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Summer seems to go well with traditions: the Fourth of July, lazy car rides, day trips to the beach with the same cooler, beer koozie and folding chair you've had since the 1980s.
The cuisine is no exception. We like the classic, time-tested fare: fried whole-belly clams, chowder and lobster rolls - and plenty of them.
The Dog Watch Cafe in Stonington Borough hasn't been around too long - it opened in the summer of 2008 - but its owners know a thing or two about the classic New England seafood I speak of.
I'd not been there until recently. I'd walked by one weekend afternoon but left after I heard the wait was 45 minutes (my only criticism would be that this place is too popular). But when I stopped in on a recent Thursday night, I learned the reason behind the throngs of patrons.
The place feels familiar even to the first-timer. There's a little fire pit and some Adirondack rocking chairs in the front. The atmosphere of the inside dining area is reminiscent of the lower quarters of an antique houseboat (though certainly not that cramped).
Large windows look out to a pier on Stonington Harbor where boats are docked. The walls are sea foam green, decorated with boating photos and aerial shots of marinas. There's a long wooden bar at the center of the room. It has a classic dark stain and a golden foot rail across the bottom.
A note to the shy or clandestine diner: there are even foam acoustic panels installed on the ceiling to keep your conversations from traveling.
In addition to traditional fare - littlenecks ($1.25 each), Watch Hill oysters ($2.50 each), clam chowder ($3.50 cup / $5.50 bowl) and fish and chips ($16) - there are some unique options here, too.
My shrimp and sausage gumbo ($4 cup/$6 bowl) came nice and hot like I like it. It had a savory mix of seasonings and was just a tad spicy (enough to give a kick but subtle enough for the more timid eater). There was a good mix of rice, celery and tomato in there, too.
I'll likely never win an award for the way I pair my meals. I'm eclectic, probably to a fault. So, naturally, I took my gumbo with a plate of fried coconut shrimp ($11), an appetizer that could be best described as coco-licious. Shreds of crispy coconut coated the outside of nice, tender shrimp. The Thai chili dipping sauce was sweet and tangy.
Now, one cannot go on about a traditional summer seafood place like I have without trying one specific meal: the lobster roll ($19 at Dog Watch). Being a classic, there seems to be little variation in the style of lobster rolls you get, just cold or warm. The difference comes down to the quality of the ingredients. That and how much lobster they give you.
The lobster here was fresh, moist and meaty. It was the cold style salad, and the portions were generous. It was a rather long bun. I left my measuring tape at home (shoot!), but I guessed somewhere around 8 inches. The meat was chopped into medium chunks, not shredded but also not so large to prevent the sauce from mixing in properly. There was a healthy distribution of celery in there, which is always good to see, and the bun was buttered and grilled nice and toasty on the sides. It came with the battered style French fries, a small touch that goes a long way.
My wife's baked scallops were buttery and soft, with nicely seasoned bread crumbs on top. They came with mashed potatoes and asparagus. It wasn't an envelope-pushing entree, but anyone who likes a classic baked seafood dish will definitely not be disappointed.
Her meal went well with one of the several locally brewed beers available at the Dog Watch. She went with the White IPA ($4) from Two Roads Brewing Co. in Stratford. It was quite summery, with a floral undertone and flavors of wheat, citrus and honeysuckle. Not your average IPA.
One thing you notice waiting for your food at Dog Watch is the consistent smell of garlic wafting from the kitchen out through the dining area. Garlic certainly plays a major role in a lot of the dishes here. That was true of our shrimp pizza ($15).
It came with provolone cheese and chopped green onion. It was a crispy, thin crust. Flavorful, nicely textured and not overly filling - an excellent solo meal or appetizer for the table.
I'd also recommend Dog Watch to anyone with small kids. Aside from the aforementioned acoustical reinforcements on the ceiling, there are some other touches that make limiting the potential for an embarrassing scene a bit easier.
They give you these things called Wikki-Sticks. They're sort of like colorful candle wicks you can twist and tie together. Simple, but enough to occupy a kid practically the entire meal. (And there are games for adults, too. Namely trivia cards at each table.)
The kids menu seemed selected by someone quite familiar with a child's pickiness - mac and cheese, chicken tenders with fries, cheeseburger with fries and kids pasta, to name a few items (all $6). We went with the grilled cheese ($6). It came on thick buttered and grilled Texas toast, with a half plate of the battered fries I mentioned earlier. A generous portion at a generous price.
Like any great place, the Dog Watch Cafe attracts a wide-range of patrons: from retirees in plaid shirts and sweater vests to guys who just got off work, wearing T-shirts and sunglasses tipped up just above their foreheads.
Whether you fall into either of those groups or somewhere in between, you'll probably find something to like this summer at the Dog Watch.
Dodson Boatyard, 194 Water St., Stonington
Service: Friendly and attentive
Hours: Sunday-Thursday 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m.-9:30 p.m. No reservations (bar open until midnight on weekends; 11 p.m. on weekdays)
Credit cards: American Express, MasterCard, Visa and Discover
Handicapped access: Ramp at front of restaurant