Something's happening in downtown Westerly.
The ratio of retail shops to restaurants and pubs has been turned on its head. As places to eat and drink multiply, a new downtown atmosphere is developing, one that's particularly noticeable at the end of the day, around 5 or 5:30.
To go downtown at that hour once would have yielded "closed" signs and dark storefronts. But now, particularly in the vicinity of High and Canal, rather than the end of the day, it's starting to feel like the beginning of the night.
On a recent Sunday late afternoon, early evening, as I headed for the new upscale Irish pub, The Brazen Hen, a band was loading its instruments into the Twisted Vine for a gig that night; a couple was crossing Canal further down, leaving 84 Tavern on Canal; and a group was chatting as they headed up High, toward the Malted Barley. Downtown suddenly felt like somewhere else, somewhere bigger, hipper, and more happening. It felt energized.
The newly renovated space that is The Brazen Hen is impressive. The high ceilings and banks of streetfront windows open up the already spacious dining room. The interior is lovely and decidedly masculine, with its substantial bar stools and high-back booths. It's a man-size place. Even the flatware is huge. The warm brown of the bar, the wood floors, the beautiful metal and wood ceiling and the dark trim add to the comforting feel. I imagine that, come winter, sitting at the bar sipping a ½ and ½ (half Guinness, half Harp) would warm you from head to toe. Until then, though, the spacious back patio is the place to be.
With seats for about 60 at both high tops and regular tables, the patio is perfect this time of year. There are both shady and sunny spots. The Pawcatuck River flows somewhere behind, quite out of sight, and if you're lucky, a train will pass, not too close, while you're eating your meal. It's a great place to spend the afternoon with a drink or two and some good conversation.
We first went for a weekday lunch and began with a cup of quahog chili ($4.50) from the specials menu. At first blush, it tasted like a slightly spicy, perfectly fine chili, redolent with beans, onions and bell peppers, topped with cheese and fresh scallion. But then came the flavor of the quahogs and, suddenly, it turned into a spicy Manhattan chowder. Very interesting and quite delicious.
My husband chose the Ale Battered Fried Cod sandwich ($13) with cole slaw, fries and tartar sauce. I went with the Hibernian burger ($12), topped with Irish back bacon, Guinness fried onions, Ballymaloe relish and sweet, spicy mustard. I substituted coleslaw for the fries.
The fish sandwich arrived hot and included a generous filet. It was good, but fairly ordinary. The French fries were delicious, thick, hot and very crispy. The coleslaw was sweet, tangy and crunchy.
My burger came just as I had ordered, a perfect medium rare. The relish was more like chutney - tomatoes, raisins and perhaps apples, cooked into a spicy compote, heavy on the clove. By itself it was formidable, but with the burger and the bacon, it was perfect. A very enjoyable, unexpected combination.
For my visit on that late Sunday afternoon, I started on the patio as the sun was making its way toward the horizon. I began with a ½ and ½, a perfect pour, the lighter Harp on the bottom with the dark Guinness floating on top. Delicious. A meal in itself.
The Hen has 11 beers on draft, with Ireland represented by Guinness, Smithwicks and Harp. Unfortunately, local brews - Cottrell and Grey Sail, located just down Canal - aren't be found on tap here. Grey Sail Flagship Ale is available in a can.
From the appetizer menu, I chose Rhode Island stuffies ($7), two quahogs with chourizo, sweet peppers, onions and moist bread crumb stuffing. I passed by the bangers and mash ($14), Shepherd's pie ($14) and the whole roasted hen ($18) on the menu, and instead was torn between the Guinness Rib Eye ($24) with a corned beef and cabbage stuffed potato, and the Maple Brown Sugar Plank Salmon ($20) with a Dijon and chive whiskey cream sauce, grilled asparagus and creamy risotto. I asked my waitress if I could have the salmon with the baked potato and she quickly obliged.
The stuffies were hot, mildy spicy, tasty, but nothing to write home about. At that point, the sun was almost gone, so I asked my waitress if I could move inside. Again, no problem. In general, I found the staff to be welcoming, courteous and helpful.
I settled in a raised, corner booth, and my salmon, grilled asparagus and baked potato arrived piping hot. The asparagus were perfectly grilled and surprisingly delicious for this time of year. The potato, whose concept seemed so promising, was really nothing more than a standard double-stuffed potato, with cheese as the dominant flavor. There were pink flecks of corned beef, but I detected no cabbage or corned beef flavor.
But the salmon, a thick filet that arrived on its wooden plank on my plate, was perfect to my taste, more done on the edges, less done but fully cooked in the thicker middle. The sauce was buttery and delicious.
For dessert I took home a Guinness chocolate cupcake with a Bailey's ganache topping, which was as magnificent as it sounds.
As to the noise level, although the place was barely half full, it was on the loud side. Music, a couple of televisions tuned to different stations and conversation echoed off those high ceilings and ricocheted around the room. It didn't wreck my experience, but if the place were packed, I'd expect it to be very noisy. After all, it is a pub.
The Brazen Hen is a wonderful addition to this new downtown Westerly. I recommend a visit soon, while the sun still warms the patio.