It’s Just as Sunny at Simone’s Restaurant

A sweet Warren eatery offers comfort food and unadulterated happiness.

275 Child St., Warren, 247-1200, simonesri.com.
Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday (winter hours). Brunch Saturday and Sunday. Reservations accepted. Wheelchair accessible. Lot parking.
Cuisine New England with Italian and Portuguese influences.
Capacity Fifty or so.
Vibe The Vermont weekend house you’re hoping to buy.
Prices Appetizers $4–$14; entrees $16–$28; dessert $6–$10.69
Karen’s picks Brunch, flank steak, manicotti, doughnuts any time of day, and any bread you can get your hands on.
Key  Fair  Good  Very Good  Excellent half starHalf-star

 

Where do you go from the Sunnyside? Joe Simone’s perennially popular breakfast nook on the Warren River closed about four years ago, before he began to build his own space further inland. But where Sunnyside hung over the water, diners crammed as close as they could for a glimpse of scenery, Simone’s is all about open space. The downside is that the river has been replaced by an unremarkable parking lot and moderately paced traffic. From the inside, however, the restaurant captures the very thing its owner honed so well at Sunnyside: unadulterated happiness.

Left: Wood grilled grapefruit with Rhode Island honey. Right: Fritelle — Italian doughnuts with golden raisins and house-made jam.

The exterior of the clapboard, New England-style building is unassuming but a lot of money’s been spent trying to make people feel at home. A mixture of cool gray and chirpy yellow coats the walls of this homage to an industrialized farmhouse, replete with sliding barn doors and the occasional pop of weathered wood. But the backdrop here glows white: subway tiles run to the ceiling and marble flanks the kitchen and bar in a luminous expanse.

Though the main dining room holds just more than forty seats, with a dozen more at the bar, there’s a concerted effort to avoid congestion at all costs. At Sunnyside, your neighbor’s conversation inevitably became your own; Simone’s creed is that your space is your own.

Brunch remains as quirky and endearing as ever: Italian doughnuts are dunked in homemade jam, crockpot grits are spiked with Parmesan and kissing couples laugh over their huevos divorciados with segregated salsas. But the kitchen from which the familiar dishes come is a sight to behold. If Simone looks happy in the recessed corners of his saute line, it’s because his kitchen looks as if it just unfolded from the pages of a magazine. In an age when chefs offer themselves up as gritty, inked-up artists, Simone is all about indulging the retro appeal of beauty. A wood-burning oven sits set back in tile, beer taps are built into the pristine wall and the bookcased bar could just as readily be filled with bric-a-brac instead of booze. There’s enough fire in the kitchen to cook a cow whole but it’s all polished to gleaming for a more genteel crowd. Grandmothers can finally sip their blackberry mimosas and nibble on the early morning amuse bouche of apple or pumpkin bread while their generation-skipping offspring can down a beer with their fish tacos.

Jonah crab cakes; wood grilled littleneck clams, dill oreganato; fried beets with goat cheese and arugula; chicken and herb meatballs, house gravy.

But the real demarcation between Sunnyside and Simone’s is dinner. Once the evening service begins, Simone comes out from the kitchen to expedite and work the crowd. That doesn’t require much movement, as diners know him by name and approach him with open arms. It’s no coincidence that that the space feels more like a house than a restaurant; regardless of the name, Simone’s goal has always been to form a community by breaking bread. He parades dishes around the dining room in a chef’s coat and shorts, as convivial with strangers as he is with regulars. “I brought you a present,” he says often, depositing plates of salt-encrusted focaccia and bowls of olive oil at each table. Strangely, the warm, salt-encrusted hunks of bread do feel like a gift, the same way a freshly frosted cupcake does even if you’ve paid for it.

If the old space had a laissez-faire, hippie vibe to it, the newer incarnation evokes the 1950s with an updated soundtrack. Corrine Bailey Rae, Van Morrison and Frank Sinatra ooze out across the air as people settle into favorite tables or a seat at the bar to converse with the staff. Whatever corner they choose, it’s a respite from the world outside, an enclave of uplifting simplicity.

It’s no surprise that the dinner menu has an old-fashioned feel to it: June Cleaver could pull off a stint as guest chef here if she could just get in touch with her Italian side. Appetizers are often served like hors d’oeuvres, occasionally with toothpicks so they can be passed around the table. Chicken meatballs in tangy tomato sauce ($5) and deep-fried Roquefort-stuffed olives ($6) are just the thing you’d serve to guests if you weren’t so keen to get out of the house. Crab cakes and a variety of chowders also play to a love of tradition that defines New England dinners. But zucchini and goat cheese fritters — so delicate you barely need to chew them — push right past domestic fare. Even the wood-baked pizza dotted with pancetta and leeks ($16) holds its own, not because it’s novel but because it’s done right.

Most of the entrees walk the thin line between recent and retro. Steak frites centers around a heavily marinated flank ($25) that has so much flavor, you’d readily turn in your staid filet, though Sicilian eggplant is streamlined to a fault, topped only with a traditional tomato gravy and a sprinkling of Atwell’s Gold. But the best dishes are hybrids, notably a single sizable manicotti stuffed with shredded short ribs and surrounded by mushroom duxelles. It’s all a bit like Julia Child when she first showed up on television making simple food extravagant and complex dishes accessible. Simone carries that same genuine euphoria around the restaurant, offering everything with a gleeful zeal that readily reminds diners of why pretentiousness makes for a bad meal.

Even sweets feel as if they came out of a Christmas stocking. If starched, stiff and decorated desserts are your thing, you’ve taken the wrong path. This kitchen wants to validate your long-established preferences: doughy, slightly spiced confections that have an elderly aproned woman somewhere in their naissance. Brownies studded with chocolate are bathed with coffee ice cream; bread pudding is spiked with fruit; apple crisps are served hot with maple ice cream melting into milk. It’s almost like being a kid again, but with experience enough to know just how good a space that is. There might not be a view of the water, and it’s true that the aesthetic is more mature, but as far as culinary contentment goes, it’s just as sunny over here.

 

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