[Sidebar] March 9 - 16, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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The Ratheskeller

A fine South County institution

by Johnette Rodriguez

Old Coach Road, Kenyon, 783-7839.
Open Tues-Sun, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.
No credit cards or checks
Ramp access, bathrooms not accessible

Part of the fun of going to the Rathskeller (known to locals as "the Rat") is winding through the woods and past the ponds on Tuckertown and Worden's Pond roads to get there (or, more simply, you can follow the signs off Route 2 in Charlestown). Either way, you come upon the Rathskeller in the middle of nowhere, and discover that it's a cross between a diner, a pub and a hunting lodge, its menu quintessentially Yankee, with a spritz of German.

Founded in 1933 by Ray Lenzner's grandfather and run by Lenzner until his death five years ago (his widow runs it now), the restaurant maintains separate dining and drinking rooms -- there's still a sign on the front door proclaiming it the "ladies entrance." But there isn't space set aside for non-smokers -- you take your chances.

Over the years, the German-style menu items have all but disappeared, though you can still get a liverwurst sandwich, and "Max's Own" hot mustard is available for franks and beans ($4.95) or ham and beans ($5.95), which was Bill's choice for supper. He also ordered a "small" side of fries ($2.00), which came stacked into a teetering tower of the most delicious (and nutritionally incorrect) fried potatoes this side of the British Isles. Hand-cut and crisped to a deep brown in lard, these fries are one of the Rathskeller's biggest draws for kids and adults alike.

This eatery has always been a family place. There are two corner booths that will fit five or six people, a tucked-away "kissing booth" that will fit only two and a few tables in the front room. The back room holds more tables and a long bar -- from which come excellent mixed drinks, I've been told, and yummy dark beer on draft, to which I can attest. Friends can remember what a treat it was to go to the Rat as little kids, and the evening we were there, a 5-year-old with her grandma and an 8-year-old with her dad were having a great time with their food and their waitress, Jennie.

The waitresses at the Rat are no-nonsense kind of gals. They can be gruff one minute and singing the next; laissez-faire with one table and bending-over-backwards with the 8-year-old. It's part of the charm of the place. No pretensions, no how, no where.

The food is similar, with king and queen cut prime ribs ($15.95 and $13.95, respectively) the most expensive thing on the menu, a fried pepper sandwich ($1.75) bringing up the rear. Regulars swear by the pork chops, Bill has loved the baked stuffed shrimp in the past and I've almost always ordered the fried oysters in season. Indeed, all of the seafood is good, from the tasty "Yankee-style clam chowder" ($1.60 a cup, $2 a bowl) -- with clams and salt pork in each bite -- to the delicious oyster stew ($3.95) with lots of butter and plenty of sweet oysters. The fried whole clams, clam strips, scallops and fish and chips are also excellent.

After a running start at the seafood, I found myself in the mood for another specialty of the house: baked stuffed flounder, with "Ray's special sauce" ($11.95). The flounder filets were wrapped around a cracker stuffing and baked in a herb and white wine sauce, with a touch of nutmeg. The sauce enhanced the delicate flavor of the fish without going for top billing. A baked potato with chived sour cream accompanied the flounder, and the spiced apple ring for a garnish was a not-unwelcome blast from the past.

The mural above the wainscotting is another, with its duochrome renderings of cabaret singers a la Dietrich in top hats and stockings. Word has it that the unknown artist of these late-'30s paintings did them to pay off his bar bill. They are periodically cleaned to bring back their high gloss, but they have never been repainted.

There is also a string of letters above the door that everyone asks about: WYOADIITY. Since most people ask their waitress, it stands for, "Would you order another drink if I tell you?" Maybe this is a mild way of keeping up with the hilarity pouring out of the pub in the back room.

The night we were there, the homemade apple crisp and bread pudding were not available. Cheesecakes, parfaits and carrot cake were up for grabs, but the cakes were not house-made. Nonetheless, a dish of ice cream and cookies ($1.75) seems like the perfect ending to a Rathskeller meal.

So, go for the fries, go for the draft or go for the oysters. But make the trek to the wilds of Rhode Island (while they still exist) for a South County institution that serves up some mighty fine down-home food.

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