I once won a burger-eating contest called Attack The Stack, which involved me eating a hamburger the size of my head. That burger was a product of Chomp restaurant in Warren, which is THE BEST place to go in RI for a novelty, giant or “normal” (but optimally superb) burger. Even though this level of excellence in a burger can also be found a few miles away in Bristol, that is not what The Statesman Tavern is about.
The Statesman Tavern is the second restaurant owned by Sam Glynn, mastermind of Chomp, who had a vision for an American Tavern of the historic era, when the gents of Rhode Island were referred to as Statesmen. That’s easily apparent in the décor, which ranges from shades of grey to rustic steel blue, with touches of nautical ships and large flags — one American, one Rhode Island — hanging on the walls. Sleek wood paneling lines the bar, expanded from its Persimmon days, and small flowerpots unexpectedly brighten corners. At night, candles inside oil lamps flicker on the tables and bring patrons back in time to those classic American Tavern days.
But let’s get straight to the point and talk about the food. This is a place where simple is done superbly, and comfort foods — many of which have a Southern flair — are turned into delicacies; even though everything is locally sourced, it comes with none of the pretentiousness that often accompanies farm-to-table fare. The portions are not microscopic, and despite this being the perfect place for business dinners or romantic dates, you’re put at ease by the servers wearing flannel and dark-wash jeans.
The first time I dined there, however, was not under an intimate setting of a dark candlelit evening — it was at 12:30 on a Sunday afternoon, with sunshine spilling through the windows onto our corner booth. The Statesman Tavern has a burgeoning Sunday brunch, served every week from 10am – 2pm, and it’s where you can find those chicken and waffles you’ve been missing ever since Succotash in PVD closed its doors.
Much like dinner, their brunch menu is small and thoughtful, full of in-season ingredients, a famous smoked brisket hash (that was sold out by the time we arrived), and a selection of baked goods from their in-house pastry chef. Unable to decide among the pastries, my friend Jeremy and I went with a “basket” — one of everything: cranberry coffee cake, a warm cinnamon bun, cheddar and bacon scone and buttermilk biscuits. It was so Instagrammable, I had to immediately put it on social media, giving kudos to the pastry chef.
That was our breakfast dessert.
Before that, Jeremy and I ordered classic morning cocktails, the “Stately” Bloody Mary and a Bellini, but next time I want to try their Lavender Lemonade or Corpse Revival #2, because nothing says, “Good morning!” like a drink with absinthe.
As our main courses, we shared the Fried Chicken and Waffles and the Eggs Benny. What surprised me about brunch was not its quality, but rather its ability to serve such a different niche from what I was expecting. It felt like a marriage between Nick’s on Broadway and Eli’s Kitchen, and [for all you native Rhode Islanders out there] it was well worth the drive across the East Bay Bridge! (As a side note: having now experienced their pimento cheese, I would definitely add a side of Pimento Cheese Grits or a Sausage, Egg and Pimento Cheese Sandwich. Trust me — pimento cheese is a game changer.)
So, appetite whetted, I knew I needed to return for their main event: Tuesday – Saturday night dinner. Jeremy joined me once again, and this time we sat at the bar. The list of carefully crafted cocktails led us to our first bout of indecision: an Apple Chai Spice Old Fashioned or a Black Tea + Fig Old Fashioned? We got one of each. Just like the Tavern itself, they mixed new flavors with classic, creating a new tradition.
The next matter we grappled with, naturally, was dessert. It was the “easiest” part of the menu to narrow down, and we chose the Raspberry Mousse (with fudge brownie) and Apple Cherry Crostada, bourbon soaked apples and cherries with anglaise sauce. Then we got stuck.
Everything on the menu called to us like the cursed gold of Caribbean Pirates. The menu is tapas-like, with Snacks, Small Plates and Large Plates, all perfectly designed for sharing. Our bartender called Catie over to offer advice. Unbeknownst to me, Catie was the pasty chef to whom I had given kudos — I would trust her with my life! Without hesitation, she said, “Pimento Cheese, Burgundy Braised Beef, Charred Broccoli, and Mushrooms.” I love a person who knows her food, so I was sold. Unfortunately, Jeremy’s diametrically opposed to mushrooms, so we opted for Chicken + Thyme Dumplings, but kept the rest of her suggestions.
I’ll just say it’s a good thing I arrived ready-to-gnaw-my-own arm-off hungry because by the time we left, I needed to be rolled out. The food, the drink, the ambiance, the experience — we couldn’t have asked for better.
Whether by day or by night, this is a place where the modern-day statesman luxuriates in comfort food. You can come for brunch, but you’ll stay for dinner.
31 State St, Bristol; Statesmantavern.com