Harlem restaurateur Karl Franz Williams returns to his Connecticut alma mater to revive a historic downtown institution.
As a student at Yale, Karl Franz Williams never spent much time at the Anchor, the dive bar he bought in 2015 and reopened last fall. "I went there maybe once in four years, he says. Downtown New Haven used to be a little seedy." After graduation, Williams, who grew up in New York City, worked a string of corporate jobs but always felt entrepreneurship was his calling. He finally took the leap in 2005, opening Society Coffee in Harlem. It was a hit, so in 2008 he opened the restaurant 67 Orange Street down the block—right as the market crashed. "Those were exciting times, but very challenging," he says. To encourage foot traffic, Williams cofounded Harlem Park to Park, bringing together local entrepreneurs for networking and events. Members now include 125 area businesses, and Harlem remains Williams's home base. Though Society Coffee has since closed, he still runs 67 Orange Street, and recently opened Solomon & Kuff, a restaurant inspired by his Caribbean heritage.
Three years ago, rumors of trouble at the Anchor brought Williams's attention back to New Haven. Despite national accolades (Esquire named it one of the best bars in America) and local support, the Anchor closed in early 2015. Williams pounced. He consulted a historian to learn more about the bar, which had opened in 1939 as Anchor Spa. In its heyday, Yale students and visiting actors at the nearby Shubert Theater frequented its bright blue booths. "We wanted to bring back the beauty of what the Anchor was," says Williams, who preserved aspects of the original design (the booths, pressed-tin ceiling, and brick walls) and restored its name.
The new Anchor Spa has a seafood-focused menu and cocktails inspired by ports of call from Shanghai to Rio. Unsurprisingly, a customer favorite is the Yale Beets Harvard, made with rum and beet syrup. “I may not have the nostalgia of someone who was a regular there, but I have immense respect for what the Anchor was,” Williams says. “It’s a good feeling every time I get on the train and head back up to New Haven—it feels right.”