Mystic's Sea Swirl started life as a roadside Carvel ice cream shop, but for decades the tiny glass-box building at the junction of Routes 1 and 27 has been home to one of the region's most popular summertime stops for fried clams, burgers and ice cream.
In 2011, owners David and Kathleen Blaney, the faces of the snack shack for 26 years, decided to retire and put the restaurant up for sale. Longtime Sea Swirl fan Mark Adams, who'd visit often for a hot dog and a black-and-white milkshake, decided to buy the business.
"He wanted to make sure the place kept running," says Ryan Devlin-Perry, who is married to Adams' daughter, Kelly. When Adams asked him and Kelly to run Sea Swirl's daily operations, they agreed. Devlin-Perry is a plumber by trade, but he grew up in the industry, as his family owned the former Hughie's in New London.
Little has changed under the new family's leadership, and the restaurant still retains its nostalgic, throwback appeal.
"We just added a couple of things [to the menu] but kept everything pretty much the same, because it was a really good formula," Devlin-Perry says. "The family that owned it before us, they really did a fantastic job, they really worked hard. We've tried to carry that tradition on as well."
The seasonal eatery, offering only outdoor seating at picnic tables, is weather-dependent and typically opens its windows for the year in early April. Hours are weekend-only after Labor Day, and Sea Swirl shutters for the winter after Columbus Day weekend. "Once June and July hit, we get a lot of tourism in Mystic; it's usually very busy," Devlin-Perry said.
Sea Swirl has earned consistent raves for its golden-fried clams (both whole bellies and strips) available as full dinners with fries and cole slaw, on a roll or as a side order ($12.95 to $19.95). The bivalves are dry-breaded by hand and fried in a blend of cottonseed and canola oil — that's all Devlin-Perry will divulge — but he says it all begins with the best quality seafood possible.
"Without [the clams] starting out to be a great fresh product, you can't make it any better than it is," he says. "We start with that and we very carefully sort them out, making sure there are no shells or beards."
Other fried seafood favorites include fish and chips, sea scallops, shrimp and oysters ($12.95 to $19.95) served with tartar or cocktail sauces. Fresh cod sandwiches, a lobster salad roll and grilled fish tacos are big sellers as well, and Devlin-Perry says he's working to add shrimp and steak tacos to the menu this summer.
Still more visitors come for BLTs, burgers (including a veggie option) and the 10-inch "long dog" on a toasted roll. Devlin-Perry has been experimenting with more recipes, recently attempting a "Deep Dog" special — a battered-and-fried dog topped with chili, cheese and pickles. Burgers, sandwiches and tacos are $3.95 to $8.50, lobster rolls are $14.95, hot dogs are $3 to $3.95 and sides and appetizers are $3.75 to $6.95.
With nearly three dozen flavors of hard ice cream and soft serve in seemingly endless serving options, (cones, shakes, banana splits, floats) Sea Swirl is also a dessert destination. But even with more outrageous menu items on offer, like a brownie s'mores flurry mixed with graham crackers and marshmallow sauce, Devlin-Perry said basic vanilla is still the top seller.
"It brings people back to their childhood," he says. "You'll see people in their 70s coming here, getting their vanilla [cone] with cherry dip."
Sea Swirl, 30 Williams Ave., Mystic, is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. until Labor Day. 860-536-3452, seaswirlofmystic.com.