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Say yes to SoNo

By Susan Cullen Anderson
Coastal Living
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(Coastal Livingexternal link) -- Stand in the heart of South Norwalk, Connecticut, under the clattering railroad trestle on tree-lined Washington Street, and ponder the choices. Straight ahead lies the Norwalk River, the riverfront Maritime Aquarium and the outdoor deck of SoNo Seaport Seafood. Between the trestle and the river, a block of hip restaurants, high-end shops and bars bustles well into the night. To the right, on South Main Street, is Chocopologie Café, also known as heaven. Where to begin?

In heaven, of course. Denmark native Fritz Knipschildt owns the European-style café, which serves everything from French toast to caramel macchiatos. Diners can also perch on stools at a counter to watch the staff create artisan chocolates that sell at hundreds of stores nationwide, including Dean & Deluca and Whole Foods. Customers tend to rhapsodize about his offerings. "Fritz," one woman tells him, "my daughter put her leftover hot chocolate in the refrigerator, and it became pudding!" Fritz loves energetic South Norwalk (nicknamed SoNo) as a base for Chocopologie and Knipschildt Chocolatier. "It captures a little part of New York," he says.

That's an assessment few would have made 25 years ago, when the neighborhood was suffering. "There was a pool hall, a five-and-dime, a bank and not much else," says Richie Ball, who owned a venerable corner bar/restaurant here for almost 30 years. Broken windows and homeless people sleeping in alleys were commonplace, he says. "It was in dire need of life."

Life came in the form of the Maritime Aquarium in 1988, says its president and CEO, Jennifer Herring. The City of Norwalk made a "visionary investment" of $30 million to build the redbrick, warehouselike aquarium, she says. "It has paid off in spades." Focusing on the ecosystem of nearby Long Island Sound, the aquarium attracts more than 500,000 annual visitors. That translates to $20 million in tourism and taxes for the community every year, Herring says. With an active boatbuilding workshop, educational programs and sea creatures that range from harbor seals to jellyfish to sharks, the aquarium draws visitors from the entire Northeast.

While the aquarium appeals mainly to the under-18 set, SoNo's restaurant and bar scene brings adults to the neighborhood. The district has an industrial-chic feel, heightened by factories refurbished as condos and offices, the background music of train whistles, and the modern design of restaurants such as Match, which serves "New American" cuisine on Washington Street.

Co-owner Scott Beck says SoNo's restaurant scene is hopping. With Cuban, Japanese, Spanish and African restaurants all within a block or two, "the diversity is amazing," he says. Another appetizing spot close to the river, SoNo Baking Company & Café, tempts with breads and pastries, plus an extensive lunch menu. After carb loading, shoppers can explore boutiques that include Il Trittico, which sells upscale Italian home goods, and Galerie SoNo, offering fine art and photography.

At its heart, though, the neighborhood is all about the water. Kayakers paddle the river at dawn. Workboats chug in and out from runs to shellfish beds, and recreational boaters stop here while cruising the Sound. The annual Oyster Festival and SoNo Arts Celebration (in September and August, respectively) attract thousands. During summer, "You almost need a traffic cop in the harbor," says Norwalk Mayor Richard Moccia.

For a little solitude, visitors can head for Oyster Shell Park, next to the aquarium. Eventually, it will link South Norwalk to the city's business district. While it's small now, plans for the riverside park include a gateway plaza, kayak access, an education room, scenic overlooks, an art plaza and lawn areas.

With the restaurants, shops, and nightlife in SoNo, a weekend trip is definitely in order. Visitors can choose from a chain hotel or two in Norwalk proper, or look for more-upscale inns in surrounding towns. The Roger Sherman Inn in New Canaan has comfortable rooms in a lovely neighborhood, just a 15-minute drive away.

Before going back to the car, though, out-of-towners should stop by Chocopologie one more time to pick up something divine for the road. Knipschildt sells a sampler box of truffles that will make the drive a lot sweeter.


Copyright 2007 COASTAL LIVING Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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With the restaurants, shops and nightlife in SoNo, a weekend trip is definitely in order.

THE SCOOP ON SoNo

Where to eat: Chocopologie, 12 South Main St.; 203/838-3131 or http://www.chocopologie.com. Match, 98 Washington St.; 203/852-1088. SoNo Baking Company & Caf�©, 101 South Water St.; 203/847-7666 or http://www.sonobaking.com. SoNo Seaport Seafood, 100 Water St.; 203/854-9483 or http://www.sonoseaportseafood.com.

Where to shop: Galerie SoNo, 135 Washington St.; 203/831-8332 or http://www.sonogalerie.com. Il Trittico, 119 Washington St.; 203/831-8748.

What to see: The Maritime Aquarium, 10 North Water St.; 203/852-0700 or http://www.maritimeaquarium.org. The Norwalk Museum (41 North Main St.) displays an eclectic mix of items, from 18th- and 19th-century art and furnishings of the prominent Lockwood family to silk top hats and bowlers from the Hat Corporation of America, once based here; 203/866-0202. If the Lockwood collection piques your interest, visit the Lockwood-Mathews Mansion Museum (295 West Ave., 203/838-9799), where the Stepford Wives movies were filmed.

Where to stay: Rates at the Roger Sherman Inn (195 Oenoke Ridge, New Canaan) start at $110; 203/966-4541 or http://www.rogershermaninn.com.

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