‘THE HEARTBEAT OF OLD WATCH HILL’

‘THE HEARTBEAT OF OLD WATCH HILL’

Record-Journal


WESTERLY — Marcia Felber knew from the time she was a young girl that her destiny was connected to the Olympia Tea Room.

Call it magical thinking or call it serendipity, she said, but she had a sixth sense about it.

Today, as she and her family embark upon the centennial year for their sophisticated family-owned bistro, which sits in the center of Watch Hill facing Little Narragansett Bay, she can look back and appreciate how it all came together.

“I was always drawn to this place,” said Marcia, a tall, striking woman, earlier this week as she sat at the small, round table tucked in the right, front corner of the Bay Street restaurant sipping iced tea. “I knew we were meant to be here ... I knew it was for us.”

Last Friday night, the The Olympia Tea Room — the iconic Watch Hill restaurant whose patrons have included Albert Einstein, Clark Gable and Taylor Swift — opened for the season with fanfare, a fire-eater and plenty of Hershey bars to honor its 100th anniversary.

‘Stuck ... like a pearl’

Once called “the Greeks” for the three Greek brothers — Teddy, Spiro and Mike Tramis — who owned and operated it as a soda fountain from 1916 to 1979, the Olympia was ushered into a new era in 1980 when the Marcia and her husband, Jack, snapped it up from Janice DeCourcy, a Watch Hill businesswoman who had purchased it from the brothers the year before.

Marcia, who grew up in Coventry, Conn., remembers visiting the Olympia with her family as a child during summer camping trips to Burlingame.

“I don’t know why but this place somehow got lodged in my head,” she said. “The name and the spot ... it got stuck ... like a pearl.”

Veterans of the restaurant business, the Felbers were living in Hartford at the time and working at a trendy restaurant called Shenanigans where Jack was a partner.

Jack, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, and Marcia, an artist with a business degree from Bryant, always talked about having their own place.

“We knew we wanted to be by the ocean,” recalled Jack, a tall, handsome man with a trim white beard and a passion for fishing and fresh food.

“And we were always looking for a place.”

On weekends and days off, they’d drive from Hartford to the Rhode Island shoreline, checking out restaurants up and down the coast.

Jack said he developed a formula to estimate the value of each establishment they visited by counting the number of seats and applying his math.

“We were two kids with a crazy idea,” recalled Marcia with a laugh. And a child in tow. Their oldest daughter, Jaffa, was in elementary school at the time.

‘Meant to be’

One day in the kitchen of Shenanigans, Marcia overheard a woman bemoaning the sale of the Olympia.

To her devastation, Marcia heard the woman say, “The three Greek brothers aren’t there any more.”

The next Sunday, the Felbers hopped in the car, drove to Watch Hill, walked into the Olympia Tea Room. They sat down and ordered coffee.

“Jack had a dish of chocolate ice cream,” Marcia recalled with a smile. And he made his estimate and wrote a number on the check.

Then he approached DeCourcy, who happened to be there at the time.

“I said, ‘This place wouldn’t happen to be for sale, would it?’” Jack recalled. When the asking price matched the figure he had jotted down on the scrap of paper, the Felbers knew it was meant to be.

Before long they were living in Watch Hill and preparing to open their new restaurant.

“Somehow we knew it was important to preserve the name,” said Marcia, “which was a good thing, to keep the thread and the continuity.”

“We were the first people to buy a piece out of this block,” said Jack. “Everyone told us we were crazy.”

It wasn’t a breeze at the beginning, and the Felbers were one of the few families living in Watch Hill year-round.

“Nobody ever lived on this street off-season,” said Jack, pointing out to Bay Street.

‘Famous not fancy’

It was the early 1980s and the celebrity chef/culinary phenomenon had yet to take hold in this country; the word locovore hadn’t been conceived.

But the Felbers were trailblazers in the farm-to-table movement and created a menu featuring locally sourced items that was “eclectic, modern and clean.”

“American cuisine was just coming into its own,” Jack said, and it would take the Felbers 14 years to get a beer-and-wine license.

But they remained true to their slogan: “Famous not fancy.”

In the first few summers, locals and Watch Hill summer residents would come back expecting the same menu offered by the Tramis brothers — and the same treatment.

Longtime summer residents still talk about the Olympia’s “house accounts,” the ice cream sundaes and the Hershey bars given out to special customers.

Olga Barney Goff, whose family has been part of the Watch Hill community for generations, is familiar with both eras of the tea room.

“We were there all the time,” she recalled. “You didn’t want to be around when my father opened the house charge.”

Lawyer Nicholas Moore remembers what the winner of the Moore-Connell family fishing contest received each year.

“Whichever family member hooked the most cunners would be awarded the sought-after prize of the Greek’s Dusty Miller — vanilla ice cream, hot fudge chocolate and malted milk,” Moore said.

A family affair

These days, said Jack, the Olympia is the definition of a family restaurant.

“We have three generations,” said Jack with a smile as he sat next to his youngest daughter, Georgia Felber Jones, who serves as the restaurant’s manager and is one of Rhode Island’s only female certified by the The Court of Master Sommeliers. An international studies major in college, Felber Jones and her husband, Eric — both of whom graduated from Westerly High School in 2002 — were traveling through Europe when they felt the tug to return to Watch Hill and become part of the family business.

“There are so many family-owned restaurants in Europe, Felber Jones said.

The Olympia Tea Room, she pointed out, is one of the oldest continuously operating businesses in the town of Westerly, and has landed an ideal chef in Kyle Lydick, a Johnson & Wales grad who has become skilled at crafting the menu known for “highlighting locally sourced seafood prepared as New England classics with a Mediterranean twist.”

“I sat down with my parents as soon as we came home,” she said. She and Eric also opened a shop next door to the Olympia, called WH20, that sells gifts and accessories and is “Watch Hill inspired, globally acquired.”

“We’re proud to be here,” added Felber Jones, whose husband is the Olympia’s bar manager. “The village has changed so much through the years just by hurricanes and fires alone, but we’ve never missed a season.”

The Felbers’ oldest daughter, Jaffa Felber Coen, arrives each summer from Nicaragua with her husband, Piero, and their three daughters, Sofia, Graciella and Sienna, and the oldest girls jump in. Last summer, Sofia even got to work as a hostess.

“​The Felbers are wonderful hosts​,” said State Sen. Dennis L. Algiere who frequents the Olympia with his wife, Leigh. “The Tea Room is an institution in our town.I always enjoy having a great meal, a fine glass of wine and meeting friends at the ​tea ​r​oom​ ... it’s s a perfect location at ​s​unset.​“

Last Friday night, as a man on stilts swallowed sticks of fire outside on Bay Street, the Felbers handed out giant 7-ounce Hershey bars to their guests inside, each stamped with a round golden seal reading “Olympia Tea Room Watch Hill 100 years.”

“It was great fun and the chocolate bars were a great touch,” said Westerly resident Nancy Loney, a retired interior designer who has spent time at the Olympia under both the Tramis and Felber regimes and was one of the many diners enjoying the opening night. “Everyone was as happy as happy could be.”

“They did an especially incredible job,” added Goff. “It was crazy fun.”

Felber Jones said she has planned a number of surprises throughout the summer to keep the celebration going all year.

“The Olympia Tea Room is the heartbeat of old Watch Hill,” she added. “There’s a certain nostalgia we like to keep, but it’s a balance. We’re maintaining the history while providing our customers with a fresh modern approach to good food and wine.”

“I can’t imagine Watch Hill without the Olympia and I can’t imagine the Olympia without Watch Hill.”

nbfusaro@thewesterlysun.com


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