5:30 PM EDT, September 2, 2012
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — There's April in Paris, January in Park City and November in Tokyo. There's October in New York, resplendent in Halloween oranges, its crimson leaves choking every gutter.
Then there's September on Chapel Street, which is not resplendent or especially magical at this or any other time of the year. Unless you have a thing for that moment when a college town welcomes back its meal tickets, when the streets seem silent and muggy one week, crowded with confused clusters of freshmen the next.
University art galleries, in a sluggish torpor through July and August, suddenly are occupied by cross-legged students sketching madly. Pizzerias buzz, and the languor of a college town summer welcomes autumn.
So sue me, I like college towns in fall.
You don't need to visit New Haven, home of Yale University, the prettiest urban campus in the country, to catch this residual collegiate spirit. Most college towns would work about now: Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cambridge, Mass.; Providence, R.I.; Bloomington, Ind.; even Palo Alto, Calif., home of Stanford, has a little autumn charm.
Only New Haven, though, has the Study at Yale, a 124-room boutique hotel that opened in 2008 on the Yale campus (203-599-4111, studyhotels-px.trvlclick.com). It's a modernist dorm of sorts, delivering a vague Ivy League aura to college town tourists at state college prices (starting at about $200 midweek for September). This doesn't mean that room service offers Jell-O shots or a sock to stick on the doorknob.
It means the Study is smart and bookish, with a smidge of hipster mod in the slick contemporary chairs in its lobby and Barbara Cole photos on its walls; it's not stuck up like some haughty hotels around here that think they're so great.
Its logo is a pair of eyeglasses.
The clerk slides you a fresh baked cookie at check-in (the microwave is hidden beneath the desk), and a bookmark is tucked alongside your room key. And the rooms — or "studies," if you splurge for a suite — do indeed resemble dorm rooms. Well-appointed dorm rooms. My bed was draped with a scratchy throw blanket in Yale blues and grays (the kind you would wrap around yourself at a football game if, in fact, you had the patience for Ivy League football).
My room also came with a blond oak desk that ran the length of the window; on it was a craning Tolomeo desk lamp, pencils and sheets of graph paper. Late at night, I sat on it and read, curled into the window, watching students across the street smoke outside the School of Art. Unable to sleep, I went down to the lobby and picked through the art books in the floor-to-ceiling bookcases.
I asked for a cookie and received two.
When I returned to my room, long after midnight, the studio lights still burned in the art school windows.
The next morning was Saturday. I seemed to be one of a handful on campus who was awake. On Chapel Street, I found an egg sandwich with soy bacon at the veggie-hippie-throwback Claire's Corner Copia (203-562-3888, clairescornercopia.com).
Afterward, also on Chapel, I spent an hour in the stately Louis Kahn-designed Yale University Art Gallery (203-432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu), then another hour in the massive Yale Center for British Art (877-274-8278, britishart.yale.edu), Kahn's last building and supposedly containing the largest collection of British art outside Britain.
And finally I sat on a stone bench in the quad on Yale's Old Campus, a corner of the school that dates to the early 18th century. It's full of ivy and slate and weathered carvings, and as I read a book, my attention wandered, and I listened to dorm stereos blare to life, the cacophony traveling window to window with each waking room. Frankly, though I wholeheartedly recommend campus tourism — Yale's Sterling Memorial Library, with its vaulted ceilings and carved inlays and cloistered hallways, is worth an afternoon on its own — after a while you do start to feel a little creepy.
The university may encourage tourism, but, in the end, you don't belong here.
So here are two options, and though both include eating, I suggest you take both. First, swing by the Original Frank Pepe Pizzeria Napoletana on Wooster Street (203-865-5762, pepespizzeria.com), also know as Pepe's. You will stand in line. You will order two pizzas (just because). The pizza will be coal-fired, come out charred and served on a massive tin pan. You will sit inside a wooden green booth as old as Pepe's (founded in 1925) and eat off sweaty Formica. (Also, you will order the signature pie, the white clam pizza, which is oily and wonderful.)
And then — road trip!
Drive a half-hour north toward Hartford, pulling off at Meriden, a classic working-class New England town (think "The Fighter"). Find Ted's (203-237-6660, tedsrestaurant.com). This place is 50 or so years old, small, with locals at a counter. Order a burger. Order more than one. Watch them make them. Burgers are rectangular and coated in a gooey white cheddar. Each burger fits into a small pan that looks like an Easy Bake Oven accessory. Each pan fits into a metal thing that looks like a toaster. This is actually a steamer. The meat is steamed; then the cheese is cooked (separately) and flipped onto the meat, then the whole thing is flipped onto a bun. It's very local; you won't find burgers cooked this way outside this area of Connecticut, never mind outside New England.
Also, remember to tip the townies well. Because, in a way, you're one too.
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