‘Who Knew?’ is sponsored by Walter Stewart’s Market. Generally, this column covers restaurants, activities, shops, and experiences in New Canaan. While Tavern at GrayBarns is technically in Norwalk, don’t tell that to the many New Canaanites who claim it as their hometown’s best special occasion restaurant.
Here’s one for the suggestion box: Unspecial Occasion Dining.
I’m never mad at birthday dinners, anniversary dates, or the swilling of swanky holiday cocktails while a jazz trio plays nearby. Those are all perfectly fun, if well-trodden, occasions upon which to break out the Dry Clean Only. But I would, and often do, trade every single one of them in for the grown-up thrill of impulsively convening a nice restaurant meal for no reason whatsoever.
Several years ago, I desperately called a restaurant in town to make day-of reservations for a date night. The hostess asked me if there was a special occasion. “I just got my hair done?” I offered, lamely.
She understood the time-sensitive logic of a fresh blowout, and, better yet, she found us a great table in a hard-to-score time slot. Fresh Hair Dinner has since become a tradition in our house, because my husband is a consummate charmer, and because he’s probably tired of our home cooking, too. I encourage you to find your own non-reasons for a great meal: cleaned the garage? Eversource bill wasn’t seven million dollars? Completed a week of kid taxi service? Go eat.
One otherwise unremarkable week in early September, when the weather had just turned gorgeous after a biblically intolerable summer, I texted Rachel and Graham, who we hadn’t seen in a while, with an idea: Saturday lunch at GrayBarns? We soon found ourselves driving down Silvermine towards a genuine, if vague, sense of festivity.
The Silvermine community follows a river of the same name through parts of Wilton, Norwalk, and New Canaan, but the area has a visual identity and a spirit all its own. A few years ago, a friend visiting on a sparkling October day gasped audibly at the sight of it. “It’s just… so… CONNECTICUT!” he said, and I’d tend to agree: leafy lanes, dotted with antique clapboard houses and split-rail fences give you a very Nutmeggery sense of place.
That magic spell may lift for a millisecond when you learn that your car must be valet parked. No, a portal to the Chateau Marmont hasn’t opened in the space-time continuum. Yes, there are like 40 parking spots right there. But you get over it quickly, because the weather is perfect, there’s a well-made cocktail in your near future, and the added revenue stream, along with your tip, is doing its bit to buoy the local economy, I guess.
Known for eighty-some years as The Silvermine Tavern, the complex surrounding the original 1810 building now stands as a testament to thoughtful preservation ballasted by a true, market-tested sense of purpose. This historical deep-dive will tell you something of its past (cotton mill! Speakeasy! Spencer Tracy eating waffles!) but I, the Ghost of Tavern Present, am here to talk about the current moment. Local developer Andy Glazer bought the disused property in 2015 and spent, from the looks of it, considerable energy and equity transforming a beloved historic space into the tasteful, respectfully modernized country retreat that reveals itself in airy volumes to you as you climb upstairs.
Besides being a real dreamboat of a random Saturday lunch venue, it’s also a fancy six-room inn, a barn-y wedding destination, and a cozy smattering of outbuildings. One of these contains a rustic-casual all-day café called Gray Area, where a friendly team slings everything from croissants and cold brew to small culinary gifts and salumi boards. Next to that, almost hidden, you’ll find a somewhat criminally cute “shop the look” mercantile, Gray Goods, from which you can procure the studied GrayBarns aesthetic (chic, earthy, farmcore neutrals) to go in the form of tableware, blankets, aprons, and apparel. The whole enterprise has a tightly branded vibe, which is deeply intentional. Because it’s not a restaurant; it’s vacation.
The sole nit I have to pick with the entire GrayBarns operation is of the typographic variety. Literally, it’s the missing space between Gray and Barns. When a historic riverside inn serves up a languorous lunch, must we rush ourselves through the name? Can it not be Tavern at (more historically plausible) Gray Barns? No need to force it into the league of PayPal, HomeGoods, and AutoZone.
This an embarrassingly small complaint, but in the course of writing this, it’s become the pea under my many, many mattresses. The atmosphere, the team, and the food are phenomenal. Perhaps the space bar wasn’t working that day.
Back to lunch!
The Tavern at No Space Between Gray and Barns menu is largely seasonal, and specials change daily, so I won’t drag you dish-by-dish through an adult lifetime of can’t-go-wrong choices. Instead, here are the principles that guided all of us to a good time that Saturday:
Day drinking: not just for college kids and sad people
If a Johnnie Walker Black cost 50 cents at the Silvermine Tavern in the 1940s, cocktails have since become more considered. The craft cocktails the Tavern bar team dreams up hit the right note: a flavor party, doubling down on unique combinations of hard-to-find ingredients and premium spirits. Rachel pre-read the cocktail menu online, and made her choice in advance, which is always a pro-level restaurant move, because who wants to stop talking to study the menu?
Her choice: the Make it Snap Pea, with pea-infused gin, yuzu juice, and mint syrup. It’s a bright, verdant, and like nothing you’d ever dream up at home, even if your garden featured a geographically-impossible yuzu tree and a bumper crop of sugar snaps. We also liked that alcohol-free drinks ( I just can’t bring myself to say mocktail, like, ever) have earned their rightful place on a craft cocktail menu. The awkwardness of cheersing a soda water with lime is beginning to seem like a 2010s problem.
Don’t sleep on a lettuce salad
We’ve all been done wrong by afterthought green salads, but Tavern at GrayBarns is no place to bring your old grudges. Whatever the season, their piled-up butter lettuce salad will be, and I don’t say this lightly, transcendent. Perfectly presented, crisp, and dressed with something you’d never expect, like microplaned bottarga or smoked cheddar crisps. I get one every time, and the plate is always picked clean.
Sharing & small plates forever
Committing to an entree with nothing to go on but a list of five nouns can be harrowing. Maybe you’re a smooth customer, capable of playing off your anxiety with an under-the-table Google (is loup de mer cheese, is Scamorza scary, what is sabayon in English), or perhaps you’re brave enough to appear the rube and directly ask your server such questions. But when you dine with similarly adventurous companions and share everything, the risk is minor. We wound our way through several salads, some calamari-fried lion’s mane mushrooms, and steak tartare during the windup. And if I’m being honest, I wish we’d gotten the tuna crudo, too.
Trust your server
My husband makes a habitual practice of asking servers their choice between two completely disparate dishes. “What’s your favorite?” he will ask. “The vegan mushroom broth or the pizza rolls?” And the puzzled waitperson, likely thinking of the four tables behind us all visibly itching to order, will reset themselves in the straight-faced rictus that reads I get This Question All the Time and rationalize the pizza rolls on Andrew’s behalf.
At GrayBarns, our persistent question-asking has never once exasperated Sean, the unflappable server who seems to be most frequently saddled with the added time, needs, and constant interlocution of our table. And when Sean* came out with the specials menu on this unspecial Saturday, there was a gleam in his eyes that we trusted. “Get the French Dip,” he said. “There are only three sandwiches left, and you will not regret this.”
We got them. We didn’t regret it. Thanks, Sean*.
Every server’s job is to know the food they work with. When they really know what they’re talking about, just let them order for you. Nothing chafes a good time more than an untrusting diner, looking askance at every shallot in the salad dressing, seeking to find fault in the steak temperature or the provenance of a yam. Life is short. Saturday is shorter. Just go with it.
After a luxurious butterscotch budino for dessert and a quick walk up Mill Road to ogle the antique houses along the river, our afternoon was complete. That’s what a restaurant like Tavern at Gray Barns can do best: gild the moment, whether it’s a birthday, a fresh hair day, a marriage, a friendship, everything, or nothing at all.