Published February 10. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 1:49PM
Winter is long and bleak, and around here, the abandoned beaches, tourist areas and marinas can only add to the closed-up feel of the season. But in the right places, like Westerly's Mermaid Café, you can enjoy the isolation, taking in the frozen beauty of the Pawcatuck River with other locals.
Being somewhat off the beaten path, the café was surprisingly busy on a weekday afternoon. The large room feels new, bright and beachy, with blue walls, fish nets, sea shells and children's mermaid drawings on one wall.
The walls also feature old photographs of ships built along the river in the 1800s. The café's website explains that steam passenger boats were a means of transportation from Norwich to New London to Stonington to Westerly and to Watch Hill, but traffic began to decline in 1894 when the street railway came into existence.
We ended up at the cafe while searching for some authentic Rhode Island-style clam chowder and were happy to discover many lunch specials. They included chowder and clam cakes (a rarity in the off-season) and chowder and macaroni and cheese ($5.95), which was too tempting to pass up on a cold day.
Though I grew up believing clam chowder should be creamy - they have New England style, too - I was impressed by their clear broth kind. It was filled with large chunks of clam that are often too easily hidden in a creamy version, along with potato, onions and celery.
The mac and cheese had a buttery breadcrumb crust on top, for a nice crunch, and a blend of creamy cheeses underneath punctuated by a good amount of pepper. We're not sure why it was made with spiral noodles instead of elbow, but that didn't change the flavor.
The chili ($4.95 for a large bowl) was meaty, with beans, onions and peppers, but a bit bland. It came with unsalted chips, which were good for dipping.
We had to try more seafood in the marine atmosphere, so we went for the classic fish and chips ($12.95). The cod was light and flaky, and not overly battered. The dill tartar sauce was a nice touch, a change from the gloppy, mayonnaisey stuff that is normally served.
The hand-cut fries, which came with the fish and sandwich, were a highlight - crispy, with bits of potato skin still on.
The sandwich called Sadie ($7.95) was in a wrap of Lavash bread, containing turkey, cheddar cheese and spinach. The cranberry mayonnaise was scant, leaving the sandwich a bit dry.
The Mermaid Cafe also serves some delicious sounding breakfast dishes, including an almond croissant French toast and Rhode Island's famous jonny cakes. Their cornmeal comes from flint corn, grown right across the Pawcatuck River at the historic Davis Farm, the menu says.
It's worth following the river south to try the Mermaid Cafe for a meal with a view, which can only get better as the snow begins to thaw.