The Blue Oar in Haddam is in its 20th season, but if some dedicated regulars had their way, the relaxed restaurant along the Connecticut River would remain their little secret.
"Everyone still thinks, even though we're busy, that it's their own little private place, because we're so hidden," says Jody Reilly, who owns the eatery with her husband, Jim.
In 1997, the Reillys first saw what would become their seasonal riverfront gem. At first glance, it was a gray, nondescript building on stilts next to the Midway Marina. But they saw the potential for a restaurant, Jody says, and after fixing it up, adding fresh paint and acquiring a gas grill and a refrigerator, they opened The Blue Oar about a month later.
Over two decades, diners have flocked to Haddam for the unique experience: laid-back food, tranquil water views and casual, cheery ambience. Under a canopy of tall trees, guests claim seats at picnic tables painted in island hues: bright blues and pinks, sea green and yellow. White string lights illuminate the dining area after dusk.
"We have reggae music going; it's just a nice, relaxing atmosphere," Jody says. "I think it reminds people a lot of the Caribbean, that's what they tell us. Or a place maybe in Florida. I think it brings back good memories for people."
The BYOB, cash- or check-only restaurant opens for the season on Mother's Day weekend and shutters toward the end of September. In the past, the Reillys have tried to extend the season to Columbus Day, but saw significant dropoff once the early fall nights started to get chilly. But during the hectic summer, when guests arrive by carload after a beach day or pull their boats up to the dock, the lines at the counter inside the building often extend into the parking lot.
Lunch fare is simple but satisfying: a bevy of burgers and grilled chicken sandwiches, a hot dog, hot and cold lobster rolls, New England clam chowder. Daily specials feature more gourmet sandwiches: Cajun catfish with roasted red pepper aioli, curry chicken salad with raisins and walnuts, turkey with stuffing and cranberry sauce on wheat toast. A fresh mandarin salad with field greens, orange wedges, blue cheese and balsamic, is a longtime favorite. Lunch options range from about $5.25 to $9.95.
The dinner menu rotates frequently, but guests are likely to find appetizers ($8.95 to $11.95) like fresh guacamole with housemade tortilla chips, watermelon salad with mint, feta and balsamic; crab cakes or mozzarella salad with tomato and basil.
Entrees ($22 to $28) include assorted fish, seafood and steaks, like grilled salmon with pineapple salsa, seared scallops with potato hash and bacon, grilled rib-eye with Gorgonzola or Thai coconut shrimp with Asian vegetables. Grilled baby back ribs and Cajun catfish are among the more regular main plates.
Meats, fish, and produce are delivered nearly daily, says Jim, as the restaurant has no freezer, and the kitchen staff seeks to highlight fresh product with simple, clean preparations.
"We don't want to get too esoteric. … [it's] nice stuff, something that everybody can enjoy and understand," he says. "We keep [dishes] basic — good, consistent, easy to put out. Let's grill it, get good toppings, good products, so it can speak for itself."
Desserts — an assortment of small cakes, tarts and mousses — are provided by Nancy's Creations, of Middletown, and displayed prominently in a bakery case.
The Blue Oar's informal concept lends well to many occasions. "If you want to have a hot dog, great. If you want to have a steak, perfect," Jim says. Many make a special night out of their visit, arriving with tablecloths, candles and flowers to dress up their seating areas. (If you're drinking wine, bring your own glasses, though the restaurant provides plastic cups for a quarter each.)
The Reillys have continued to expand their restaurant portfolio, opening Simon's Marketplace in Chester and Westbrook. In 2015, they converted a steel shipping container into another Simon's, a riverfront café by Deep River Landing. Jody and Jim try to split their time between locations, which Jody believes customers appreciate.
"They're happy that they still see our faces after 20 years," she says. "I really think it's a comfortable feeling for them. … Every year, it becomes a routine; [regulars] all meet in Chester months before the Blue Oar opens, telling us they can't wait."
The Blue Oar, 16 Snyder Road, Haddam, is open daily from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.; hours change after Labor Day. Cash or check only; no credit or debit cards. 860-345-2994, blueoarct.wix.com.