Cooking From the Heart
Ingredient-driven food and cocktails fill the menu at New Haven's Tavern on State.
Growing up in the New Haven area, Emily Mingrone saw something missing in the local dining scene “We started out wanting to be that neighborhood spot, but not the typical neighborhood dive you might expect,” explains Chef Mingrone, co-owner of the restaurant Tavern on State. “Tavern is a neighborhood joint with great food and great cocktails. It’s not pretentious, and you don’t have to feel like you need to be on your best behavior. We have a very inviting atmosphere, and everyone is welcome.” Since New Haven is home to Yale, the restaurant’s customers tend to be students, professors and a lot of locals.
Mingrone and Shane McGowan—her partner in the restaurant, as well as in Fair Haven Oyster Co. and their butcher shop, Provisions on State—met when they were both working at a restaurant in Westport. Over post-shift drinks, they realized that they had similar thoughts on hospitality. “Emily knew of an old restaurant that had just come on the market. I agreed to meet with her the next day,” he recounts. “As I walked in the door, a liquor permit consultant was asking her who would run the bar and front of house. She pointed at me and said ‘Hopefully, this guy,’ and now here we are!”
Mingrone appreciates the way McGowan approaches his cocktails, because it’s synonymous with how she approaches the menu. She describes her cuisine as globally inspired, ingredient-driven, hyper-seasonally delicious, approachable food. If there’s a star ingredient Mingrone has in mind, she’ll get it in and start trying different cooking techniques with it, and then pull things from her pantry to see what goes with that dish.
Initially, she kept the menu conservative because she didn’t know what would appeal to people. When she started to see that there was a following for some of the more exciting things on the menu, Mingrone kept pushing the envelope. Now Tavern on State is known for dishes like Liuzzi burrata—from a Hamden cheesemaker—paired with plums and their jam, lamb bacon, chai spice and mint, or pan-seared halibut in lemongrass dashi with Hakurei turnips and greens, pearl onions and crispy shiitakes.
Barman McGowan also starts with an ingredient that inspires him and works backward from there. A cocktail on the menu called Smith & Ninth infuses a fortified wine with wild lime leaves. “I wanted to incorporate lime leaves into a stirred gin cocktail and started playing around with different recipes,” he explains. “Then I remembered trying this amazing liqueur called Kümmel years ago at a bar near my apartment in Brooklyn by the Smith & Ninth Street subway stop. It’s a caraway liqueur that ended up working perfectly with the lime leaf-infused aperitif and has become a Tavern staple on the cocktail menu.”
McGowan looks for wines that will pair with Emily’s food, a good variety that will challenge guests to try something new.“We only keep a handful of glass pours—usually five whites and five reds—and rotate them constantly,” says McGowan. “I’d rather keep it fresh and rotate through wines we’re genuinely excited about, versus putting an encyclopedia on every table that never gets updated.”
Another important feature of the restaurant is the staff.“We have a very talented front-of-house manager who leads and inspires everybody to be the best version of themselves and it trickles down from the top,” says Mingrone. “We take good care of our people because we appreciate them so much. The guests feel that, and the staff is proud to work for us and proud to serve the food.”
Although the pandemic was a challenge for the nascent restaurant (Tavern opened in June 2019 and closed for in-person dining in March 2020), it maintained a presence while helping out the community “We had to lay everybody off, but the two of us were here every day preparing food and cocktails to go,” says Mingrone. “And we sold provisional items—even things like toilet paper that people couldn’t get in the stores.” Tavern participated in Yale’s “Meals for Healers” program, providing warm meals for doctors, nurses and other staff who were working long shifts, and also made bags of pantry items for a restaurant workers’ food donation program. “I really feel that the ‘pay it forward’ mentality solidified our spot in the community,” says Mingrone. “Since we reopened, it’s been nonstop insanity.”
And Mingrone is excited for what the future holds. “I am proud to be a female chef/owner, which is rare around here or pretty much anywhere. And I’ve done this all myself. I don’t have backers, and that’s something I’m really proud of,” she notes. “I was dying for a place like Tavern, and I made one; I was dying for a place like the butcher shop, so I made one.” The next idea is a dive bar with true comfort food, cheap beer and a cozy, vibrant atmosphere. “I don’t see leaving New Haven,” she says. “Our hearts are here, we value the community, and we’ve really made a home here.”
The print version of this article appears with the headline: Cooking From the Heart.