Ode To Clark’s Dairy

Paul Bass Photo Hillary Clinton and Toni Harp have milkshake runs to remember. Rosa DeLauro? She recalls campaign strategy sessions—and the burnt toast.

Everyone, it seems, has a Clark’s Dairy memory. And no one seems happy that memories—not ice cream sodas or grilled cheese sandwiches with fries—will be all they have left to savor.

The iconic Whitney Avenue soda shop and cozy hangout for New Haveners of all walks of life will close its doors at the end of the month. The causes of death are threefold, according to the Mihalakos, the family of Greek immigrants who have run the dairy since 1962: The recession, a flowering of competition as once-quiescent downtown New Haven revived, and a stroke suffered by main owner Tony Mihalakos. Tony and his brother John have kept the dairy open when other businesses closed up, amid tornadoes and feared riots (at the 1970s Mayday demonstrations).

Ever since the news of Clark’s Dairy’s closing broke last week (in this Randy Beach story in the Register), loyal customers have been grieving, and reminiscing.

“I’m desolate. I do not believe it,” U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (pictured) said Tuesday.

Clark’s has been a meeting spot for politicians like DeLauro and former State Rep. Bill Dyson for decades. DeLauro recalled members of the Frank Logue for Mayor campaign gathering there after work in 1975. And when she ran Chris Dodd’s first U.S. Senate campaign in 1979, “every morning I stopped in Clark’s. I had a table in the back. I had a meeting before I drove to Hartford.”

The waitresses knew DeLauro’s regular order: “burned toast and burned bacon.” DeLauro (pictured) continued meeting people there after winning her own seat in Congress. She and her husband Stan Greenberg had a regular Saturday morning breakfast date there for years.

State Sen. Toni Harp recalled working across the street from Clark’s Dairy when she was pregnant with her second child. She stopped at Clark’s every day for an orange and vanilla ice cream milkshake—with a raw egg.

“I don’t think people do raw eggs any more,” acknowledged Harp, who specializes in public health issues. “No one will have that [shake] anymore.” She added that her daughter was “a healthy baby.”

Another health-focused politician, Hillary Clinton, had the same idea about Clark’s milkshakes. “We used to go to Clark’s ... to get milkshakes, because they were supposed to be good for you,” one of her Yale Law School classmates recalled in a 1992 Connecticut Law Tribune interview. “[W]e didn’t worry about getting fat then.”

Suffice it to say that Clark’s Dairy, with its late-night soda fountain and cheap, fast, grilled breakfast and lunch dishes, evoked a simpler era.

Mary Hying (pictured), a Liverpool, England, native who started waitressing at Clark’s 35 years ago, was “fussing over” Yale scholar Robert Thompson (aka “Master T”) one morning this week. She brought Thompson his spinach and feta cheese egg-white omelette, no sides. She didn’t have to ask him what he wanted.

“Best omelette in town,” Master T murmured in between bites of his breakfast and glances at the morning New York Times.

Hying, meanwhile reminisced about the world of conversations that come to her counter. She recalled serving late Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti on Sunday mornings. “He could speak about anything” with anyone, she said. Bill Dyson has always used Clark’s as a “second office,” she noted. She spoke of serving food to the children of moms she had served as children.

“They’re all special,” Hying said, turning to Thompson. “Right, love?”

Tony Mihalakos’ brother John (pictured) plans to keep open the family’s next-door lunch-and-dinner restaurant (also named Clark’s), and he plans to serve breakfast to fill in the gap. That restaurant is just breaking even; the Dairy has been losing money, he said. He said he hopes that combining both operations into one will turn red ink into black.

Mary Hying is coming next door to work with him. Tony can no longer work. His daughter Theano Mihalakos (pictured at the top of the story), who has been around the restaurant since she was 12, is hanging up her ice-cream scoop.

Doctors To The Left, Patients To The Right?

Clark’s Dairy has been the scene of great fictional encounters as well as real ones. The spot shows up in the work of New Haven novelist and New Yorker writer Alice Mattison. Some of the memorable scenes in True Confections, a rollicking new novel by another local writer, Katharine Weber (pictured), take place in the Dairy’s storied booths.

Weber has real-life memories of Clark’s Dairy, too, that don’t appear in the book. She sent them along, and they follow here. Feel free to add your own in the comments section. And if anyone has ideas for a group gathering on the final day of business, feel free to add those as well…

Chicago may have Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks, but we had Clark’s. The uncanniness of that iconic painting of a late-night diner counter populated by detached, silent people came to mind the first time I set foot in Clark’s on a snowy day in 1974, when I was 18, and had taken the train from New York to visit a high school friend who was a freshman at Yale. She had summoned me for an urgent contraceptive consultation. It was late afternoon when I arrived for our Clark’s rendezvous. I was transfixed by the high ceiling, the “plate of ice cream” on the menu, the three or four silent denizens spaced along the counter staring at nothing while chewing sandwiches and taking swallows from china coffee cups. There were little jukeboxes mounted on the counters and tables then, and we punched in three Joni Mitchell laments before ordering milkshakes and a shared plate of french fries over which we proceeded to discuss birth control in this place my friend had chosen for its lack of proximity to Morse and Stiles.

When I married and left New York two years later for that which gets called “the Greater New Haven area,” Clark’s was for me a comforting and familiar landmark, one of the few New Haven options for a New York-style anonymous lunch counter interlude with a BLT, an iced coffee, and a newspaper. This was before I discovered that New Haven is a small village, everyone crosses paths with everyone else, especially at Clark’s, and there is no such thing as anonymous in New Haven.

On October 28th, 1981, when I was starved after giving birth to my first child (a long day’s work that had begun at dawn), my husband left the hospital in the late afternoon to get me a turkey club on wheat toast with french fries at Clark’s. When he returned with that greasy brown paper bag, a Clark’s cornucopia, he told me that Barbara had ordered the fries well done, on the theory they would stay hot longer. They weren’t exactly hot, but they were wonderful.

Clark’s was the Friday lunch destination when my kids were at the Foote School and Fridays were half-days, in the era when the school persisted in the fantasy that mothers didn’t work, certainly not full-time, and Friday afternoons would be devoted to mother-child bonding experiences and activities, although the reality, based on the Foote hubbub that filled Clark’s after the rush from Loomis Place to Whitney Avenue, was that Friday afternoons were also for Icelandic au pair-child bonding experiences and activities. 

When I went into psychoanalysis with a doctor whose office was on Trumbull Street, I discovered that Clark’s was a popular post-analysis destination for analysts and analysands alike. The unwritten code of conduct, one absorbed by gesture and example, like so many analytic protocols, had patients on the left and doctors on the right, each pretending not to notice the other. (The only people in New Haven, the city of endless connections and overlaps, who apparently did not know one another.) Or was it doctors to the left and patients to the right? Or doctors at tables and patients at counters?  Perhaps even now, 12 years after the end of my analysis, my confusion about this detail is telling, what we might call a countertransference.

Grilled cheese and to-mah-to, Mary and Barbara would repeat as they wrote down the order. Clark’s was where you could go to be looked after while being alone with yourself. Clark’s was where you could eat bacon and it didn’t count. Clark’s was where a certain, ineffable, Edward Hopperish, uncanny sense of the past—yours, New Haven’s, America’s—was always present. 


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posted by: Patron on May 20, 2010  12:45pm

Thanks for the memories. I used to take our two sons there with their friends after “field trips” to the Peabody Museum. Sad to see Clarks close. Maybe there will be a “Son (or daughter) of Clark” to take its place.

posted by: RKan on May 20, 2010  1:36pm

While I very much dislike seeing a local family-owned and -operated establishment go under, I must say that, in my opinion, the food at Clark’s was more or less inedible. Perhaps if they were able to maintain a higher level of quality, they would have been able to remain in business. I hope that a new local-owned business will take their place.

posted by: Alphonse Credenza on May 20, 2010  3:03pm

“the food at Clark’s was more or less inedible”

Yes, and they were able to deliver it day in and day out because they have strict quality standards.

posted by: Jeff Klaus on May 20, 2010  3:39pm

Clark’s food “inedible”?  Blasphemy! 

As a kid, I walked miles for a Clark’s hot dog, mound of fries, and a chocolate shake.  My dad would never dream of looking anywhere else for an after-dinner black raspberry ice cream cone.  And today Ricky serves up THE finest egg and sausage breakfast on lower Whitney avenue!! 

Also there are very few landmarks anymore in New Haven where you can literally walk into history.  The “front of the house” at Clark’s in 2010 looks almost exactly as it did 40 years ago.

I wish they could preserve the Dairy side and let the Pizza side go.

Take your pictures now…it will soon disappear forever.

posted by: a sad day for new haven on May 20, 2010  3:50pm

first the doodle, now clark’s. it is a sad day for new haven. these are the businesses that foster the sense of “community” that is sorely lacking in modern times. as the drive-thru window is terribly impersonal and every other person on the street focused on a blackbery or locked in their own world with earphones, places like clark’s fostered interaction. although my grad student days are long past, i had many pleasant and interesting conversations with complete strangers at the counter at clark’s, breakfast, lunch or dinner.

posted by: cedarhillresident on May 20, 2010  6:43pm

:(

After school going to Clarks scrapping up the change and sharing an Ice cream! All the St. Mary’s girls with our skirts rolled up short and meeting the ND boys or :) the bad boy’s we where not suppose to see there, will never forget you…nor will the kids that live and hung out in East Rock! The memory’s in these walls! hurts to see another old classic and affordable place close :( MAN this sucks

posted by: Eva Geertz on May 20, 2010  6:57pm

A couple of years ago I wrote a short essay for the New Haven Review in which I wrote about how I hoped to take my daughter to Clark’s for her first ice cream cone, since it was where I had my first ice cream cone. She’s nowhere near close to having the coordination necessary to eat an ice cream cone. I am very, very bummed out that Clark’s Dairy is closing, and wish to God that it was the pizza/restaurant side that were closing instead.

posted by: The Blank on May 20, 2010  8:18pm

Nothing beats the quality of Ashleys ice cream.  However, if you care about presentation Clarks has always been the place to go. A sundae at Clarks looks the way a sundae looks in an Archie comic from the 40s. Its wholesome, its classic, its iconic. So unfortunate that we’re losing Clarks. I agree with the above Doodle analogy; While Clarks food might not have come close to the Doodle, it certainly retained the old time charm that the Doodle also embodied. I’m sure they’ll fill it with a Chipolte grill or something. Or knowing New Haven, maybe it’ll just sit empty for a decade.

posted by: East Rockette on May 20, 2010  9:12pm

Eva, take her anyway! You hold, she licks: the perfect photo op for one last sad visit to a good old place.

posted by: mikepc on May 20, 2010  11:37pm

I remember Clark Dairy on Greenwich Ave where I developed my love for butterscotch sundaes. It was next to the A and P. I would you to the Howard theater on Sat or Sunday and then to Clark Dairy. Also a few times had a sundae at the down town one. I believe there was 3 stores in the New Haven area

posted by: Wicked Lester on May 21, 2010  8:08am

Everything I like about New Haven closes. I really have no more use for downtown. Very disappointing.

posted by: Evan Smith on May 21, 2010  12:41pm

Good ol’ cozy Clarks Dairy is were our parents would take us Goatville kids to celebrate a school or sports performance and where we’d naturally congregate when we stepped out into the world on our own. The tradition continued as we, the new generation of parents, treated our children there as well. Sad to see the exact cycle broken—-but there is still next door—-and warm memories. We wish Tony Mihalakos better health and many thanks again for the generations of fond memories.

posted by: Ed on May 21, 2010  7:46pm

Farewell Clarks, I will miss you great shakes, ice cream and tasty burgers & fries.
All the best to you and may you prosper in the future.

posted by: Denise Smith on May 22, 2010  6:19am

Here’s an old B&W photo of pretty waitress Helma Raio behind a Clarks Dairy counter (from the “FAIR HAVEN Neighborhood Memories” FB site). Can anyone make out the ice cream prices?

http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=486709345695&ref=ts#!/photo.php?pid=30816399&op=4&o=all&view=all&subj=486709345695&aid=-1&oid=486709345695&id=1056739164

posted by: The Count on May 22, 2010  9:29am

And this is why I’m always defending Tweed-New Haven Airport. This region is gripped in a “can’t do” mentality because the citizenry focus on what’s lost, whether it’s Clark’s Dairy or Yankee Doodle, or the departure of our minor-league sports teams. No wonder folks are down on New Haven. I, however, don’t think this should translate to Tweed just because our inability to keep jet airline service here. (Unlike other issues in which they’re involved, there is a reluctance to blame East Haven for Tweed’s stigma.) Bottom line is, if New Haven is THAT bad, follow Vladimir Lenin’s observation: “A refugee votes with his feet.”

posted by: dreams of yesterday on May 22, 2010  11:19am

Fantastic place…thank you for writing such a lovely tribute,it sure will be missed…I’m glad my kids got the chance to sit at the counter and order a grilled cheese and fries!

posted by: luchador on May 22, 2010  10:41pm

We’ll miss ya! Best fries in town. Remember playing football games at Cline Tower then goin to Clark’s…......must admit: ran out w/out paying the tab a couple times. Promise I make it up to ya before the end of the month!

posted by: Che on May 22, 2010  11:54pm

I agree with Wicked Lester. I had my first date there and it was the best burger and fries. My kids loved the shakes and even more, they loved watching them getting made. Great meeting place after school. Walked there from Cross and sat with friends to share some fries. Downtown is not for everyone and its so sad that we cannot go and enjoy a movie and take a walk without hearing the obnoxious people drunk, screaming and acting like knuckleheads. Too bad, they will certainly be missed. I hope they do not replace it with just anything.

posted by: Janet Ainsworth on May 23, 2010  5:51am

Used to go there in the 70s with a fellow Journal-Courier staffer after we played tennis on the clay courts at College Woods.  Earlier, used to sneak out of the now-closed St. Mary’s High School on Bradley Street to go to Clark’s.

posted by: theresa/terri on May 28, 2010  9:23am

i worked at Clarks on Whitney in the early sixties but most of you may not remember there were several Clarks at that time. I started working at Clarks in the 50’s as a teen ager, it was on Howe st. in New Haven. There was also one on Kimberly ave. where i worked for a time AFTER I HAD MY FIRST CHILD. THE CClark’sON WHITNEY WAS THE LAST cLARKS I WORKED AT FOR A LITTLE WHILE, I WAS MARRIED AT THE TIME AND THE MANAGER NEEDED EXTRA HELP AND ASKED ME BACK. PEOPLE MAY NOT KNOW ALSO THAT THE cLARKS DAIRY PLANT WAS LOCATED IN WEST HAVEN AND THE ORIGINAL OWNER WAS A TOUGH TASK MASTER. HE WANTED THOSE ICE CREAM SODA’S MADE A CERTAIN WAY AND HE WOULD CORRECT YOU IF THEY WERE NOT ON THE MONEY.SaSaturdayights a whole lot of teteenoboppershwouldome in after their dance and I could remember twenty and thirty orders at a time without wrting them down, those where the days!!