Tiverton’s Red Dory Serves Up Seafood and Tapas

The bayside eatery is preppy without pretense.

1848 Main Rd., Tiverton, 816-5001, reddoryrestaurant.com. Open Wed.–Sun. for dinner, Sundays for lunch / tapas. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessibility is negotiable. Lot parking.
Cuisine Waters of New England dominate but there’s a sprinkle of international spice.
Capacity Ninety-four, and another two dozen on the deck to boot.
Vibe Preppy without the pretense.
Prices Appetizers $8–$13; entrees $12–$25; dessert $6–$7.
Karen’s picks Tuna poke, fried oysters, hanger steak, tapas lunch.
Key  Fair  Good  Very Good  Excellent half starHalf-star

A trio of tapas including the lobster taco with avocado, lime and chili oil, skillet-roasted carrots with harissa and Berber spices, muhummara with goat’s milk feta and spicy olives.
Tiverton’s longtime summer residents are easily recognizable: the gray hair is well-coiffed against the ocean breeze, khakis are pressed and there’s a look of serenity on each tanned face, indicative of the fact that no one is going to work tomorrow. Oh — and they’re often congregated around a table at the Red Dory in raucous conversation.

It’s clear that the owner, Steve Johnson, has found his clientele. Perched on the shores of the bay, the Red Dory — with its red skiff mascot — appreciates a simple approach to life. Deck seating beneath a rustic pergola is illuminated by twinkle lights and the interior mimics that same informality at every turn. Somewhere in the restaurant’s inspiration book is a picnic table, replicated in streamlined style so diners never lose sight of what it means to eat outdoors, even when you’re two lanes of traffic removed. Striped sailcloths hang suspended from the cork ceiling with rope, and mustard walls simulate a sunset in its late stages. Johnson came to Rhode Island by way of Cambridge but it’s evident that leaving the city was less sacrifice and more mindful determination. The restaurant, after all, strives to fill the seats with a regular crowd rather than a revolving door of one-time patrons who intellectualize food more than enjoy it.

There are other markers that the restaurant values a more laidback stance than Boston delivers. Servers in T-shirts swap tables when needed, whether it’s the food that demands attention or small talk that takes precedence. “Can we just share everything we order?” asks one group. “We know we’re weird,” continues the spokeswoman, hanging her head. “Weird?” replies a spritely server, “I’m all about weird. I love weird. Bring it.”

Sauteed bluefish cakes with a spicy cucumber salad. Grilled peppered chef’s steak with fries, collard greens and roasted garlic butter.
There’s a sense of obligation toward the residents that pervades every corner of the restaurant. As the evening turns dark and diners dissipate, a side room that looks like a residential den turns into a gathering space for those still sipping cocktails. And above it all sits a stuffed Alf (you’ll need to go back thirty years) in a small red dory, overseeing operations as Johnson walks the dining room, checking in with people he knows by name.

The menu is — as expected — rooted in seafood and, though the boundaries go beyond New England, the kitchen isn’t trying to surprise or cajole anyone. Crab cakes (bluefish in the summer) are straightforward and good. Cornmeal fried oysters are even better; they’re heavily battered and so large that you want to stick them on a soft bun and call it a meal. But the best bet on a warm night is local fish, served raw. The ceviche of the day ($11) depends on what’s fresh from nearby waters but, speckled with chilies and pomegranate seeds, it’s a clear embodiment of the Red Dory: a celebration of the surrounding area, simple enough that people can commit to it on a regular basis. It’s certainly a philosophy that applies to the tuna poke ($12). Mixed with sesame, soy and avocado, it’s not a novel dish but it’s a piscivore’s equivalent of pizza: something you could eat every day without ever growing weary of it.

Entrees tend to focus on earthier pursuits; larger dishes are the most American on the menu. Hanger steak with fries ($25), roast chicken ($23), grilled salmon ($24) and skate wing with fingerling potatoes ($23) are more cognizant of the audience than products of a culinary vision, but they are the staples that concretize a growing business. A handful of pastas touch on classical European: gnocchi in truffled mushroom broth ($12), bucatini with cauliflower, anchovy and capers ($14), crispy orecchiette with meatballs and piave cheese ($18). These are the first glimpse that Johnson got quite a bit of his education abroad. But it’s really only by grazing through the Sunday tapas menu (served at lunch, along with the regular menu) that you really get a sense of his world view.

The tapas offerings flit from New England waters to the cheese caves of France, into African terrain and back to Mexican street vendors. It’s an intimate international neighborhood that opens its gates once a week — for four hours — before retreating into hibernation again. It’s Johnson’s chance to indulge himself before gratifying the customers, though that’s the outcome regardless of intent.

The bay is a stone’s throw across the road.
There’s an egalitarian approach to this minute world’s fair; every dish is $6, from lobster tacos with chili oil, fried chickpeas with preserved lemon, smoked garlic sausage with grainy mustard and roasted local carrots tossed in Ethiopian spice, to cauliflower backed with comte cheese and — for old schoolers around the globe — fried smelts. There’s hardly a nicer way to wade into far-off waters than by doing so at a shaded table with the sea in sight and with the weekdays still at bay.

This sort of melancholia — the kind that emerges on a Sunday evening — is where we mollify ourselves with a glass of wine or a confectionery and both are here in modified measure. The wine list is concise but it covers the bases, as does dessert ($6–$7): one chocolate option, one fruit and plenty of housemade ice cream. Warm chocolate cake with espresso anglaise might rank as the biggest draw but the lemon buttermilk pudding with huckleberry sauce deserves more attention. It speaks well for the restaurant given its lighthearted approach, retro appeal and a sense of sun-ripened fruit bursting at the seams. There’s a feeling that the outdoors has been temporarily harnessed and brought in as an offering, quietly, on a plate. That is, after all, the reason people leave the city — with all its frenzied chaos, quixotic demands and unlimited opportunities — behind in order to take up space at a picnic table by the water. At some point, we lose interest in keeping pace and prefer to set our own languid course. All the better if we can do it sitting in a red dory.

Categories: Magazine, Review
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