Watch Hill restaurant celebrates a century of dining with a view

Westerly — On the back side of the Olympia Tea Room menu is a long list of people, events and things that have happened since the eatery opened on the street-side level of a seaside boarding house 100 years ago.

Among the items on that list is Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, Prohibition, the first McDonalds, the Beatles, Mickey Mouse, the carving of Mount Rushmore, Neil Armstrong's walk on the moon, women's suffrage, the Vietnam War, Michael Jackson and Clark Gable.

And the list goes on.

A century is a long time, and it is a milestone for any business to have continued that long. 

That's the case with the Olympia Tea Room, the seasonal restaurant at 74 Bay St. in Watch Hill, which is celebrating its centennial.

It has survived the Hurricane of 1938, other major storms, devastating fires and the calamities of being a sea-level property.

"It's a funny little place, that's really the take-away," co-owner Marcia Felber said of the restaurant that she and her husband, Jack, have operated since 1980.

"It's special," she said, "and I'm not exactly sure what makes it special, but it is, and because of that, it is better."

Perhaps it's because the Felbers painted the interior walls pink, put down a black-and-white checkered floor, and have amped up the menu and wine list, creating an establishment where locals and tourists have been joined over the years by celebrities such as Mark Wahlberg, John McEnroe, Meryl Streep, Robert Plant and, most recently, Taylor Swift, who owns a home around the corner.

The Felbers hung chandeliers and oyster shells, have a vintage neon clock over the bar, and filled long and deep window wells with corks — literally thousands and thousands of them — that both the waitstaff and customers toss in after opening a bottle. 

Marcia Felber's original and unusual oil paintings adorn the walls, as well as two single-word signs: one reads "Hope," the Rhode Island state motto, and the other "Temperance," appropriately situated just above the bar.    

It's become a local institution where, on peak days in the summertime, customers will wait an hour or more to get in the door.

There's indoor and outdoor seating, and the location along the village's commercial strip affords a fine view of the sunset over Watch Hill Harbor.

"I think the best part here is that someone can walk in off the beach in a T-shirt and flip-flops, or someone can step off a $2 million yacht, or someone can walk down from a $1,800 hotel room, and all three of those people are happy as clams," said Georgia Felber Jones, Jack and Marcia's daughter, who is an integral part of the Olympia Tea Room and a certified sommelier who oversees the dining room staff and wine selection.

She added, "Whoever the customer is, they can find that drink and that meal and that experience that they are looking for and not feel like 'who's that next to me?'"

Jack Felber, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, likes to tell people the Olympia is "famous, not fancy, since 1916."

"This funky old interior plays exactly into something that I read years ago that is my restaurant mantra," he said.

"You never want to create such a high level of expectation that you're gonna disappoint anybody," he continued. "But if you exceed that level of expectation, that customer will leave and tell all his friends what a great time he had and it will become a favorite restaurant and he'll keep coming back."

When the Felbers bought the business in 1979, the prior owners, the Tramis brothers, had operated the establishment since 1916 as a soda shop/luncheonette, also selling a few convenience groceries. 

Greta Dilo, the granddaughter of Michael Tramis, said her grandfather immigrated from Albania to America in 1912, when he was 18.

Four years later, he opened the Watch Hill eatery with his two younger brothers, Speros and Theodore, and named it in honor of the site where the ancient Olympic Games were held.

Dilo said her grandfather returned to Albania in 1979 and died two years later.

For years after the Felbers took over the Olympia, customers came looking for "The Greeks" and lamented that they had retired.

Old-timers repeatedly told the Felbers that the brothers gave away Hershey bars and, this year as part of the centennial celebration, the Felbers are handing out chocolate bars, too.

'Why pink?'

By the early 20th century, Watch Hill had established itself as a resort community, with hotels and cottages, and to this day continues to attract tourists.

It is also the location of seasonal and year-round homes for the affluent.

The Olympia Tea Room is located on the site of one of the early hotels. 

Originally the location of the Columbia Hotel that was built about 1890, the Olympia was added later, after the Columbia was heavily damaged by fire and a rooming house replaced it.

In 1916, the Olympia Tea Room opened on the first floor, serving summer residents and visitors to Watch Hill and Napatree Point.

While the Hurricane of 1938 destroyed much of the area, the Olympia survived until a fire in the winter of 1939 almost destroyed it, and razed most of the properties to the east, all the way down to the Watch Hill Carousel.

The Olympia Tea Room today, with its marble bar and mahogany booths, is the post-1939 fire reincarnation of the property.

"Because of the period, it was just what we were looking for," Jack Felber said. "We were looking for kind of art deco, and then we deco'd it up with the paint and all."

"We made some changes, we didn't have a lot of money, but we did some repairs," Marcia Felber said. "We painted it pink, and Jack laid down the black and white checkered floor."

"Why pink? I don't know, but it just had to be pink," she said.

Back in the late 1970s, the Felbers were minor partners in a Hartford restaurant when they decided they wanted a business of their own. 

They started looking for restaurant opportunities along the shoreline and, on an off-season visit to Watch Hill to walk the beach one day, happened upon the Olympia Tea Room.

Marcia Felber had visited the place as a girl, she says, and it just "stuck" with her.

They negotiated a sales price and sold everything they had, even their daughter's bicycle, and moved from Hartford to Watch Hill to run their new restaurant.

The couple said they never considered changing the name.

Until six years ago, the Felbers lived upstairs over the Olympia, trading time between family and the business, with one of them downstairs and the other up in the apartment, especially when their two daughters were younger.

Daughter Georgia, who married the Olympia's longtime bartender, Eric Jones, three years ago, said everyone has a role in running the business, but that her mother, Marcia Felber, "is the foundation of this place; she keeps it all running."

Kyle Lydick, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, is the chef at the Olympia.

Jack Felber joked, "I'm the executive chef and Kyle is the head chef and the way it works is I make menu suggestions and Kyle tells me no and does what he wants."

Felber described the Olympia's food as "new American cuisine," a description he said he was using back in the early 1980s, before nouveau cuisine was the rage.

"Our food is very American, but it's new and modern and bright and fresh," he said.

Lunch and dinner are served from late April until early November.

There's a range of options and prices on the menu, from a $6 cup of soup to the $16 half-pound burger and $22 lobster roll, and entrees start in the low 20s and go as high as about $38, for filet mignon.

Two of the popular dishes are Roasted Whole Flounder, priced according to market and bought fresh off the docks and then roasted on the bone under lightly buttered bread crumbs; and the Grilled Sausage Bruno, sweet local sausage with roasted potatoes, broccolini and shaved Parmesan. 

There's also an Old World Greek Salad, and the ever popular tuna or beef carpaccio.

The signature dessert is the Avondale Swan — a scoop of ice cream with whipped cream and puff pastry fashioned to look like a swan swimming in chocolate sauce.

Over the years, the Felbers have notched up the wine list. They now have a more than 300-bottle selection of wines, 40 of them sold by the glass.

"Sometimes, you want a burger and a $500 bottle of wine, and sometimes you want a beautiful flounder and a beer, and we satisfy both those customers," said Georgia Felber Jones. 

An 'institution'

Interestingly, the Felbers ran the Olympia for 14 years before they were able to win a beer and wine license, and then it was a couple of more years after that before they had approval for full bar service.

"It really was a gamble, because I think we didn't understand how conservative Watch Hill would be," Marcia Felber recalled.

She said the Olympia had been around for so long that people had a certain expectation.

"Then we came, and all of a sudden it wasn't just a little old place, it was a little bit more modern or trendy, and then it took probably 20 more years for the Watch Hill people to forgive the fact that the Greeks left," she said.

Early on, in addition to running the restaurant, Jack Felber also worked as a fly fishing charter boat captain, and wrote a fishing column for local publications, including The Day.

Today, he is focused on the Olympia and, this season, its centennial.

"There is no need to worry about the future of the Olympia Tea Room as far as our determination goes," he said. "The biggest threat to the Olympia Tea Room is climate change, rising sea levels."

On opening night, April 29, the Olympia had a full house and a fire eater to entertain customers.

And the restaurant has added heaters, so diners can sit outside earlier and later in the season.

"I think, if anything, I overdid it," Jack Felber said. "There may be people sitting out there in bathing suits in November." 

Rhode Island state Sen. Dennis Algiere is a regular at the Olympia.

"It's one of our institutions," he said. "It's a very fine restaurant in our community, and a fun place to go to enjoy a nice meal and a libation. The atmosphere and the location are unbelievable, and there's no better place to see a sunset."

"Many, many times," he said, "we meet friends there and chat about the week."


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