For years we’ve been going to 629 Succotash Road in East Matunuck, the location for a series of good restaurants that just didn’t have staying power. But since 2009, it’s been known as the Matunuck Oyster Bar, and it just gets more and more popular with each passing summer. Looks like this one is here to stay.
When the restaurant first opened, it was easy to just stroll in and grab an available table on the large deck overlooking Potter Pond, where succulent Matunuck oysters are farm-raised by owner Perry Raso. Back then, it was more of a seafood market that also served food from a limited menu. The market is gone now, replaced with a busy raw bar; there are many more tables for indoor dining and an extensive lunch and dinner menu. Raso and his prized oysters can still be found at local farmer’s markets.
Last summer, we tried to dine at Matunuck Oyster Bar for a special occasion. It was mid-week, and we thought we’d have no trouble getting in. As we neared the waterfront restaurant, we saw that the parking lot was jammed, and we were stunned to see that free valet parking was offered – rather unusual for a humble coastal dining establishment. The deck and patio were packed with people.
Dreading a long wait (we were very hungry), we ended up going elsewhere. This year, we bravely headed back, and on a Saturday night at that. We handed our car over to a valet and made our way to the hostess station, where we were told it would be at least two hours before a table would be available. This time, we weren’t scared off with that bit of news. We simply headed over to the outdoor bar, ordered up some drinks and joined the fun.
For that’s what it is at Matunuck Oyster Bar, a wonderful summer scene of tanned legs and sun-kissed faces, designer sunglasses and khaki shorts, polo shirts and strappy sandals. From late in the afternoon until closing time, especially on those perfect summer evenings, it’s party time: Bring on the ice-cold beer, well-chilled white wine, and margaritas. We wandered around the crowded patio and found an available corner where we shared a large wooden picnic table with three 20-something couples.
Thankfully, you can order appetizers from the raw bar while you wait for your table. The strictly local menu offers littlenecks and cherrystones ($1.75 each) and a wide variety of oysters ($1.85 each), all expertly shucked and served on the half shell over crushed ice. Jumbo shrimp are $2.85 each. Two sampler platters are available: an assortment of 12 local oysters ($21.95), and the Islander ($38.95), an extravagant assortment of 12 oysters, six littlenecks and four cocktail shrimp. For our party of three, we went with the Islander.
Our guest that night eyed the raw shellfish and admitted that she had never had an oyster or a cherrystone. But Sue is a big fan of seafood, especially lobster, and we encouraged her to try one. She described that first oyster as “a little slimy,” but went back for another, and then another. That night the oysters included Matunucks, East Beach Blondes and Moonstones – small, medium and large in size, with varying degrees of briny flavor.
Surrounded by lots of laughter and the clinking of ice in frosty glasses, with the freshest shellfish in hand and plenty to talk about, the time went by at an agreeable pace. Less than two hours after giving our name to the hostess, we were summoned inside, confirming my theory that they always exaggerate how long you will have to wait – that way you’re a happy guest when your name is suddenly called. Inside, the restaurant is L-shaped, with the best seating to the left of the busy raw bar. That small dining area affords you a view of the pond at sunset, with kayakers gliding by, as well as all the jovial noise from folks who belly up to the bar to watch young men shuck oysters and clams tirelessly.
Out on the patio and inside, you really couldn’t ask for a more helpful, friendly staff. While we waited for our entrees, we tried the chowder and the stuffies, with mixed reviews. The New England Clam Chowder ($6.95) was deemed much better than the Rhode Island Clear Chowder ($5.95), and everyone agreed the chunks of potato in both bowls were just a little too big for easy eating. The big, fat stuffie ($3.95), studded with spicy chourico and cherry peppers, was excellent.
Dining at Matunuck Oyster Bar can be casual or upscale. At our table, we enjoyed the basic Fish and Chips ($13.95), the impressive Whole Belly Fried Clams ($18.95) and the almost elegant Atlantic Salmon ($17.95). The fish and the fried clams were both served with plenty of excellent coleslaw and fries, done right, almost mahogany in color. The fish was Atlantic cod in a rather thick batter. The clams, a full pint, with a much lighter coating than that of the fish, covered the fries. The grilled salmon was topped with a much-appreciated Romesco sauce, smooth and rich, made from roasted red peppers, ground almonds, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. The boneless fillet was served over scallion polenta with braised kale on the side.
That particular Saturday night, it was unusually breezy and cool, and the party most definitely moved inside. We were in no rush to leave, so dessert was ordered – the Kahlua Torte and the Key Lime Pop ($6.95 each). The torte was a super dense wedge of fudgy chocolate, and the pop was pure summer fun, a tart key lime pie popsicle for adult taste buds. I’d love to have a supply of those in my freezer.
When it came time to finally head home, one of the valets asked if we had had a good night. Conversing with him, he told us the fun crowd is not exclusive to Saturday nights. “It’s like that every day of the week all through the summer,” he said. “Pretty amazing.”
Linda Beaulieu is the author of The Providence and Rhode Island Cookbook, available at stores throughout the state. Follow Linda on Twitter @LindaBeaulieu3.