Find Gastropubs, Cheese Shops, and World-class Farm-to-table Restaurants in This Small New England Town
Even by the standards of coastal New England, Mystic, Connecticut, is an old place. Dan Meiser, cofounder of Oyster Club, on Water Street, married a local woman, Jane Simmons Meiser, whose forebears established themselves on Stone Acres Farm in next-door Stonington in 1765. The couple live there today, and their infant son is the 11th generation to walk — or at least crawl — on family land. And yet they are newcomers by comparison. The corn used at Oyster Club by chef James Wayman is grown on land that has been farmed by the same family since 1654.
But true to the saying, everything old is new again, and Mystic has become a bright spot for anyone seeking the next undiscovered farm-to-table, wild-caught, house-made, artisanal food destination. “Traditionally Mystic was a Memorial Day–to–Labor Day place,” Meiser says. “What we’ve seen is the shoulder seasons getting longer.” One reason is an increase in urbanite weekenders: Mystic is an hour from Hartford, two from Boston, three from New York. Restaurants follow hungry vacationers.
The Mystic food scene isn’t exactly off the national culinary radar so much as tuned to a very specific frequency. Meiser and Wayman have attracted a lineup of talent — including Noma chef René Redzepi and living legend Jacques Pépin — for their collaborative-dinner series and fundraising events at Stone Acres. And the Oyster Club’s success has helped make way for other culinary businesses.
At Rise, an Oyster Club alum serves breakfast fare and sandwiches made with regional ingredients. The Mystic Cheese Company opened a new tasting room in adjacent Groton last year, and has done brisk business with curbside pickup. The Real McCoy Rum has established itself locally, as well, harking back to the colonial era, when distilling was a lucrative operation. Meiser and Wayman, too, have expanded with a gastropub, Engine Room, and Grass & Bone, a whole-carcass butcher shop/all-day café.
Meiser originally came to the area from up the Connecticut River Valley, and met Wayman when he was looking for a chef at Oyster Club — someone ready to aim higher than tourist-grade frozen cod fillets. Wayman is rigorously committed to local sourcing, even in the depths of winter. Of course, given the name, he has to pay due respect to fishing-village expectations with half-shell oysters and clam chowder. In his version, potatoes and clams are doused with a broth of oceanic clarity, optionally thickened with cream. And there is always plenty of day-boat catch, though it’s often treated in unexpected ways. Raw tuna, shaved thin as Spanish jamón, comes off a loin that has been salted and aged for four months — tuna “ham.” Monkfish is served katsu-style on a milk-bread roll with fermented soy-based sauces.
Wayman cites as precedent for such global influences a less familiar aspect of the seaboard: its world-facing openness to imported ideas. New England’s ports have always been cosmopolitan points of convergence, and even commonplace comfort food has picked up accents from Portuguese and Italian immigrants. Wayman just takes it further with inspiration from his travels. His is a different kind of locavore cooking, a new coastal cuisine based on the lived experience of one chef.
Despite the dire challenges facing restaurants everywhere this year, Meiser and Wayman have pivoted to keep their multiple food businesses open in accordance with state regulations. They reimagined Oyster Club as an outdoor supper club at Stone Acres Farm, where guests can sit at a safe distance amid pre-Revolutionary stone walls that wrap 63 acres of farmland and a Federal mansion skirted with 200-year-old gardens. Meanwhile, the original Oyster Club building is being remodeled and expanded. Meiser and Wayman are even moving forward with an ambitious bakery and pizza shop.
In some ways, the upheaval has brought the pair new clarity. Take Grass & Bone, the café-butchery: business has thrived this year, thanks to takeout and delivery, including an expanded menu of prepared food, baked goods, and pantry staples, Meiser says. “We figured out, because of the crisis, what Grass & Bone was always supposed to be.”
A version of this story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Savor Mystic's Moment.