The charming Mermaid Café sits on the banks of the Pawcatuck River, which winds from Worden Pond in South Kingstown in a southwesterly direction through the villages of Kenyon, Carolina and Bradford. The river lies between the town of Westerly and the Pawcatuck section of Stonington, finally emptying into Little Narragansett Bay off Watch Hill.
The Mermaid Café is filled with nautical décor and colorful mermaid knick-knacks. Delicate glass mermaids hang from 12 ceiling lights, the kind you’d find down below in an old seafaring ship. On the walls are old photos of sailing ships built in the Westerly area in the 1800s. Conch shells sit on the windowsills with a view of the Viking Marina, a quiet boat yard at the head of the Pawcatuck.
You can “dock and dine” at the Mermaid Café, which has a 60-foot dock set aside for small boats. That’s something we can look forward to next summer. Until then, we’ll have to park our car in the crushed clamshell parking lot when we stop in for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
The bright and airy café is the work of Carolyn Burkhardt, a Watch Hill native who has worked in area restaurants. This family-friendly restaurant has a menu built on fresh, seasonal and regional foods, with an emphasis on seafood from local waters.
For instance, the Jonnycakes ($4.95) are a popular breakfast item. The cornmeal used to make these “pancakes” is grown across the river at the historic Davis Farm. The Crab Cakes ($10.95), chock full of Maine crabmeat, are popular at lunchtime. The Fish Tacos ($10.95) with local cod make a fine dinner, especially with the hand-cut French fries, made with Kennebeck potatoes also from Davis Farm. The freshly ground organic coffee blends are from New Harvest in Pawtucket.
If you’d like something more than coffee or soda with your meal, feel free to bring your own bottle of wine or your favorite craft beer. This is a BYOB establishment.
On our visit, we surveyed the room and found a wide variety of customers: young women in blue jeans, well-dressed elderly couples, blue-collar workers – just about every slice of the pie we call America. Some folks sat alone at their tables, reading books while they dined. This is a neighborhood restaurant that makes everyone feel at home and comfortable.
What do we recommend? By all means, try the Rhode Island Clam Chowder ($2.95 a cup, $5.95 a bowl). The consistency is on the thin side, but the chowder is brimming with ocean flavor. I was sorry I had ordered only a cup. The Clam Cakes ($3.95 for three) are enormous, the largest we’ve seen. They are a deep, golden brown with just the right amount of crunch in every bite. Inside, the clam cakes are pillowy soft and studded with chopped quahogs. These are great on their own, and even better dipped into the chowder or the house-made tartar sauce, made with sweet and dill pickles, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise, dill and tarragon. Some customers are such fans of this tartar sauce they feel Carolyn should bottle it for retail sale.
At lunch, the sandwiches ($5.95 to $15.95) are big and beautiful. The Mystic is not your mother’s tuna salad, but rather a zesty combination of tuna, diced onion, sun-dried tomatoes, capers, olives and extra virgin olive oil on whole wheat. The Linda is a creative chicken salad containing chopped walnuts, celery and dried cranberries with mayonnaise and impeccably fresh lettuce on a rich and tender brioche roll. The burgers ($6.95 to $8.95) cover the basics and then some, from a classic backyard burger to versions made with salmon, veggies or portobello mushrooms.
The same menu is offered at lunch and dinner, with the addition of dinner specials such as steamed lobster, lobster pot pie, grilled beef tenderloin, herb-roasted chicken and baked stuffed flounder.
At our dinner, I so appreciated the healthy presentation of the Catch of the Day ($15.95). That day it was local cod, a generous serving perfectly grilled with a touch of olive oil and lemon juice. Accompaniments were brown rice pilaf, pleasantly chewy with a nutty taste, and more oven-roasted vegetables than I could possibly eat.
Across the table was a far-less healthy dinner, but it was deep-fried paradise. The Fish and Chips ($12.95) consisted of a large, lightly battered piece of cod, fried until golden brown on the outside and pearly white inside, served with seasoned fries (the kind you just can’t stop eating) and the house-made cole slaw. Mermaid slaw is a crunchy combination of shredded green cabbage, turnips, carrots, radishes, red onion, herbs and spices held together lightly with just a touch of mayonnaise.
For dessert, you can’t go wrong with the Orange Cornmeal Cake ($5), a moist combination of local flavors sparked with the bright taste of juicy oranges. We also indulged in the oversized chocolate chip cookie ($2) on the dessert menu, fighting over it ever so nicely.
The Mermaid Café offers dinner on Friday and Saturday nights. If you come in between 5 and 6pm, they will knock 20 percent off your bill. With reasonable prices to begin with, that’s almost too good to be true – sort of like those mythical mermaids of long ago.
Linda Beaulieu is the author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cook-book, available at stores throughout the state.