When it opened in 2011, the Matunuck Oyster Bar won the ‘Best New Restaurant’ award from any number of publications in Rhode Island. At a glance that seems odd, because the restaurant lies in the proverbial middle of nowhere, Newport is justly esteemed for its seafood and Providence punches considerably above its population weight as a restaurant town.
Despite notices in Yankee and the dreadful USA Today, however, the Matunuck Oyster Bar remains relatively unknown elsewhere. To the evident surprise of its waitress, for example, a table one evening flashed I.D.s from Maryland, Illinois and Hawaii, but the diners were young and the licenses fake. Nice try; not much evidence of outlanders here.
The location and setup are eccentric, not exactly an aberration in this quirky statelet. Nearby, the ramshackle Ocean Mist perches precariously over the surf. It is, according to Esquire, one of the hundred best bars in America. You drive off US 1 toward the sea down Succotash Road (there could be no better name). The landscape there is uninspiring; farmed flatlands and crooked signs, tiny houses scarred with aluminum or vinyl. This is not Sag Harbor or Hilton Head.
On arrival the oyster bar, really of course a restaurant, appears unimpressive; the dominant feature is a clouded gravel parking lot that dwarfs an unwindowed wall. There are takeout clamshacks that look less inelegant, but then you note that the signage is serious and something is strange. They have valet parking in this rural redoubt, not to make money (parking is free) but to squeeze every inch from the space, for this is a destination and it is overrun.
You may measure the weekend wait in hours; no reservations, and while we adore reservations and hate a delay, they meliorate it here if the weather allows. This is, after all, the place for oysters, and you can scarf some dozens on a deck while you wait.
An enterprise this prosperous need not be nice, but everyone from the young shuckers to the arresting waitresses is friendly and personable, a genuine accomplishment considering the crowds.
The shuckers are serious about food without the sanctimony that mars much of artisanal Brooklyn or San Francisco. They know their business, field your questions and happily banter above the convivial din. They are fast, a good thing because the throng seeking tables stands three deep around their bar. Their bluff honesty, even though a pronounced Rhode Island trait, borders on astonishing here.
The restaurant is the venture of oysterers and their product is good. It finds its way into some of the best restaurants in the east, including the iconic Oyster Bar at Grand Central in Manhattan, where they usually charge about twice as much for an oyster on its shell than the restaurant in Matunuck. There, they generously offer other oysters too, both wild and farmed. All of them local and all of them good; some, in the estimation of the shuckers, better than others. One night they steered us from the house brand to the oysters from a pond down the road, East Beach Blondes. They vied for the best we ever have tried, and we tried them only because the shuckers preferred them to the product of their boss. How many other restaurants bet against the house?
The house itself is a lowslung structure that straddles the seafarm’s marshy beds. Its oyster bar dominates the doorway and, a lovely touch, the counter itself maps a string South County barrier ponds along the shoreline in wooden inlay. The shuckers can point to the source of each oyster they sell. The rear of the restaurant is all glassy void for the watery view; upfront, that solid is wall punctuated by good marine photography. The absence of windows serves to shield the bigger rooms from that gravel and those cars.
The Matunuck Oyster Bar is informal. Waitresses wear t-shirts and do not stand on ceremony. They do field your questions with aplomb. What is the “Rhode Island pan fish” listed as a special one night? It is no species from Alan Davidson’s definitive North American Seafood, at least by that name. It is scup and the ruse is cheerfully dropped. That is a brave selection for any restaurant. At Watch Hill point, for example, only the occasional Asian fisherman keeps that catch; most throw it back, but if dogfish can become monkfish then scup can be panfish.
The scup at the Matunuck Oyster Bar on a wintry night was good, steamed whole with root vegetables in parchment. This is the kind of catch we all should eat when the notion of sustainability surpasses sloganeering. Everything else is good too, finfish and shellfish and oysters raw, stewed and fried, although as usual with this last iteration the oil might have been hotter and the coating more crisp.
The best and most surprising dish was a different special, the slab of smoked roast beef. This was rib. It was served rare as requested and ranks among the best food that our entire table of six ever had tasted anywhere. The smoke was both apparent and subtle, enhancing instead of masking the meat; how did they do it? However they do, we hope they do it again and they may. You might find venison too, and other exotica on the sheet of specials.
Despite the crowds they neither rush to turn your table over or blow a sequence along the way. Cocktails appear accompanied by extremely good homemade bread. Wine arrives when ordered and never after the food, a feat fancier places prove ever more difficult to perform. Everybody’s food arrives together and the spacing of courses is good, a tribute to both kitchen and room.
The small selection of draft beer has been chosen well, Narragansett of course, Peak organic ale and others. The wine list is fair--lots of bottles around $20--and the selections pair up with the food.
So drive out to Matunuck. Go at off hours or get ready to wait; for a change the delay may well be worth your while.