[Sidebar] August 3 - 10, 2000
[Food Reviews]
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Olympia Tea Room

Revisiting a South County institution

by Bill Rodriguez

74 Bay St., Watch Hill, 348-8211
Open daily, 8 a.m.-10 p.m.
Major credit cards
Sidewalk access (no restroom access)

Between its sea view and its location between shopping spree temptations, the Olympia Tea Room has been pretty popular over the years. Since 1916, it has become a Watch Hill institution, across from what is now a busy harbor and in the midst of mid-scale shops catering to the bustling summer trade. Outside tables allow for up-close people watching, and the usual breeze off of Block Island Sound provides nature's own air conditioning.

As much as I like dining al fresco, it's more interesting to sit inside here. The ambiance is '50s soda fountain-meets-Henri Rousseau. (Generational menus linger; fresh-squeezed lemonade and lime rickeys are still available.) The atmosphere is pleasant, with rose-colored walls and ceiling, and mahogany booths. The marble counter saw its last orange phosphate decades ago and is now a bar, with a polished brass wine-glass rack above its length. Behind it is a life-size pairing of an alligator, and to the left of the bar is one of a monkey looking up from some fruit. Other paintings are decidedly not your usual seascapes, including one of a leopard mouthing either a doll or a tiny, stiff customer. Except for the monkey and an angel, the art is the work of Marcia Felber, who, with husband Jack, is usually busying about as host and owner.

Over the years, and from breakfast to dinner, I've appreciated various items at the Olympia Tea Room, from soft-shell crabs in season to killer desserts. This time, I was impressed before my first forkful. A liter-bottle of full-flavored olive oil, in lieu of butter, came with the bread basket. Unleavened flatbread and nicely chewy Italian rolls join the butter-begging raisin-pumpernickel in the basket.

The most original thing on the menu may be the elaborate tongue-in-cheek Watch Hill history anecdote, which ends like a turn-of-the-century disaster movie, with an invasion of herded crabs panicking the tourists and a plane crash to boot. Nevertheless, culinary imagination is in evidence as well. Among the appetizers, grilled scallops ($8.50) come on fried greens with wasabi; liver and onions ($15.95) is offered as a bravely nostalgic comfort-food opportunity. Johnnie chose the most interesting of the salads, a "Florida salad" ($7.95), which consists of grapefruit and avocado slices tossed in a champagne and honey vinaigrette with mesclun and pecans. It was as tasty as it sounds.

Our 13-year-old nephew, visiting from Maine, hankered to tear into a lobster. The baked and stuffed Point Judith one-pounder ($23) had crab and small shrimp in a buttery stuffing, and was cooked to perfection: just barely done, and thereby sweet and juicy. I had one of the four pastas on the menu, calamari Olympia ($16.50). The local squid wasn't overcooked, the rings as tender as the linguini, which unfortunately was past al dente. But the topping was right on the money, from the fresh mushrooms and bell peppers to the tasty tomatoes and the calamata olives exploding with flavor.

And then there are the tea room's desserts, which are worth a trip by themselves. There are a half-dozen, besides the sundae and sorbet, priced from $4.50 to $6. Kitchen-made, they span the indulgence spectrum from Key lime pie and griddled pound cake to rum-soaked ginger bread and chocolate cake topped with fudge sauce. I couldn't avoid reminding myself how yummy their "World Famous Avondale Swan" ($5) is, so that's what I shared. A cream puff shell is cut and arranged to resemble a swan, with the help of plenty of whipped cream, swimming on a sea of hot fudge sauce. Golden French vanilla ice cream is inside. Johnnie wasn't going to pass up hogging their raspberry bread pudding ($4.50); made with Portuguese sweet bread, it contains both fresh raspberries and melba sauce. Delicious.

Summer is when most people discover or revisit the Olympia Tea Room. It used to close in fall, although it will remain open this year until January. The disadvantage of a hot-weather is that the place is packed. We had to wait only 15 minutes for a booth on a recent Saturday evening, but our entrees took forever to arrive -- a complaint voiced by another couple we heard leaving. Things should slow down after Labor Day. There will be a fall menu and even a leisurely Sunday brunch opportunity. You can join a tradition that's been taking place since the age of parasols, and even enjoy a fresh lemonade like the kind your great-grandmother may have enjoyed.

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