As one of those elusive places on the collective restaurant radar for those of us north of Narragansett, Duffy’s Tavern nonetheless receives the generally universal nod of approval. Duffy’s has evolved into a South County family favorite and perennial best-kept secret for skippers and old-school locals, as well as for thrifty URI students in the know. Call it Wickford, North Kingstown, or “Quahog County,” as they say down south, but a visit is well worth the ride.
From a favored dive bar of Ted Williams to the home every August of the annual International Quahog Festival, Duffy’s has experienced a long-running renaissance. The credit goes to owner Stu Tucker, a Rhody native, who has crafted a spacious, family-friendly pub without losing the salty charm.
Step into the main dining room and you’re instantly surrounded by a classic hand-carved lodge motif, with an impressive (and immaculate) bar area, and a surprisingly impressive wine selection on display. Double doors lead to a spacious side room often used for private functions and renowned company clambakes.
We decided to head south for an early supper on a blustery Tuesday evening with cousin Tony, a first-timer, and the bargain prices further piqued his hearty appetite. The appetizer selection rallies around the quahog, of course, followed by never-ending fried land and sea offerings for less than $8. A menu insert highlights a dozen dinner specials, as well as a handful of crab variations.
A sit-down at Duffy’s begins with the starring clam, from the famous house chili to a tasty clear quahog chowder. The latter is an original recipe (available on www.quahog.com) created by Tucker’s mom during the Great Depression, hence the lack of a milk- or tomato-based broth. But a winter special, roasted corn and shrimp chowder ($3/$4), caught my eye and prevailed over the aforementioned legends. It was a hearty winner with its creamy consistency and spoonfuls of diced shrimp.
We passed on the crab cakes with wasabi special ($8.95) in favor of the renowned stuffies, perhaps a mistake, as we found them mushy and bland, but it was a minor letdown. Our attention turned to the raw bar bargains: 10-cent peel-and-eats, six-bit littlenecks and cherrystones, and jumbo Gulf shrimp for a buck apiece.
Our excellent waitress patiently dealt with our persistent inquiries, and gave an overwhelming nod to the coconut shrimp ($7.95). The never-ending tender shrimp contrasted nicely with their crunchy coating, accompanied by a house wild bourbon sauce, which should be bottled and immediately made available to the public. Think Jack Daniel’s sauce without the uber-salty aftertaste, allowing the actual bourbon flavor to permeate.
A giant black bowl, chock full of mussels (an unbelievable deal at $7.95) drowning in a pool of butter, minced garlic, and parsley, soon dominated our table. The apps alone provide ample reason to stop by Duffy’s, perhaps with a few pops after work or a day of shopping in the Village.
The 86 list narrowed our entrée options since both the wild salmon ($16) and Dungeness crab clusters (3lbs. /$20) were out of stock. I redirected my attention to such options as lobster seafood pie, and lobster stew, as well as Duffy’s signature lobster roll ($15), but went for the simply billed lobster/steak combo ($27).
With a fish shop next door, the fish choices are plentiful and unbelievably low-priced, from grilled mahi mahi with lime ginger ($12), and tuna ($13), to deep-sea scallops ($14). The halibut won out, particularly with its $12 price tag, which includes potato and choice of homemade slaw, beets, or cucumber salad. Our waitress recommended the Cajun or steamed lime-ginger preparation, but Tony chose Caribbean-style.
The strip steak with my boiled lobsters was cooked beyond the requested medium, and it was fattier than anticipated for a strip. Tony also found that his hefty halibut slab was a bit overcooked, and his request for an extra side of that homemade bourbon sauce wasn’t exactly a sound endorsement for the lacking Caribbean component. The julienne cucumber salad was a refreshing twist for a seafood side, and the tender baked sweet potato arrived with a dollop of sour cream.
Duffy’s Tavern is a self-proclaimed “seafood in the rough” restaurant, a motto declaring a no-frills scene with prices to match. Stop by regardless of season, and get to know this Quahog County landmark.