Visit this N.H. institution by the sea while you can
Saunders at Rye Harbor
175 Harbor Road, Rye, N.H.
Hours: Open daily at noon; Monday and Tuesdays, open for lunch only, noon-4 p.m.; Wednesday through Saturday, noon-9 p.m.; Sunday, noon-7 p.m.
Major credit cards accepted
Accessible to the handicapped
Let's say it right off the bat. While there are a few dishes at Saunders that are excellent, most of the food is really just good. But the real lure of the 89-year-old eatery is its location and fascinating history.
Saunders at Rye Harbor was named after Ben Saunders, who in the 1920s worked as a lobsterman and was the town harbormaster. Saunders used to sell his daily lobster catch from the location that expanded into a fish market, which morphed into a lunch counter and eventually a full-blown restaurant operated by his daughter and son-in-law. Tourists and residents of the surrounding Little Boar's Head mansions, including the likes of humor poet Ogden Nash, would frequently dine.
The Zechel family has owned the restaurant since the early 1970s and is in the process of trying to sell the land to a development company that has plans to construct eight condominiums. Doug Zechel has said that even if the sale goes through, he plans to keep Saunders open until Labor Day. So we suggest you take a ride to the coast to take in this Granite State institution while it's still there.
We've visited Saunders several times over the last few weeks. The first time we ate at the bar, with its iconic, lei-wearing, bling-bearing stuffed hammerhead shark hovering above the bartender.
The bar, like pretty much all rooms at Saunders, has a fabulous ocean view. When we visited after a long, chilly walk on the beach, we imbibed some cocktails including a sinful Bun Warmer: Bacardi rum with hot chocolate and whipped cream, and a Nutty Irishman: Bailey's Irish Cream, Frangelico hazelnut liqueur, coffee, and whipped cream. We also noshed on Rye Harbor crab cakes Rockefeller ($9), two medium sized and flavorful cakes served over wilted spinach with a capered tartar sauce, and a magical hot crab dip ($9) that featured a high-crab content, creamy concoction baked in ramekin and served with the perfect amount of warm, crusty French bread.
We really enjoyed this afternoon snack with a great view and we love the fact that Paul Donovan plays the baby grand on Friday nights and Deborah Wyndham performs Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons.
On our next visit, we came for dinner with two tweens in tow. This time we were seated in the enclosed porch portion of the dining room with a three-sided view of the ocean and Rye Harbor. It was sunny and cheery, the perfect cure for the lingering winter blues.
We began our meal with cups of the seafood chowder ($4.50), definitely one of our favorite versions of this traditional New England soup. The broth was blessedly not of the thick, starchy variety that is one of our pet peeves. Instead it was a flavorful stock with cream and loads and loads of scallops, haddock, and not too many filler potatoes.
The young folks in our party had a nice kids' menu from which to make selections, although one of them skipped that in favor of a fresh lobster roll served with potato chips and a pickle ($15). We tasted and indeed found the lobster fresh but felt there was a little too much mayo for an adult palate.
One of the adults ordered the broiled scrod with a Newburg sauce ($23), roasted red skin potatoes, and a side of mixed vegetables that included zucchini, red peppers, and baby carrots. It was a generous portion of fish with a real homemade Newburg sauce, with just enough sherry for color and flavor.
Saunders has added a special $13 Chef's Table - Comfort Food for Troubling Times - portion of the menu served until 6:30 p.m. each day. The two choices of comfort dishes during our visit were Yankee pot roast and chicken Athena, chicken stuffed with a feta-spinach mix.
Unfortunately, our other adult diner received the Athena chicken although she ordered the baked harvest chicken from the entrée portion of the menu. It was good, if that's what someone wants, but it wasn't what she thought she was going to get and it was getting too late to order something else and keep up with the others.
We decided to opt out of dessert - a choice of cheesecake, chocolate cake, or peanut butter pie (all $5.75) - because they weren't made on the premises.
So here's the thing. We will go back to Saunders again, but not as much for the food, but because of the charming, traditional atmosphere, great view, and to say goodbye to a much loved New Hampshire dining venue.