528 Thames Street, Newport
Winter hours: Fri-Sat, 11:30 am-3 pm, Sun, 11 am-3 pm, light bar menu between lunch and dinner; Mon-Sat, 5-10 pm, Sun until 9 pm
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Friends have been recommending Café Zelda for years, and somehow we’d never gotten there. When we wandered in for lunch last summer, we were struck by the old-fashioned nature of the bar and the dining areas, one a few steps up from the other. The feel is old Newport, with dark wood wainscoting, subtly striped wallpaper above that, and identically framed illustrations of sailboats at regular intervals on the walls. The chairs pick up the dark wood, though their dark green seats match the ceiling and banquette cushions.
There’s something about the small two-level dining room, now elegant with white linens, that is reminiscent of its days, from the ’40s through the early ’80s, as a neighborhood tavern: the wood wrapping around many tables like a booth, the subdued light from fluted glass wall lamps. The upper level, where we sat, maintains the nautical feel that came to this space when Murray Davis, the founder of Cruising World, bought the restaurant in the 1970s and named it after F. Scott’s wife. The soft glow from the oil lamps on the tables and the burnished wood give off the aura of a captain’s below-deck quarters; and the narrow and low-ceilinged feel of this part of the room might have been a ship’s galley (have I seen too many pirate movies lately?).
Davis sold the 100-year-old building — which started as a liquor store and small brewery that delivered beer to the Bellevue mansions — to Tom and Roxanne Callahan in 1986, and they have incorporated its history and traditions into their warm and welcoming restaurant and pub, with executive chef John Philcox doing a bang-up job.
When we’d come in for lunch during the summer, we’d consumed two delicious salads (Caesar and baby greens) and a chicken and penne dish, unusual for its combination of oranges, olives, basil, and mint. And we’d vowed to come back for dinner.
On a recent Wednesday night, we did just that, taking advantage of Zelda’s $22.95 prix fixe dinner specials (also available on Tuesdays and Thursdays). From that menu, you can choose a soup or salad, one of two entrées, and one of two desserts. Cream of pumpkin soup and endive with pears were the starters we enjoyed. The soup was deliciously buttery, with bits of bright orange peel providing color and texture. The salad included generous chunks of Gorgonzola, along with pear slices, and chopped walnuts.
The two entrée choices were both good ones: roasted Statler chicken breast, a regular on Zelda’s menu; and pan-roasted striped bass, a seasonal and local favorite. The chicken breast was surrounded by a "compote niçoise," a Mediterranean-style sauce with plenty of roasted red peppers and pitted Niçoise olives, and it complemented the herbs rubbed on the chicken. This was served with "garlic mashed potatoes," but I was hard-pressed to taste the garlic.
Bill had the same potatoes with his bass, which had been gently cooked and placed over sautéed young kale, as tender as spinach. The ensemble was surrounded by an apple garlic cream sauce, in which the garlic was indeed evident.
Dessert choices for the prix fixe were tiramisu or sorbet. We both chose the "pick me up" of tiramisu, so named because Venetian courtesans are said to have fortified themselves with it. Evolving out of a layered trifle of custard and ladyfingers, today’s version relies on mascarpone, lightened with whipped cream, flavored with spirits, most often rum, layered over espresso-soaked ladyfingers, and accented with chocolate bits. Zelda’s version has the mascarpone in a large bowl and three espresso-dipped ladyfingers standing alongside, none of its ingredients fighting for first place.
Our dinner was just the tip of the iceberg at Zelda’s. Any place that has been lauded for its chicken-fried lobster can surely be trusted with its seafood dishes. Its steaks have also been highly praised, and if you’re not in the mood for a full-tilt meal, the Café Zelda Burger is always on the menu (with sautéed onions and mushrooms, and melted cheddar).
So join your friends for a brew at an Irish pub, meet a colleague for a quiet lunch, or treat that special someone to a romantic dinner. In all three cases, you couldn’t do better than Café Zelda.
Johnette Rodriguez can be reached at email@example.com.