals makes her store a pillar of New Haven’s food community, and that the love she and her staff put into that work resonates well beyond the bounds of Claire’s familiar restaurant.
Claire’s Corner Copia is open Monday-Thursday from 8am-9pm, Friday from 8am-10pm, Saturday from 9am-10pm, and Sunday from 9am-9pm.
Claire’s Corner Copia
1000 Chapel St., New Haven