Dropping in to the Wilcox Tavern
Over the years, I've driven past the Wilcox Tavern more times than I can count. But, unfortunately, I never entered.
More recently, however, after hearing the restaurant was now under the direction of Mia Byrnes, who previously bought and improved Mia's Prime Time Cafe in Westerly, a regular breakfast stop for me, I decided it was time to give the Charlestown spot a try.
The establishment, according to the restaurant's website, dates back to 1730, and the experience speaks to that. The atmosphere is classic, with dim lighting, wide wood plank floors, and traditional chairs and tables. The cuisine reflects the overall vibe as well, with a menu that mixes old school favorites, and dishes with a more contemporary twist.
The appetizers list, headlined "small plates" on the menu, includes mostly classic starters. You'll find a salumi board with a generous serving of cured meats, cheeses, crackers, toast, and peppers ($18), deviled eggs ($3 per egg), crispy prosciutto wrapped shrimp with gorgonzola drizzle ($13), clams casino with smoked bacon ($12), and tavern garlic bread with gorgonzola fondue ($12), to name some.
For soups, there's New England style clam chowder ($5 for a cup; $7 for a bowl), seafood bisque with lobster, shrimp, scallops, crab, and sherry cream ($8 or $10), and a daily special ($4 and $6).
There are two salads available under the "greens" section of the menu: the "Wilcox Chopped" ($13), and the panko-encrusted warm goat cheese salad, which comes with granny smith apples, walnuts, dried cranberries, and a balsamic vinaigrette ($15).
I tried the stuffed quahogs, which came two to a plate and consisted of two quahog shells packed with chopped clams, chorizo sausage, and bread crumbs made from crushed Ritz crackers ($8).
I rank this one my favorite appetizer. The chorizo and other seasonings gave it a slight kick, but nothing too overwhelming, and the stuffing was buttery, moist and savory. It also went nicely with the small bed of spinach the quahogs came plated atop.
The Maryland crab cakes ($14) were also worth a try, though not as noteworthy. They were prepared with a balanced mix of crab meat and stuffing, and came with a zesty remoulade sauce for dipping.
The Wilcox Chopped salad was also a healthy and refreshing offering of kale, spinach, cabbage, red onion, scallions, cucumber, tomato, carrots, beets, feta cheese, and zesty plum vinaigrette.
The night I was there, it came served with short noodles as well. This addition was minor and didn't take away much from the salad, but it didn't seem to be doing too much for it either.
The "big plates" section of the menu is an impressive array of hearty meals, many coming from a classic New England approach.
Here are a few options: bone-in herb roasted chicken with corn bread stuffing, cranberry compote, and chef's vegetable ($19); chef's dry-age steak prepared with braised garlic, mashed potatoes, and wilted spinach (listed as market price in the restaurant but $46 online); cioppino seafood stew ($27); stuffed shrimp with chef's vegetables ($24); linguine with white clam sauce of garlic, butter, herbs, and white wine ($22); and fish and chips ($16).
I was most impressed by the farro chicken breast ($16). The chicken was charred and flavorful. The ancient grain came sautéed with wilted spinach, red peppers and seasonings.
The bacon cheeseburger ($13) consisted of a plump patty made of ground chuck, brisket, and short-rib meat. It came with choice of cheese and a side of crispy fries. There were options available to upgrade to pretzel roll ($1), sweet potato fries ($2), and mixed greens ($4).
"Rudy's Pot Roast" provided one of several familiar comfort options. It came served with a somewhat thick brown gravy, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and a mix of root vegetables: apple butternut squash, roasted carrots, and beets.
Service was excellent — warm, friendly and prompt.
While I was there, I was also struck by the sheer size of the place. To get in, you walk from the parking lot across the expansive building to a ramp entrance that provides handicap access. The interior is a near-labyrinth and fun to explore. In one room, I even found an old-school spinning wheel.
The parking, by the way, is quite ample, and there are a range of seating options, a result of the somewhat cavernous and maze-like downstairs. This includes a couch and a couple of chairs positioned nicely around a crackling fire in one room. This appeared to be a preferred place for enjoying drinks before a meal.
And, in case anyone is wondering about the trek up to Charlestown, the restaurant is only a few minutes past the Westerly town line, just south of Dave's Coffee. Not a bad hike at all.
5153 Old Post Road
Food type: Traditional New England
Service: Friendly and accommodating
Price: Moderate to expensive
Hours: Monday through Thursay, 3 p.m. for cocktails, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. for dinner; lunch served Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.; dinner 4 p.m. to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., Sunday.
Credit cards: Visa, MasterCard, American Express, and Discover
Handicapped access: Long ramp to main entrance; dining area is navigable by wheelchair.
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