Restaurants on well-touristed streets can thrive on location alone. Attract enough camera-danglers with a cutesy name or fancy façade and it’s fine if most of them don’t make a second visit. Avoid potluck picks on the City-by-the-Sea’s Thames Street, for example. Excellence and mediocrity look identical from the outside.
|Brick Alley Pub | 140 Thames St, Newport | Mon-Thurs, 11:30 am-10 pm; Fri, 11:30 am-10:30 pm; Sat, 11 am-10:30 pm; Sun, 10:30 am-10 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access | Brick Alley Pub|
So imagine my surprise when I discovered that one of Newport’s most bustlingly popular, long-wait restaurants is actually quite good. Because of its capacity, busyness and everything associated with that, I hadn’t dropped into the Brick Alley Pub & Restaurant for many a year, and then only for a quick snack.
There is certainly plenty of attention-grabbing glitz — it’s in that building with the fire engine sticking out of the top, after all. Nor does the “Oh, Elmer, look at that!” spectacle end there. A Harley-Davidson is suspended over the salad bar. A cold case is the back end of a shiny old red pickup truck. Every wall, nook, and cranny is filled with the usual pub gimcrackery — vanity plates here, the usual sailing paraphernalia there — but some aren’t generic bar tchotckes: ’40s- or ’50s-era head shots of officers and crew of the USS Shaw, shot in a Newport studio.
The place is enormous. It seats 195 downstairs, plus others in the patio out back. They can handle up to 170 for special occasions on the second floor. Restaurants that keep adding seats often fail from too little staffing, so that dirty plates litter tables and your power-walking waitperson avoids eye contact like a pissed-off ex. Well, we were seated in a small room, and at one point there were four black-shirted bussers snatching plates and filling water glasses to free up the white-shirted waitstaff.
It’s also unusual for a place like this to have a five-page wine list, with some 250 selections and a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. Most of the mixed drinks are served in pint glasses, and if my margarita was typical, are generously portioned (only one-third ice) and not expensive ($5.75). (The white-chocolate martini at the next table I heard declared “strong,” which was surprising — specialty martinis are often an excuse to max out the adulterant.)
For starters, since they were bragging about “Our Famous Creamy Newport Clam Chowder” ($5/$6), we had to try that. The description is deserved. Not cloying with butterfat, and nicely herbed with basil, rosemary and thyme. We tried another appetizer, the portobello fries ($9), an interesting sounding special that day. Thinly batter-covered, but greaseless, they were moist and the accompanying horseradish sauce wasn’t excessively hot.
The swordfish piccata ($26) appealed to Johnnie. By mistake, chicken piccata ($21) was brought instead, but that proved informative: the busy kitchen rushed out the right order in maybe five minutes, so they aced the potential crisis. The fish was more than an inch thick, moist and fresh, the caper-copious sauce just lemony enough. Our waitress even brought out a fresh side of skin-on garlic mashed, in case the first had cooled off.
My chicken saltimbocca with Marsala sauce ($21) was fine, with prosciutto under lots of provolone, perhaps too much, and the winy mushroom sauce quite tasty. One of a dozen available sides comes with each entrée, and additional orders are $2-$5. The long-grain rice, not overcooked, had plenty of wild rice and flecks of carrots for color. The spinach had a hint of garlic, just enough. Salad bar visits come with the entrées, and the array has some nice choices, such as a crisp cold string bean medley and marinated mushrooms.
We skipped desert, because we were stuffed and also because we trusted that the $4-to-$6 array, from cheesecake and a Key lime pie “Brownie Chariot” with banana “wheels,” would be no surprise, quality-wise.
That our experience was better than it had to be was thanks mainly to executive chef/proprietor Ralph Plumb, who open¬ed the Brick Alley Pub in 1980. Bless his heart and bank account. Any restaurant that has pepper mills, instead of shakers, on every table has the right attitude.
After dinner, before the film at the Jane Pickens around the corner, Johnnie heard the moviegoer in front of me tout the pub’s calamari — no kidding. I leaned forward and asked him to please describe it. As he waxed rhapsodic about the accompanying marinara, I knew this time it wouldn’t be years before we found out for ourselves.
On the Web
Brick Alley Pub: www.brickalley.com
Email the author
Bill Rodriguez: firstname.lastname@example.org
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