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For a small city, New London has its share of restaurants-as-town-hall-meeting-spots. Both the Bean and Leaf and Washington Street Coffee House seem to attract the young, hip and caffeinated, while regulars at Mr. G's gather for all sorts of familial/scholastic/sports-teams reverie. Even the McDonald's, just over the city line in Waterford, has a daily gathering of loquacious retirees.
But it's perhaps Susan Devlin's and Barry Neistat's Muddy Waters Cafe, perfectly positioned on Bank Street, that might be described as the social heartbeat of the community.
Now 10 years old, MW constantly percolates with more than coffee. At any moment, wild combinations of politicians and business folks, artists and college kids, travelers from the train station and assorted downtown citizens coalesce, converse, gossip and share insider info - and always enjoy the excellent food, hospitality and totally relaxing vibe.
The customer layout is like a shotgun shack - a southern term meaning one could fire a shotgun from the front door all the way through the back without hitting a wall. There's a front room that includes the service counter and scattered tables, drink coolers and shelving for newspapers, magazines and tourist brochures.
A back room is very much like a favorite uncle's living room - with a comfy amalgam of couches, chairs and tables arranged in almost haphazard fashion. Both rooms boast wooden floors, and the walls are decorated with framed photographs and hanging knick-knacks.
Out back is a wonderful deck overlooking the train tracks and the Thames - and, of course, there's wifi for all those folks writing their screenplays or playing intense computer games.
Part of the magic of Muddy Waters is that the menu is coffee-shop simple. They offer a select array of sandwiches - breakfast, grinders and otherwise - a Love salad and a vegetarian derivative called the Lust, a spectacular house tomato soup, and plenty of cookies, muffins, croissants, cakes, brownies and more.
Yes, it's relatively limited, but the servings are large and delicious and - a key component - inarguably fresh.
In theory, a recent top-o'-the-morning breakfast sammich - sausage patty, cheese and fried egg on a bagel ($3.50) - is something that can be found in virtually any fast food joint or convenience store in this hemisphere. But, again, freshness! It came on a huge, chewy, fresh bagel with a peppery sausage patty, melted cheese and a fried egg - and it was just tremendous.
My wife, Eileen, sampled another b'fast sandwich with spinach, tomato, egg and cheese ($4.50). It was a perfect balance of ingredients, served hot, the egg not dripping with grease, fresh spinach, tomatoes sliced just right - too thick and they not only feel mealy, they keep the sandwich from staying intact. She agreed with me: the difference between that and chain breakfast offerings is vast - they aren't even on the same spectrum.
From the regular sandwich board, I tried a roast beef with swiss, lettuce tomato and horseradish on rye ($7.50). The beef is wonderful - not remotely close to the particle-board version you'd get at Arby's. Thick, flavorful, lean slices overflowed from the soft but nicely crusted rye. The padding of designer lettuce offered a crisp counterpoint to the mellow cheese. My only complaint was that the horseradish had a goopy, mayo consistency, which I fixed by simply lopping some of it off with the edge of a knife.
Another superior choice was the herb roasted chicken ($7.50), which was slathered with tart roasted red peppers, earthy spinach in its infancy, mellow provolone, and a savory basil pesto. I asked for a kaiser roll, and it gallantly supported juicy and flavorful breast hunks and the supporting cast ingredients. Biting into the whole thing was like an exploding Roman candle of Goodness.
Eileen wanted to experience a seasonal tomato, pesto and mozzarella combo and asked for it on a wrap. There was a bountiful amount of mozzarella, suffused with a creamy texture and slightly nutty taste. Thin tomato slices provided a nice accompaniment, and the basil really came through in the pesto - there was the presence of garlic, but it wasn't overwhelming.
All told, there are many reasons, food-wise and socially, why Muddy Waters is a sun around which New London orbits.
42 Bank St., New London
Cuisine: Soups, sandwiches, salads, baked goods, breakfast and designer coffees and teas.
Atmosphere: The whole town’s living room — with a to-die-for deck in back.
Service: Always friendly. Food orders can back up a bit at peak hours, but it’s pleasant just hanging out.
Prices: Tea and coffee $1.50-$4.25, sandwiches $4.50-$8.50, soups and salads $3.50-$8, baked goods $2-$4.
Handicap access: Three steps up and a screen door that opens out.
Credit cards: All majors.