Thursday, April 11, 2013

Restaurant Impossible: Finding Good Food in My Home Town

I spent the bulk of this morning going back and forth from Google to Yelp as I searched for a restaurant.  My sister and I are taking our aunt (and my godmother) out for lunch on her 91st birthday and we are looking for someplace nice to go.  Aunt Adrienne lives in Somerset, MA, while my sister comes from Rehoboth and I drive down from Hudson, so we were hoping to find a good local restaurant.

I started in Somerset, which is a blue-collar town on the Taunton River that separates it from the city of Fall River.  The Massachusetts Bureau of Travel and Tourism recently named this part of the state the South Coast, to give it a brand and distinguish it from the much tonier—and pricier—South Shore.  Fair enough.  Having grown up in this mostly ignored and much-neglected part of the state, I was happy to see it get any recognition at all.  
South Coast, Massachusetts, Somerset, Fall River
South Coast of Massachusetts

There’s a lot to see and do in this area, from Narragansett Bay to Buzzard’s Bay, and Somerset is a very nice community of 18,234 people. So I expected to find a good restaurant pretty quickly.  That didn’t happen. 

To be fair, I eliminated Asian restaurants as I didn’t expect pho or sushi to be a large part of our aunt’s diet, as well as restaurants in malls because she uses a walker and a big parking lot could be a problem.  Still, the area offers a lot of other specialties, particularly seafood and Portuguese cuisine.  Fall River has a large Portuguese population, typically from the Azores.

Yelp, restaurant reviews
Back and forth I went, reading reviews on Yelp that would curl your hair.  Bad food, bad ambiance (dirty dining room, kitschy plastic decorations, etc.), bad service, and—worst “insult” of all—Newport prices.  The South Coast has been a depressed area for so long that its prices for almost everything have never risen to what is normal for other parts of the state, much less that gilded turn-of-the-century town with its magnificent “summer cottages.”  The prices didn’t bother me but the others certainly did.  I have watched enough episodes of Restaurant Impossible to know that if the dining room is dirty, the kitchen is usually worse—often  much worse.  And I have no desire to drive 75 miles for bad food and atrocious service. 

Still, there were candidates.  Fall River native Emeril Lagasse made his bones working at the Venus de Milo in Somerset where he made their famous baked stuffed lobster.  Surely the food there would be good.  I went over to Yelp and checked the reviews.  OMG.  Poor Emeril. 

I expanded my search: Taunton, Seekonk, Swansea, Fall River, New Bedford.  Place names in the South Coast are an eclectic combination of relocated English towns and Native American descriptive terms.  While this is not unusual in Massachusetts (itself Algonquian for Great Blue Hill), the juxtaposition in this area can really stand out.  Outside of New Bedford are Acushnet and Mattapoisett.  Assonet is between Somerset and Berkley.  Fall River has a North and South Wautuppa Pond.  You can turn from Winthrop Street onto Anawan Street or go from Aquidneck Avenue onto Park Drive.   

Metacom, King Philip, Wampanoag tribe
Somerset itself was named for Somerset Square in Boston, which was, in turn, named for the county of Somerset in England.  It was built in 1677 on Shawomet lands, however.  In fact, that tract was a favorite summer camp for King Philip, a war chief of the Wampanoag Indians, whose real name was Metacom.  Confused yet?  Anyway, the Indians liked it because of all the fresh seafood in the river.

I finally concluded that in this century Somerset is where good food goes to die.  But why?  It has an excellent school system.  There is easy access to fresh seafood.  There’s still plenty of farmland to provide locally grown vegetables and fruit.  Good vineyards are located nearby in Little Compton and Middletown, RI.  

It also sits in between Diman Vocational High School, where Emeril trained, and Johnson & Wales from which “Rock n Roll Chef” Chris Santos was graduated.  Santos went straight to New York City, however, and we all know that Emeril boogied on down to New Orleans.  They must have concluded that the opportunities for making serious money in the depressed South Coast were extremely limited.  I guess they weren’t the only ones.

seafood, South Coast, Massachusetts
It’s tough when the best culinary destinations you can find are chain restaurants but there wasn’t even an Applebee’s, a 99, or a Ruby Tuesday’s to settle for.  After searching for some time, I found a couple of well-reviewed Portuguese restaurants in Fall River and some good seafood places in New Bedford—if we want to drive that far.   

I’ll be sure to take a picture of my lunch and post something on Yelp for the next traveler to the South Coast.


  1. Take her to the diner in Fall River for some tookie pie.

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