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.