the story of the anchor Spa

By the time restaurateur Albert “Al” M. Levett opened The Anchor Spa in 1939—at The Great Depression’s close—the parcel of land that housed the restaurant had shifted with the sands of history: Former dwelling place of Rev. William Hooke, one of New Haven’s original Puritan settlers; given by Hooke to a congregational church that leased it to Yale University for 999 years; first taking a retail turn as the address of White, a Russian-Jewish-immigrant-owned haberdashery; then, it’s first incarnation as address of an eatery: The Rink restaurant, opened in 1935 by a professional hockey player.

The Anchor Spa began its long, legendary run as a cocktail club well before Downtown New Haven became a commercial hub. Manifesting the mantra ‘location, location, location,’ Al Levett ambitiously tied his new restaurant’s fortunes to its appeal to patrons from the Arena and Schubert Theatres, the Taft Hotel, and Yale University. Levett was also responsible for creating the establishment’s enduringly iconic maritime-influenced exterior and interior: a deep ocean-blue façade of porcelainized metal panels and glass in the Art Moderne style; an anchor logo on the sign; comfortable curved booths; and an inviting bar.

When the U.S. became involved with WWII, Levett left to become a chief supervisor at a gun manufacturer, and sold Anchor Spa. The new owners changed the name to Anchor Restaurant. When the war ended, in 1946 Levett repurchased the restaurant and reinvigorated its theatrical green room feel, adding what would become its famed jukebox, as well as autographed photos of stars on its walls. The 272 College Street restaurant eventually became: The Anchor.

Named after the Milford, Connecticut beach where it first opened during Prohibition, in its halcyon days The Anchor became a favorite watering hole for actors, artists, poets, writers, and Yalies, and the after-work boîte for bartenders and staff from other bars. Levett created an underground speakeasy in its basement, called the Mermaid Room. Over decades the cocktail lounge attracted playwright Thornton Wilder, writer Wally Lamb, and an array of celebrities, including Lucille Ball, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., George C. Scott, Jim Morrison., and Yale alumna Jodie Foster.

The Anchor changed hands after Levett’s death in 1961. Bill Nutile, who Levett had hired as a bartender, and his wife, Grace, took over the restaurant, and evolved it into a family business, later helmed by Grace’s nephew, Marshall Moore, and his heirs after Moore’s death.

the reaction to its closing

On January 4, 2015 The Anchor closed its doors. The business had been facing many pressures and challenges in preceding years, as it struggled to evolve with the changing times. 

In 2014, America’s foremost cocktail historian, David Wondrich selected The Anchor as one of that year’s “Best Bars in America” for Esquire magazine. When the bar was founded, Wondrich noted, it numbered among the “swank joints,” as one of the best cocktail lounges of its time, and like other lounges that had managed to survive from that era, over decades The Anchor—as he put it—“had worn into a dark, sexy seediness.”

But with a treasured jukebox, and other familiar and comforting features,The Anchor had become a cherished New Haven institution—and the outcry at rumors of its closing were vociferous and swift.

Arguing that many “well-loved local establishments in New Haven” had disappeared because of “slow homogenization/gentrification,” a petition began to circulate on Change.org titled, “Don't shut down the Anchor!” It passionately made the case: How many places remain in New Haven where Yalies, townies, celebrities, punks, tourists, wealthy, poor would all gather together as friends—where a visit there would almost always result in a new friendship? Very few—the Anchor wasn't just a bar or a local business; it was much, much more than that.

The petition garnered nearly 1,200 signatures. Still, it was not enough to keep The Anchor from closing its doors after 75 years of service—after which, 21st- century-style mourning on social media began.

The concept of the New Anchor Spa

Those who were lamenting The Anchor’s closing learned in July of 2015 that the closure was temporary indeed.

When The Anchor’s new owner, Yale alumnus Karl Franz Williams signed a lease agreement with Yale University Properties, he was well aware of the subtleties and delicate balance involved in revitalizing and reintroducing the beloved establishment and brand.

Part of Williams’ plan is to preserve the best and most recognizable aspects of the restaurant’s former incarnation: Maintain The Anchor name; refresh and restore its Art Moderne façade; bring in a new jukebox; and keep its characteristic booth seating largely the same. His intent: to create something timeless.

New Haven has long had strengths of both surf and turf: One of its prized geographic features is its large deep harbor, accompanied by the evocative, breezy, casual cool of its coast-driven New England culture. By land, the City has been called the "Cultural Capital of Connecticut" for its first-rate theatre venues, including the Yale Repertory Theatre, the Long Wharf Theatre, and the Shubert Theatre. The latter once premiered numerous historic marquee productions prior to their Broadway debuts—includingOklahoma! My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

 New Haven is also home to excellent museums and contemporary art galleries, and music venues and cultural institutions, including the New Haven Jazz Festival. In 2014 Livability.com crowned New Haven the “Best Foodie City” in the U.S. There are also 31 Zagat-rated restaurants in the City, the most in the state, and the third most in New England.

 Downtown New Haven is racially diverse, with a population that skews young, and is a growing city with thousands of new apartments and condominiums. In recent years it has also attracted dozens of new upscale restaurants, as well as popular retail shops such as an Apple Store, Urban Outfitters, and J. Crew.

This is the New Haven milieu into which The Anchor for the New Millennium will debut in December 2015. While aspects of the physical, historical version of The Anchor of which New Haven residents grew so fond over 75 years will be carefully preserved, both fans and newcomers will be equally pleased to find many of its intangible graces revived as well: Community, camaraderie, exposure to new people—from all walks of life—and new ideas, shared experiences, and a sense of belonging. The latter is particularly important in a city whose population has traditionally spanned the continuum of both yacht owners and longshoremen, and—in the vibrant midst of Yale University—represents a cultural cocktail of both town and gown.

Karl Franz Williams has a gift: In the vein of revered restaurateur Danny Meyer, Williams’ approach to hospitality is simultaneously sophisticated, high touch, and refreshingly down to earth and accessible—a remarkable customer-care acumen he first demonstrated with his inaugural venture, Society Coffee in Harlem. The Anchor also fits into Williams’ portfolio of cocktail-lounge brands, including his two Harlem-based businesses, 67 Orange Street and Solomon & Kuff, both of which—like The Anchor—were created around a strong, specific historical narrative, and rooted in a sense of legacy. Williams also worked with New Haven local historian and architect, Colin Caplan, to learn as much as he could about The Anchor’s history

In a release, Yale University Properties said of Williams’ selection as The Anchor’s new owner, that it had “worked closely with the city and members of the community to find a new tenant who would bring a fresh presentation while maintaining the history and architecture of the former Anchor.”

Williams intends to distill the essence of the old Anchor—and its endearing community values—while adding a new, audacious chapter to the renowned cocktail club’s storied past.