Fitting for a town where many summer residents live in the rambling cottages built by their ancestors of the Gilded Age and seasonal visitors are privy to tours of lavish Vanderbilt mansions dotting Bellevue Avenue, the Clarke Cooke House feels preserved in time. The historic space was built by the Newport sea captain Clarke Cooke in the 1780s and was a candy shop (hence its nickname among locals: “The Candy Store”), before David Ray established the restaurant in the 1970s. The food—especially the raw bar—is divine, and the service impeccable. You know the staff is legendary when they served your parents at your age, and likely served your grandparents along the way. The revelry is accommodating to all generations, as is the food. This time of year offers an added enticement: Summer Sushi, which began over Memorial Day weekend, when sushi chefs arrived in Newport from St. Barth, where they work during the winter season.
Walking down Bannisters Wharf on a Saturday night and arriving at the Cooke House, you have three options: the Boom Boom Room, the downstairs dance club; Midway, the ground- and second-floor levels where sailors toast old salts; and Sky Bar, the upstairs porch where the fine dining has a dress code and the after-dinner dancing is even finer.
The terrace of the Sky Bar is adorned with pink and white cabana stripes offset by hunter green lacquer woodwork. The dancing begins after dinner when the tables are cleared and the DJ spins “Play that Funky Music White Boy”—an apt choice. The atmosphere is hot; when the dress code requires men in blazers and long pants, sweat is inevitable. Luckily, the staff know more than one perfect cocktail to quench your thirst, including a house favorite: the Snowball in Hell. This is not to say the more elegant crowd doesn’t behave indecorously. If you dress well, you can get away with all magnitude of sin or silliness (though in this case, the misbehaving takes the form of unabashed dance moves and copious consumption of Dark and Stormys). At his rehearsal dinner in the Sky Bar, my father and his groomsmen did the “alligator,” flipping off the wooden bar and sliding down the stairs on all fours—apparently a very happening move in the 1980s.
Descending downstairs, you take note of a neon sign indicating the Boom Boom Room, where music beckons inside. The same classic sense of style dominates, with upholstered banquettes, but in this crowded and darker space, you’re more focused on getting to the bar or dance floor. The wall of ivy is a nice touch on the dance floor, though don’t do anything too scandalous—a hidden security camera nestled in the leaves broadcasts a live feed on the television across the room. Throughout all three levels of the bar, closing time is announced with Kate Smith’s version of “God Bless America,” bringing the house down.
If you are feeling slightly under the weather from all this revelry, returning to the scene of the crime for Sunday brunch is the perfect antidote, with Bobby Ferreira playing the piano in the background. The Bloody Marys are excellent and, for those looking for some local flavor, peruse the selection of Rhode Island wines. To be sure, daytime is the best time to appreciate the lovely interiors. Light bounces off the water and streams in through the bay windows, and the restaurant’s centerpiece, a wooden mermaid, puts the Starbucks icon to shame. The walls are adorned with nautical charts; half hull models; paintings, etchings, and photos of yachts; and, of course, sailing trophies.
Perhaps they will add another sailing trophy this year: the Candy Store Cup will be hosted by the Newport Shipyard and Bannister’s Wharf from July 29 through the 31st. The regatta will carry on the tradition of the Newport Bucket, a hosting of the world’s largest super-yachts, where the focus is decidedly more playful and less commercial than other races. The stated goal of the Bucket Regattas is to “win the party,” and, as it was the preferred bar of Dennis Connor and Ted Turner during their America’s Cup years in the ’70s and ’80s, the Cooke House remains a favorite for the yachtsmen of today. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better weekend to visit and observe the nation’s yacht-racing capital at its finest. God Bless America, indeed.