High atop a hill, near Newtown’s historic flagpole, lies the intersection of Church Hill Road and Main Street. And there, you’ll find an entirely different type of intersection—one where British and Italian cuisines meet. The concept was inspired by the original Dere Street, an ancient Roman road in Northern England, built in the first century A.D. To honor this historic place where British and Roman cultures intersect, the two cuisines are now celebrated at Dere Street in Newtown.
Past the 1800s building facade, it’s contemporary, whimsical and positively humming with other diners and imbibers. Home to 28 different gins, an abundant “British wine list” of single malts, beer and a selection of cocktails so unique, you’d be wise to arrive thirsty. Bring your appetite, as well as an open mind. If you’re a gin lover, this is the closest spot to heaven on earth you’ll find anywhere near here. And if you’re a vodka drinker? Well, they do have one brand, just in case they can’t convert you. Keeping with the British theme, it’s Broken Shed from New Zealand, a former colony. But they’d sure love to try to turn you on to gin.
Dave Cooper of Dere Street recently invited CTBites to learn a bit more about the restaurant, bar and bakery, and to sample some of their specialties. The night we sat down with him, it was close to two months since opening day. I asked how it’s going. “We’re knockin’ it out the park! If you don’t have a reservation booked by the beginning of the week, you’re probably not getting in here on the weekends. That’s consistently, every week.”
Inside, there are just 49 seats, total: 32 in the restaurant itself and 17 in the bar area. Dave explained, people eat at the bar and the counter because they can’t get a table. “People aren’t just coming here to drink. They’re coming in here to eat and drink. The big patio out there will add 11 more tables, to allow room for 22 more guests. When you sit on the deck and look down the hill at those hills? It’s gorgeous. And on top of all of that, we’re extremely unique. We’re a British and Italian restaurant; there’s no such other thing!”
As Dave shared with us, “We don’t do too many sweet drinks. All of our cocktails are pre-Prohibition, so they’re real alcohol. We don’t sell wasabi, pomegranate, chocolate-sprinkled espresso martinis. Real drinks.”
Lady Diana joined us at the table in cocktail form. For me, it was a fantastic—and long overdue—introduction to Aperol, the bright orange aperitif, mixed with Sipsmith gin, a little citrus and a touch of simple syrup.
On the sweeter side of Dere Street, we sampled a blood orange Collins, a special that night featuring Hayman’s Old Tom gin and San Pellegrino blood orange soda, garnished with rosemary.
We also tried a sip of Brockmans gin—very smooth, quite floral and different, with a hint of sweetness that comes from blackberries in addition to juniper berries.
But my favorite two drinks of the evening were the biggest surprises. Until I was introduced to Bobby Burns (Scotland’s poet laureate, don’tchaknow?!), I had no love for single malt. But through the magic of cocktail wizardry, I found myself incredibly drawn to this complex drink: 12-year Glenlivet single malt Scotch whisky blended with Carpano Antica Formula sweet Italian vermouth, a little Drambuie and some bitters.
My shock was evident when I admitted to Dave, “It’s delicious. I loathe Scotch. I will not drink Scotch plain.” He quickly interjected, “Well, you’re drinking it now! It’s a single malt; it’s much smoother. This is our least profitable drink, but it’s so good.” It’s an outstanding beverage to honor a poet whose birthday is celebrated in Scotland with a day off. I’ll drink to that. Cheers to Bobby Burns! And I’d be thrilled to go back and make his acquaintance again very soon.
You may recall 2011 seemed to be the summer of the Negroni. I was intrigued by this drink I heard and saw so much about, but never got around to sampling. The Dere Street version just happens to be Dave’s usual drink: the most unusual Negroni. It’s made with Hendricks gin and Lillet Blanc, garnished with a spear of cucumber, and I loved it. He went on to say, “We substitute Aperol instead of Campari. It’s just a little sweeter. It’s sort of a bitter/sweet thing that’s going.” And note the single, solitary giant ice cube. Just one cube of ice to chill the drink, but not water it down.
Lest you think your intrepid reporter did nothing but hang out and drink all night (though there was an element of that, who am I kidding?), I must tell you about the food. First, the bread that comes to the table. Our basket was filled with four varieties baked just a few steps down the hill at the Dere Street Bakery: raisin walnut, rustic Italian, a baguette and roasted garlic. Though each was delicious in its own way, I especially enjoyed the nuttiness and texture of the raisin walnut.
All the bread, eight varieties total, is baked every morning. And that’s the story within the story: how the bakery came to be. Dave and his late wife, Robin, began making scones from their home kitchen, then moved the business to a factory in 2005. In 2013, they moved to a larger facility in Danbury, where the business runs today.
“Everything we sell at the bakery is made at the factory, except for the olive oils and ancillary items. The pastries are baked every morning and delivered fresh every morning. Then, what doesn’t sell, at the end of the day goes to a food pantry, if they pick up, or it gets thrown out. We sell a lot of steak and ale (pies) and chicken curry, meat and potato, and chicken, leek and pancetta. What’s made at the factory is frozen and sold wholesale all over the country. So when you go to Whole Foods or Caraluzzi’s Market here in town, you’ll find our products there as well.”
We started with their Caprese salad, where mangoes replace the traditional tomatoes, layered with discs of fresh mozzarella, topped with a nest of fresh greens, then dotted with basil pesto and garnished with pignoli. It’s an out-of-the-ordinary combination that makes you wish you had thought of it yourself.
Next came the scallops, perfectly seared, served with fresh peas and caramelized onions in a smoked bacon cream sauce, garnished with colorful microgreens. Simply OUTSTANDING. I ran out of words to describe how much I loved this dish and found myself uttering simple syllables of “mmmmm” and “wow!”
The smoked duck and mushroom salad was a special appetizer that night. Served rare, the tender duck was accompanied by pickled mushrooms and a mound of fresh greens and microgreens.
“Chef and I are big believers on everything being fresh,” Dave says. “I think the farm-to-table concept is way overdone. Local doesn’t necessarily transfer to good. If I can get my New Zealand lamb and Welsh lamb, which is far superior to American lamb, and it’s the same price or less? I’m going to put New Zealand lamb or Welsh lamb on the menu because it’s the best.”
And speaking of Chef, behind the scenes in the kitchen is Iain Sampson. Voted best chef in Wales in 2010, the Coopers first met him while vacationing there in 2012. They were so impressed with his culinary skills, they shared their idea of the restaurant concept that is Dere Street today. And three years later, Iain moved here to start making their dream come true.
We learned, though chicken tikka masala is often served in Indian restaurants, it was first made in Birmingham, England, by an Indian chef at a restaurant there. The tomato and spices provided a flavorful coating to the pieces of chicken, served over pilau rice. I’m used to eating and preparing this dish in more of a sauce, but Dave explains, same as all of their Italian dishes, they prefer to go very, very light on the sauces. It’s served with a creamy, refreshing cucumber raita on top and a side of naan.
A nightly special of pan-seared red snapper was light, delicate and flaky, served with rosemary potatoes al forno and griddled radicchio. The two fish lovers at the table enjoyed it immensely.
Another nightly special, pangritata-crusted pork chop, was served over a zesty cannellini bean cassoulet. The pork itself wasn’t heavily seasoned, but was hearty and several inches thick.
There’s careful thought paid to presentation throughout. From each drink to every plate served, it feels as though something extra special is coming your way. And it absolutely is.
Music is unobtrusive and playing in the background. Acoustic tiles and double insulation in the walls prevent any outside noise from creeping in. Even when the restaurant is full, you can have a great conversation. We did that, too. Everyone’s talking all around, yet you can’t hear what they’re saying even though you’re right next to each other. Servers are attentive and know their stuff.
All the desserts were outstanding, but I swooned over the sticky toffee pudding, surrounded by toffee sauce and topped with rich, vanilla ice cream. The sweetness wafted toward me as soon as it was placed on the table. Extremely moist, rich, dense and delicious.
The panna cotta, garnished with a flourish of English biscuit on top, was excellent in its own right, and had a light, velvety texture. You could see, smell and taste the vanilla.
Last, but not least, was the chocolate nemesis—a fudge-like, flourless chocolate cake with a dollop of tart crème fraiche on top.
For those who prefer dessert by the glass, they offer single malts and aged port wines by the ounce. As some of the single malts sell for more than $150 a bottle wholesale, this is the place you might have a sip of something out of the ordinary you’ve always wanted to try.
My passport’s expired and I won’t be getting to Europe anytime soon. Luckily, I can get there in my car via Dere Street for sure. Whether you’re looking for breakfast or brunch on the weekend, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, or drinks and a few bites at the bar, you’ll find it all right there. Just don’t forget to call to reserve your spot.
Dere Street Bakery is located at 2 West Street in Newtown, CT.
Open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Open Sunday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dere Street Restaurant and Bar is located at 33 Main Street in Newtown, CT.
Closed Monday and Tuesday.
Open Wednesday through Sunday, hours and service as follows: