There’s something about a giant mermaid that just doesn’t get old. Maybe it’s her spliced fin that curls back up to her perfectly pear-shaped hips, or the way she invites you in to her chest with open arms, only to cover up her breasts with that long, flowing hair? In any case, a mermaid—the longtime fantasy of seafarers everywhere—greets you at the Bistro of one of Newport’s nearly mythical institutions, the Clarke Cooke House. Add to this alluring ocean figure some white walls, wood-beamed ceilings, countless prints of the America’s Cup, sailing memorabilia, and seaglass-green sconces, and nothing conjures the wharf-side aesthetic quite like it.
This is the atmosphere of the Clarke Cooke House, the gastronomic go-to spot on Bannister’s Wharf, in Newport. Located in an original circa-1780 structure, the “house” is more of a multilayered array of bars and restaurants for any dining experience. In the 18th-century building, you can soak up the romantic elegance of the Porch, which is housed high above the assembled yachts, or relax more casually in the cafe-like Candy Store, at harbor level. Newporters in the know like to sip cocktails at the intimate SkyBar, adjacent to the porch. In summer, the Midway Bar offers open views of lingering sunsets. It’s also the season when the Bistro opens its wall of windows to allow the sights and sounds of Bannister’s Wharf to fill the room. The stately 12Metre Yacht Club Room, a favored spot for private dinner parties, is decked in darker panels, rendering it appropriate for any season. Not to be missed is the Boom Boom Room, famous for bawdy dancing and good-spirited revelry, which is tucked underground, beneath the Candy Store.
No matter which level you dine at (tourists tend to get trapped in the Candy Store, while natives and regulars flock to the Porch), you’re bound to discover that the Cooke House is serious about food. Chef Ted Gidley uses the freshest seafood, flavorful beef, and regional produce to create imaginative dishes. Gidley trained in fine French kitchens, and it shows, but his cooking remains true to the spirit of Newport’s seaside heritage along the New England coast. This season, if you snag a spot on the Porch, you’d be remiss not to start with the raviolo of lobster and wild mushrooms. It’s been on the menu for more than 20 years, and with good reason (rumor has it there’s a stick of butter in every serving). Next up, catch the native striped bass. Here, a seven-ounce filet is wrapped in a thin shell of potato disks (layered to resemble fish scales), brushed with egg whites and thyme, then roasted in the oven. It’s served on a bed of braised leeks with a thyme-scented cabernet glaze, and finished with baby turnips, carrots, and hericots verts.
No meal is complete without the Snowball in Hell, an all-time house favorite. It can be spotted at every table for every celebration, grand or small. The dessert is really a wine goblet coated with Callebaut chocolate, lined with slices of a chocolate roulade, stuffed with vanilla ice cream, and topped with chocolate sauce and toasted coconut. A rum-soaked sugar cube is nestled in the ice cream and lit on fire just before being served. One just never seems enough; the staff has been trained over the years to expect encore presentations.
Miss out on a trip to Newport for a dinner at the Cooke House? Not a snowball’s chance in hell.