St. Clair Annex is such an institution in Westerly (Watch Hill is a village in the town) that locals switch lunchtime allegiances when it opens for the season, summer tourists plan family outings for ice cream, and out-of-town Rhode Islanders make expeditions to munch lobster rolls.
We were two of the latter, taking a leisurely Sunday drive down Scenic 1A, strolling past the boutiques and cafes on one side of Bay Street and the yachts and sailboats on the other, anchored in Little Narragansett Bay. A few hardy souls braved the wind and threatening clouds to walk down Napatree Point, but we were content to sit inside St. Clair.
ST. CLAIR ANNEX |401.348.8407 | 141 Bay St., Watch Hill | Open Mid-April Till Columbus Day | Breakfast Daily, 7:45–10:45 Am; Lunch + Dinner Daily, 11 Am–8 Pm | No Credit Cards | Byob | Bathroom Not Accessible
We started with a bowl of Rhode Island clear chowder (cup $4, bowl $5), which was heavy on the bacon, giving it a smoky taste that Bill loves. I would be content with the clams and potatoes, but I know that this is one of the traditional Rhody recipes. They also offer "New England creamy" chowder (co-owner Joann Nicholas was stirring a big pot of it when we were there).
The Nicholases are husband and wife George and Joann and son James, the fourth and fifth generations, respectively, to run St. Clair. The business began with a New London candy store, started in 1887 by two brothers from the Greek isle of Lesbos. They passed the business on to their nephews (seven brothers eventually emigrated from the island) — one of them was George's grandfather John.
The candy store and ice cream parlor called St. Clair were in downtown Westerly for many years until they moved to Watch Hill in 1942. Since the ice cream was made in a shop next door to the candy store, the "Annex" became part of the title. After a fire destroyed the business in 1973, the Nicholases reopened in '74 with the full title of St. Clair Annex Ice Cream and Sandwich Shop, not to mention the outdoor popcorn machine, a leftover from the business in the '40s.
Indeed, the décor is '50s clam shack — pine paneling, open beams, heavyweight round ice cream parlor tables and chairs, with separate counters for ordering lunch/dinner items and for ordering banana splits, turtle sundaes, or just a single-dip cone or cup of ice cream ($3 for a single scoop, $4.50 for a double). Flavors range from the usual suspects to banana nut chip, black cherry chocolate chip, vanilla almond crunch, and peppermint stick. You can also order St. Clair's fresh-squeezed lemonade (and its variations with strawberry or grape juice) at both counters.
Bill was drawn to the grape lemonade ($3.25 small, $4.75 large) and murmured about making it at home. The question is, Would he take the time to squeeze the lemons? The Nicholases made this "ade" quite special.
From a list of nine grinders (including BLT, cheeseburger, and pepper and egg variations) and a lineup of five grilled cheese possibilities (with tomato, bacon, ham, bacon/tomato, or tuna) and nine sandwiches (three burgers, hot dogs, three chicken choices, a lobster roll, and a tuna roll), we predictably ordered a lobster roll ($12 with fries) and the newest sandwich, a chicken bistro ($6.50).
The lobster roll was generous and delicious with shredded lettuce underneath, just a bit of mayo, no celery to stretch the lobster meat, and a few pickles on the side. It tasted so fresh, it was like a breath of summer in this cold, rainy June.
The chicken bistro sandwich was grilled chicken breast with bacon, Swiss cheese, roasted peppers and onions, and a Dijon sauce, on toasted rye bread. A carefully assembled combo whose components made a wonderful whole.
At breakfast, the Nicholases serve up homemade scones and muffins, along with buttermilk pancakes, egg sandwiches in croissants and, on Sundays and holidays, popovers! Joann also turns out pies, including the rhubarb one ($3.75) I tasted after our sandwiches. It was a bit sweeter than my own version, but for a rhubarb-lover like myself, anything rhubarby is just fine.
As for the ice cream, made onsite, let's just say that we're still partial to our hometown ice cream, which seems creamier and more flavorful than St. Clair's. But then, we only tried two flavors, so maybe we need another taste test . . . soon.
Johnette Rodriguez can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.