“Do you want a beer?” our smiling if slightly brisk server asks – a little randomly it must be said – as she passes the table, barely seconds after we’ve sat down. I mean, do we especially look like beer drinkers? Lashings of well-chilled Chardonnay, more like it, to set off the briny shellfish we’re about to consume.
Indeed, this gorgeous restaurant — in the picture-postcard-perfect village of Rowayton right on the water along the Five Mile River just off the Long Island Sound — is practically awash with Chardonnay. That, or Rowayton Water, the eatery’s cute name for its “house” Rosé, which hails from the Pays d’Oc region in southwest France. In the circumstances, it would seem perverse to ask for anything else. So we order some Rowayton Water and a couple of glasses of the “Flowers” Chardonnay from Sonoma Coast and get stuck in. Off to a good start, I think.
The glorious vista, as seen through the restaurant’s windows, is an early taste of summer. Light dances on the water midday, and small craft and the hustle and bustle of boat people going about their business all add to the scene. Inside, everything is navy and white, nonchalantly nautical. From the server’s candy-stripe shirts to the blue and white china, everybody, everything is an iteration of seaside colors. A young couple bound in, fresh from a game of tennis — even they are wearing the compulsory colors. So is a table of ladies who lunch — in four shades of blue. Did they have to sign a color-accord at the time of booking?
Kevin Conroy opened Rowayton Seafood in 1996 as an add-on to his adjacent seafood market — both still owned by the family — and the menu is contingent on the sea. All the raw bar treats are here — clams, oysters, shrimp and crab, along with chowders, bisques, tartars, lobster rolls and salads. Entrées include salmon, yellowfin tuna and swordfish, all of which can be simply sautéed, grilled or steamed. There is a token burger or steak for the diehard carnivores and a shakshuka for vegetarians, but these dishes feel oddly like, well, fish out of water.
Come the evening, the menu alters subtly, the sandwiches combining with the appetizers, but the essence is still the sea. Shellfish, as you would expect, is pingingly fresh, salads are crisp and abundant, the seafood platters are piled high and shrimp with grits is a doozy.
I love the look of the place, too — its handsome bar at the entrance, whitewashed wood paneling, family and fishing prints, ladder-back chairs with cut-out star motifs and chrome ceiling fans. With more than a hint of urban sophistication, there’s not a fishing net or maritime tchotchke in sight., because the view — that stupendous view — through the restaurant’s enormous windows tells you all you need to know about where you are. Talk about a sense of place.
Across the compact parking lot, meanwhile, just 20 yards from the restaurant the original Rowayton Seafood market occupies the fishing shack that was once the oldest operating lobster cooperative on Long Island Sound. It’s a cornucopia of the freshest fish and shellfish, along with a terrific assortment of other piscine treats, such as tinned goods, relishes and sauces.
The new dining deck is yet another draw to the Rowayton Seafood enterprise, with the more robust structure replacing the previous tent. If you sat any closer to the water, you’d be in it.
So, there you have it — my new favorite “old” restaurant. Yes, of course it has a longtime loyal following, but even if you don’t happen to live locally, Rowayton Seafood is such a gem, that to pinch a phrase from Michelin, no matter where you start, it is definitely “worth the detour,” or even a trip.
For more, visit rowaytonseafood.com.