Grab a cold one: Nights in New London offer food, dancing and comedy

"I like bars just after they open in the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar - that's wonderful." - Raymond Chandler, "The Long Goodbye" Photo courtesy of The Exchange

Although my native southeastern Connecticut is mostly home to suburban homes, farmland and quaint villages, it's no slouch when it comes to great bars, especially if you throw the casinos into the mix. There's everything from first-class cocktail lounges and dive bars catering to locals, to woodpanelled Irish-style pubs and sports bars where buffalo wing aromas waft through the air with the game on. But most of them are dotted across the region, like outposts in 19th-century prairies, not so much few, but definitely far between.

Except, that is, in downtown New London, where the shopping/dining district is congenial by day and convivial by night. Downtown boasts two main streets: State Street slopes down from the 1784 courthouse to the Thames River, and Bank Street follows the river northward. These form the nexus of bar culture in the region.

Throw in a couple of side streets, and there are more than 20 drinking establishments you can walk to in downtown New London, something I did plenty of in my eight years of living on Bank Street. So here's a pub crawl in print. Undoubtedly the largest of the bunch is the Bulkeley House (111 Bank St.).

But, like the weather in the region, Bulkeley House changes with the seasons. In winter, it's a cozy bar, perfect for noshing on comfort food and a pint of Guinness. But in the summer on the expansive outdoor patio, it's a popular nightspot for the younger set, dancing to DJs and cover bands. It's a similar youthful scene across Bank at The Exchange (74 Bank St.), where on weekend nights dance music booms from the speakers and at night partiers gather on the deck overlooking the Thames River. At Hot Rod (114 Bank St.), you can order some buffalo wings with your beer, and it's a hot spot on fall Sundays as people crowd around the bar's television to watch football games. Mambo (194 Bank St.) also has a back deck, which is great for sipping Presidente Beer and diving into a plate of plantains. Located at 33 Golden St, the conveniently dubbed 33 is the new kid on the block.

The lounge-y basement bar just has bottled beer and technology for mixed drinks. 33 has also emerged as another downtown venue for live music, DJs and stand-up comedy. Next door is Tropical Breeze(31 Golden St.), where you can hear some Latin rhythms and snack on some island cuisine.

Back over on Bank Street, there's the decidedly local Ernie's Cafe (55 Bank St.), where you and a friend can each have beer and not go anywhere near Alexander Hamilton in your wallet. Across the street is O'Neill's Brass Rail (52 Bank St.), one of downtown's two gay bars (Frank's on Tilley Street is the other), a neighborhood bar with a great deck, though there's also a side room that hosts dance parties on the weekends. Closer to the intersection of Bank and State streets are the Oasis Pub (16 Bank St.), a one-time Connecticut College hangout that in the last decade has become the homebase for indie music in eastern Connecticut, and the narrow, but convivial Y-Knot (12 Bank St.), a locals' place that hosts hip-hop DJs on Thursday nights.

Heading west, (or up) State Street, you can make a quick detour onto Eugene O'Neill Drive to visit Copperwood Grill (24 Eugene O'Neill Drive), where you can also bet on horses running at tracks arond the country. It's particularly jammed on days the Triple Crown races take place.

On the next block, on Green Street is the oldest bar in New London, the Dutch Tavern (23 Green St.), where playwright Eugene O'Neill himself is reported to have knocked a few back when he was a cub reporter in the city. Fittingly, the Dutch has long been a hangout for newspaper writers, but it's an egalitarian living room for New London's lawyers, construction workers, restaurant workers, artists and college professors. Continuing to upper State Street, you'll come across Hanafin's Pub (312 State St.), New London's Irish pub.

There you can enjoy imperial pints of stout and wash down some comfort food native to the British Isles. Next door is downtown's newest sports bar, High 5's (318 State St.), which has been known to play host to some of the big pay-per-view boxing titles. Now, that's a lot. It might not be good to do it all in one night. But if you do, call me.

Date place: Gaspar's

“Food is love” is the motto at Gaspar's on Bank Street – an intimate restaurant with a full bar, pastries, and brunch on Sundays. The atmosphere is warm, simple and sweet – the kind of place that adorns a table with a blooming rose in a small glass vase. Owner Chris Lekowski and his crew are gaining a reputation for their tasteful treatment of risotto, duck, lamb and housemade lobster ravioli.

There is a great dinner special with a bottle of wine that works out to $20 per person. There are tables in the bar, but an additional, elegant seating area sets the climate for heart-to-heart talks.

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