Published September 22. 2011 4:00AM Updated February 28. 2012 10:46AM
Every town has its popular haunts, but the Noank community's affection for the Seahorse Restaurant has withstood decades. The way new owner Thomas Tsagarakis likes to put it:
"It's the restaurant's version of the Grateful Dead."
Residents lamented the sudden closure last winter of the restaurant, which started in 1947 as a hotdog stand next to Spicer's Marina, due to financial difficulties. But marina owner Bill Spicer quickly stepped in to buy the building, and he brought in Tsagarakis, a.k.a. Zack, who also owns Zack's Bar & Grill in Stonington. And just as quickly, Zack told me, those loyal customers were knocking on the door, dying to know when their favorite band was going to play again.
Finally, after waiting for renovations to be finished, in late June, they got their wish. The result, we recently discovered, is a balance between preserving the tradition of the institution and creating a new restaurant. Floors and ceilings were replaced and walls brightened, but the bar area maintains those characteristic painted fish scales on the ceiling. Despite its brand new mahogany, the hexagonal bar itself still appears to be a welcome home for the sailors and fishermen to share their stories of the sea (or so I like to imagine ... they may have just been commenting on the baseball game).
The dining room itself features wooden booths and tables and is simply decorated, with large photos of local beaches and boats, along with a nautically themed mural painted by a local artist preserved from the original restaurant.
It was busy on a weekend night even after the official end of the tourist season, but we were seated immediately in the dining room. Though it took a little while to get our server's attention at first, she was helpful and efficient throughout the meal. The menu is new but fairly straightforward, likely catering to the traditionalists, featuring dishes like calamari, steak, pasta and fish.
Being in Noank, we had to start with some oysters ($24 for a dozen). Though on the smaller side, they satisfied our craving to slurp a taste of the ocean, doctored up with some lemon and cocktail sauce.
We were also tempted by the steak options, which include Jack Daniels pepper and blue cheese and bacon butter. Prime rib is served only on Friday and Saturday nights.
The New York sirloin was a large cut of meat ($24.99) and, though many places shy away from cooking anything on the rare side, stayed true to the medium-rare order: nicely pink throughout. It was satisfyingly tender, and the buttery blue cheese crumbles on top added a rich bite.
The steak and scallops ($16.49) featured two medallions of steak, also cooked to temperature, simply seasoned, with a pan-seared scallop on top of each. We liked the take on surf-and-turf but would have liked more scallops.
After seeing tiny, expensive lobster rolls at clam shacks all summer, the Seahorse's was definitely a nice change. It's a lot of meat ($16.49) spilling out of a big sandwich roll, enhanced with butter as lobster should be and more butter on the side for dipping.
The meals all come with the New England vegetable side options, but they were happily not the typical mushy medley. That night featured some tender stalks of asparagus along with creamy mashed potato.
At one point, we watched an entire table order the same thing - a seafood pot pie with a large flaky dough crust on top - and imagined they were regulars who don't necessarily need to try anything new. They probably crave that one dish at their favorite restaurant and just have to go get it every so often. The Seahorse still delivers on that - a comfortable atmosphere and reliable food. Its new-ness is just an added bonus.