Olympia Tea Room still fresh after 100 years in Watch Hill

The Crispy Chicken Milanese at the Olympia Tea Room comes balanced atop a pile of spaghetti with olive oil and garlic and below an arugula and cherry tomato salad dressed with sweet and tangy balasamic vinaigrette. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)

If it is possible for a place to be both ordinary and extraordinary, then the Olympia Tea Room, the Watch Hill landmark celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, is just that.

It's a place where you can sip from a glass of very fine wine while your feet, still sandy from the beach next door, wear nothing but flip flops. On any given day, you can choose a half-pound burger ($16) or perhaps from that day's specials, prosciutto-wrapped shad roe on grilled bread with lemon-chive sauce ($14).

The restaurant's wine selection numbers more than 300 varieties, with upwards of 40 offered by the glass. The window wells are filled with corks. The sparkly, dark wood bar stretches from front wall to back, and piles of corks have begun to appear atop its back.

If wine's not your thing, there's freshly made lemonade, not too sweet, or a pucker-inducing lime Rickey to whet your whistle. Or perhaps a cocktail? I can recommend the blood orange margarita, with salt ($11), that somehow tastes just like the sun as it sets outside over Little Narragansett Bay. 

The black-and-white checkered floor lends an old fashioned soda-fountain feel to the place, most dramatic during the lunch hour when the casual volume seems turned up. At night, the place begins to sparkle as the chill comes off the water and the candles and lights start to glow. The majority of the seating is in wooden booths with leather cushioned seats. A red neon clock glows, as do the small pan pendants above the tables and bar, their Edison-style bulbs adding to the sparkle.  

On the pale pink walls hang a collection of funky paintings, each with the same rich palette, painted Marcia Felber, who, with husband Jack, has owned and operated the Tea Room since the late '70s. In one, a grinning cat stands on a chair holding a fish in its front paws. In another, a leopard skulks through the jungle while daintily carrying a doll in his mouth.

On a recent Thursday night, men and women of a certain income bracket and fashion sense were greeted at the door like the old friends they are. The Felbers roamed the premises with watchful eyes, even though it's early in the season.

We began our meal with those margaritas, rich, smooth, tart and salty, complete with a wedge of lime and a plastic swizzle stick. 

As we sampled our complimentary bread basket and its duo of dips — extra virgin olive oil and a mildly spicy bean concoction — we ordered a cup of the soup of the day, carrot coconut ($6), and one of the lobster bisque ($8) from that night's specials menu. The first was creamy and sweet, rich with coconut and mildly spiced. As good as it was, the lobster bisque was a triumph. Served with a clear green slick of ramp oil on top, it was both full of lobster flavor and full of actual lobster, civilized chunks that were so tender and sweet, I wondered how they'd managed it.

My husband opted for a dinner of two appetizers from the specials menu, fried smelts with pickled red onion and habanero sea salt ($14) and asparagus fries ($12) served with a roasted garlic lemon aioli. 

The pile of small, tender smelts made for an odd presentation. They were very lightly fried, and rather than golden brown, their crust was nearly white. They came atop a bed of arugula with a very civilized lemon half wrapped in its own yellow stocking to prevent seeds from intruding on the scene. The flavor was delicately fishy, and a bite that contained smelt, onion and arugula made delicious sense.

The lightly battered and gently fried asparagus were tender crisp inside and out. The aioli was more tangy than garlicky, but the fresh spring vegetable really didn't need a co-host. It shone on its own. 

I opted for the Crispy Chicken, a flattened chicken breast cooked Milanese-style ($25), topped with a sweet-and-sour, balsamic-dressed arugula and cherry tomato salad even as it blanketed a pile of perfectly al dente spaghetti aglio e olio. This dish made me so happy. Every element was simply and perfectly prepared. The chicken's crispy exterior yielded to reveal a juicy middle. The tomatoes and arugula were freshly flavorful, and the balsamic provided the zing. The spaghetti was chewy and mild with garlic. I worried that I could never order anything else.

But that didn't last. On a Saturday at lunch time, we began anew, opting for that lemonade and a lime Rickey, each so cold and refreshing. There were three of us, so we went for the seaside lunch classics: one of those burgers, a lobster roll ($22), and the fish and chips ($22). And again, we couldn't resist the soups, this time Vidalia onion with fontina cheese and a cream-based New England clam chowder (cups were $6 each).

The clam chowder was among the best I've had. Creamy, yes, but not thick and gloopy. The chunks of impossibly tender, sweet clams were larger than the hunks of potato, and I think they may have been equal in number. I ordered the Vidalia and fontina, but my husband negotiated a swap, unable to resist this smooth, rich soup.

A large, thick, buttery filet, likely haddock, lightly battered and fired, and a pile of amazingly crisp, thin fries comprised the fish and chips. A pile of accompanying coleslaw was super crispy, but very sweet — too sweet for my taste, but the crunch kept me going back for one more bite.

The burger was blanketed with sharp cheddar and topped with a slab of summer red tomato (where did that come from at this time of year?) and a wheel of red onion. It was a perfect medium-rare, as ordered, and was full of char-grilled flavor. The bun was sturdy initially but soon wilted with the burger's au jus. So satisfying.

Then came the lobster, again mysteriously tender, this time delicately dressed in a hint of mayonnaise and a bit of fresh, crisp celery then piled high on a grilled croissant. I usually prefer the warm version, the meat swimming in butter and packed into a grilled hot dog bun. But this won me over. I would have no trouble believing this particular crustacean had been swimming around that morning. Again, simply and perfectly prepared.

"Famous not fancy" is the motto at the Olympia Tea Room. Like any grand dame, it might have its cranky days. Some social media reviews complain of a rude reception. But the care taken with these fresh ingredients, the uniquely convivial atmosphere, and the beautiful views of the bay surely make up for that. Go now, before for the crowds arrive.

j.blanchette@theday.com

Barely dressed lobster salad nestled onto a buttered and grilled croissant lined with a lettuce leaf at the Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)
Barely dressed lobster salad nestled onto a buttered and grilled croissant lined with a lettuce leaf at the Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)
A half-pound burger is blanketed with cheddar at the Olympia Tea Room in Westerly. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)
A half-pound burger is blanketed with cheddar at the Olympia Tea Room in Westerly. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)
Fish & Chips at the Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)
Fish & Chips at the Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)
The blood orange margarita, with salt, at the Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill. (Jill Blanchette/The Day) The blood orange margarita, with salt, at the Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill. (Jill Blanchette/The Day)

Olympia Tea Room

74 Bay St., Westerly; (401) 348-8211

Cuisine: Eclectic American-European bistro that's a wine lover's dream

Atmosphere: Beachy upscale meets old fashioned ice cream parlor

Service: Fast, welcoming and knowledgeable

Prices: Entrees run $22-$30 with some seafood market price; burgers, sandwiches and bruschettas, $16-$22; appetizers and salads, $12-$16.

Hours: Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sunday, noon-9 p.m.

Credit cards: Yes

Reservations: Not accepted

Handicapped access: Dining room is all on one level. Wooden booths with stone-topped tables may be difficult to slide in and out from but there are table-and-chair seating options. Restrooms are small and up a ramp.

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