21 Rocks: Excellent burgers and big, happy crowds

Back in July, the first time we visited 21 Rocks, we could barely get in the door.

Every inch of the place was jammed — the entryway, the bar, and the patio with lovely Mystic River views. With patience, and shoulder to shoulder with other customers, we maneuvered our way in and eventually out to the deck, but we couldn’t find a seat anywhere.

Who are all these people, we asked, as we looked around and didn’t recognize a single familiar face? We assumed they were tourists and decided to try 21 Rocks another time instead.

Well, we finally went back on a recent rainy Thursday night, and the establishment was hopping again. There was a large private party in the dining room, and every table in the bar was filled. It was dark and wet, so there was no going out on the deck or adjacent lawn, where there are comfortable Adirondack chairs.

I was waiting for a friend, so I asked for the next available table and took a seat at the bar to wait.

Nick Bosse was the live entertainment that night, and all the television screens — I’m estimating there are 15 big screens or more — were tuned to various sports channels. The music, the lights, the action on the TVs — it was sensory overload.

But this is a food review, so let me tell you that just as my friend arrived, the very competent hostess found us a table and left us with menus.

There are two options — the tavern menu, available all day, and the dinner menu, available after 4 p.m. in the bar or dining room. We each ordered a glass of wine and then studied the offerings.

We decided to start with three appetizers to share and selected the Crispy Calamari ($14) with cherry peppers and classic marinara; the Beet Salad ($12.50) with sugar boiled red and gold beets, beet terrine, baby arugula, pistachio gremolata, goat cheese, and lemon vinaigrette; and the Lobster Nachos ($16) that are fried flour tortilla chips topped with lobster meat and sliced jalapenos, tomatoes, scallions, guacamole, and a cheddar cheese sauce.

The Lobster Nachos were plentiful and our favorite starter. We couldn’t finish them all but did pick off the lobster when we’d reached our limits. Our plan had been to share the starters and then each go for an entrée, sandwich or a brick-oven flatbread, but that was impossible, given the sizeable portions. 

The fried flour tortilla chips with the Lobster Nachos were flaky and buttery flavored, and the dish might have been improved if they were crispier, or a different type of chip. But that’s hollow criticism, considering how we devoured most of them.

Our least favorite was the Crispy Calamari, which was tasteless. My dinner companion said if she closed her eyes and took a bite, not knowing what she was eating, it could be any fried food. There was just no flavor, except for that bland marinara, which we dipped the squid in.

The Beet Salad was interesting. Like everything else, it was a generous serving, and there was plenty of the main attraction — golden and red beets. The dressing was tasty, and the goat cheese a nice addition, but the pistachios, described as a gremolatam might have been better if served just crisped. The salad was flavorful but needed a little more texture or crunch in it.

I mentioned earlier that 21 Rocks was busy, and it remained so throughout our stay. Customers at many of the other tables appeared to have arrived after work or were meeting friends for drinks and dinner. There were four women seated across from us, and after we’d been there a while, one of them ventured over to share that prior to our arrival, actress and comedian Ruth Buzzi had been seated right where I was. The woman even had her photograph taken seated beside Buzzi, who’s now 83.

Best known for her stint on Rowan & Martin’s "Laugh-In" in the late 1960s and early '70s, Buzzi, who won a Golden Globe and five Emmy nominations, grew up locally and was likely in town for a family funeral that I later learned had occurred that day. I never did ask what she had ordered.

But we had been watching diners at other tables and kept an eye on what was coming out of the nearby kitchen door, and despite how full we were, my friend and I decided we had to at least try the House Burger ($14.50), since so many others were ordering it.

It was an excellent idea. The burger was thick and moist and arrived on a fresh brioche bun with a pickle spear and a heaping pile of hot French fries. It was by far the best thing we ordered. Even better than the Lobster Nachos. We split the burger and, unfortunately, wasted those French fries.

Rocks 21 is clearly a popular destination for locals and visitors to the area. In addition to all those television screens, they digitally display their extensive taps list on one wall, and beer-drinking friends have told me it’s a terrific selection.

The dinner menu includes entrees like Braised Short Ribs ($26) and Seared Salmon ($28), and there are daily specials, like the Pan Seared Sea Scallops over polenta that they recommend pairing with a glass of sauvignon blanc.

My one big negative on 21 Rocks is the parking lot. There’s no easy way to navigate it, and both times I visited, I was concerned another driver might run into me, or vice versa. My friend voiced the same complaint.

But the place, open since late last May under new ownership and with a new menu, clearly has a big following, especially in the bar. If you like live music, sports, and a big, happy crowd, give it a try.

21 Rocks

3 Williams Ave., Mystic

(860) 536-8140

Find them on the Web at rocks21.com or by searching their name on Facebook or Instagram

Atmosphere: The big draw here is the oversized deck and adjacent lawn where, on good weather days, there's a great view across Route 1 to the Mystic River. Inside, the former Flood Tide, which has been through several recent reiterations, is a bit tired but still hospitable. It's noisy in the bar, with amplified music and multiple competing television screens.

Alcohol: A full-service bar includes a long and interesting list of what's on tap.

Hours: Open daily at 11 a.m. until 9 p.m. weekdays and until 2 a.m. on Fridays and Saturdays.

Service: Our waitress was busy but could have been a bit more attentive.

Prices: A wide range, with Fish and Chips at $19, Short Rib Mac and Cheese at $25, flatbreads in the $12 to $14 range, and Steak and Cheese Egg Rolls at $15.

Credit cards: Yes.

Handicapped accessible: Yes

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