We were headed to a concert in Cumberland and we thought we'd make a slight detour to North Smithfield — the village of Forestdale, to be precise. Unfortunately for us, or for any newcomer to the Village Haven, there's a bridge out and a detour, but at the bottom of the curvy School Street, a large sign glowed and beckoned. The parking lot was packed, the restaurant's capacity was maxed out, and folks from miles around were waiting, in a small lobby and a larger lounge, for their name to be called.
We'd come there, as had most customers, primarily for the all-you-can-eat "chicken dinner, family style," a Blackstone Valley tradition that started in the early 20th century, when the region's mill workers gathered to eat together on Sunday afternoons. Mounds of starches, a bit of salad, falling-off-the-bone roasted chicken — it's all still there and in one of its best incarnations at the Village Haven.
In the spacious dining room, we noticed several family groups of five or six; two older couples, hands clasped in pre-dinner grace; balloons bobbing past, for a child's birthday celebration — that kind of place. Our own party of three was immediately fascinated by the bargains on the menu. In addition to the chicken dinners (adults, $10.25; children 5-12, $6.25; below age 4, $0), the Haven offers a variety of chicken, beef, and seafood meals.
And there's another regular special: "two for two," half-orders of dinners with pasta and dessert for $12.95. Bill's eyes got even more pinwheely than the cinnamon rolls of which the Haven is justly proud when he took in that bargain. He had his choice of a half-dozen dinners, including chicken pot pie, baked scrod, Memphis chicken, and bourbon sirloin tips.
He ordered the last two, with a slightly sweet glaze on properly-rare beef tips, and barbecue sauce, caramelized onions, and melted cheese atop a pan-fried chicken breast. Mr. Bargain and Mr. Taste-Everything-I-Possibly-Can were both very pleased. Double Persona Bill was also enthusiastic about the tomato sauce on his penne, which had been simmered with meat in it (be forewarned, if you're not a red meat eater!).
Our companion Baiba gravitated toward the fishy side of the menu, and she found the shrimp scampi ($14.95), with eight medium shrimp, quite delicious, along with a large bowl of nicely al dente shells. We both thought the garlic, of traditional "scampi" preparations, was barely discernible, but the buttery sauce was, nonetheless, tasty, with chopped olives, parsley, and peppers.
My chicken dinner was, however, the star of the table, in my estimation: a succulent half-chicken, roasted very tender, with a side of French fries as well as penne with sauce. Some Blackstone Valley chicken dinners have roasted instead of fried potatoes with pasta, but they always have both.
These dinners also include bread and salad, which we were served family-style, enough for the table, after we'd placed our orders. The mixed salad had a mild oil and vinegar dressing and was just right. One twist at the Village Haven is that the table bread is the aforementioned cinnamon buns, delectably swirled with plenty of the operative spice. As we dove into them, Baiba reminded us of the proverbial question, "Do you know why it's best to eat dessert first?" Answer: "So you'll have room for it!"