Washington Post visits Cafe 9

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Not so long ago, New Haven’s Ninth Square neighborhood was just a stretch of empty red brick buildings. Now, it’s chockablock with art (including Artspace, a warehouse of mini-galleries), quirky shopping (a Jamaican dress designer is just doors down from the century-old Acme Furniture) and divey ethnic food options.

It’s one sign among many that New Haven has outgrown its reputation as a college town that’s more crime than coffee shop, pockmarked by poverty and post-industrial waste.

In short, it’s a city with Boston’s historic charm, Philadelphia’s artistic pleasures — and Buffalo’s beer prices.

“The city’s food diversity in itself is unique,” says Stephen Fries, who leads the New Haven Culinary Walking Tour, an eclectic exploration of New Haven. “There’s every ethnic type of food you can think of.”

That includes a Little Italy near Wooster Square. I stop at Lucibello’s Italian Pastry Shop for a clam-shaped sfogliatelle, filled with a fist-size glob of vanilla cream.

Afterward, I consider taking in a show. The Yale University School of Drama provides a steady stream of eager, talented thespians to three well-loved playhouses, including the Long Wharf Theater, where Al Pacino and Kevin Spacey have played.

Instead, I opt for Cafe Nine, a no-frills bar short on natural light and long on $4 beers.

Cafe Nine is nicknamed the “musician’s living room,” and with good reason. On my visit, a jazz quintet from Hartford debate their playlist in front of the audience. They end their set with a soulful rendition of “Summertime” from “Porgy and Bess.” It’s an ode to a season that right now seems awfully far away. But it’s also a fitting celebration of a town that has come into its own, after a long winter.