When I visited Yale as a high schooler in 2013, my father did that horrible, embarrassing thing where he asks a stranger for food recommendations. (Why do you do that, dads? No one likes that.) Almost without hesitation, the stranger responded, “Claire’s.” Trusting him, we walked into the little shop on the corner of Chapel and College and were met with the smell of fresh coffee and baked goods. There were handwritten signs everywhere and college students slurping soup. The staff was smiley and enthusiastic. This warm, comfortable environment is exactly what Claire LaPia envisioned when she opened Claire’s Corner Copia forty years ago.
LaPia and her husband, Frank Criscuolo, opened the doors to their little restaurant on the corner of College and Chapel on Sept. 17, 1975. In the years since opening, the mission at Claire’s Corner Copia to bring real food to a loving community “hasn’t changed at all,” LaPia told me.
LaPia was inspired to open the restaurant when she noticed a proliferation of processed and unwholesome foods replacing healthier, more nutritious predecessors while eating out. “I was seeing bottle dressings and soups that weren’t fresh and breads that weren’t homemade,” she recalled. In opening her own restaurant, she wanted to break that trend, provide healthy, delicious food for New Haven, and weave a restaurant into the fabric of the community. She has accomplished all that, and more.
When I walked in on Monday, this time as a student, the shop was once again bustling with students typing away on laptops, older couples sharing scones, business meetings over fresh coffee, and all sorts of lovely people being served lovely food. I introduced myself to the woman behind the register and asked if I could meet with Claire whenever convenient. I was nervous to meet someone who was clearly so important to a community I was very new to, but I was ushered immediately into the kitchen with smiles and welcomes. I found LaPia in her office—the kitchen—joking with staff and sautéing steaming onions.
My backpack and I occupied a significant amount of space in the small kitchen. Employees apologized and excused themselves while moving around me as if I were not the one actually in their way. LaPia didn’t offer a hand. She was busy chopping organic zucchini. She offered a warm smile, instead, and told me to feel free to talk to staff and make myself at home.
As I was getting settled in the kitchen, the woman from the register came back to tell LaPia that someone was going to be a little late to work. “Oh, he’s never late,” she rolled her eyes, smiling—the matriarch of a tight-knit family. “We certainly are quirky,” she remarked at one point. “We’re goonies, I always say.”
LaPia and her goonies celebrated forty years of quirk and deliciousness last Thursday with a “Party and Presents All Day!” LaPia’s forty-year mission to provide healthy food to the community has included cookbooks, kosher certification, gluten-free and vegan options. Claire’s has won praise and awards for supporting organic farmers and making quality quiche, soups, and desserts, and it’s the go-to bakery for Yalies celebrating birthdays, holidays, or a simple cake craving. LaPia and her restaurant alike are deeply embedded in the community. A Calhoun Fellow, LaPia has taught cooking classes in the college and has shared her love of organic cuisine with the students. “I’ve always wanted to go to Yale, and in another life I would go,” she told me from her post in the kitchen.
Ask LaPia about the Yale community and the New Haven community as a whole, and she lights up. “We love the New Haven nonprofits,” she gushes. She tells stories of staff members’ children getting reading help from New Haven Reads. She raves about the Yale University Art Gallery and the many free music events on campus. LaPia is New Haven’s biggest fan, and the sentiment is clearly mutual.
When you walk into Claire’s, the first thing you see is a marble topped table covered in community event information, from volunteer opportunities to religious events to arts shows. The restaurant’s charity of the month is the Yale Chapter of Habitat for Humanity. LaPia commits to the things she’s passionate about: healthy eating, community involvement, and people. In a quote from the “About” section of their website, she explains, “Our bottom line is people, and when you care about people, you want to feed them real food.”
I ask LaPia what her hopes are for the next forty years, and she already has an answer. With one hand holding a dish and the other cracking eggs, she lays out her plan to start a program that helps people who don’t live healthy lifestyles because of the way they eat. “I want people to figure out a way to eat that promotes health. We’re going to start something as soon as the dust settles from this anniversary,” she says.
It seems as if the dust never quite settles at Claire’s. LaPia and her staff are in constant motion, preparing food and hustling around the restaurant. Not wanting to overstay my welcome (though they probably would have let me stay all day), I thanked LaPia for her time and for letting me into the kitchen—“the office,” she reminded me, smiling.
Before I left, LaPia had introduced me to Emily Ward, CC ’15. “A Yalie herself, and an Emily, too!” LaPia announced with a laugh (I am not technically an Emily, but it was loud in the kitchen, and she was too excited and kind for me to correct). Ward, a new employee as of a few weeks ago, said that what drew her to Claire’s was the community it has always provided. When she decided she wanted to take a break before jumping into grad school, Claire’s seemed like the perfect place to work. “It’s more of a family,” she told me.
Looking around one last time before leaving, I noticed how right Ward was. I noted the signs on the walls, the event table by the door, the students curled up with their coffee and their laptops in the nooks of the sunny restaurant. Her sentiment rings true for everyone—the staff, the patrons, Yale, and New Haven. LaPia has accomplished her goal of making a culinary home in and for the community. At Claire’s, as the sign reads, “No minimum on credit cards. No maximum on Love.”