WESTERLY — Rory Douthit and Sam Agnello Jr. have been friends since they were kids with summer jobs in Watch Hill. Today the two men are business partners and have opened a Main Street restaurant on the river in downtown Westerly that has become the talk of the town.
Cinder, a two-story, 1,750-square-foot, rustic barn-like structure, with several small, outdoor fireplaces, neat, graveled paths along the Pawcatuck River, and an unusual, compelling menu based on slow-cooked meats, has been drawing praise on social media and from local residents since it opened in late November.
"Brilliant menu, reasonably priced and flawlessly prepared. And right on the river with fire pits outside if you aren't going indoors. Love Cinder!" wrote one recent visitor on Facebook.
"Absolutely fantastic food and wonderful atmosphere! The owners are great, was checked on to make sure everything was just right," wrote another customer alongside a pair of thumbs-up emojis.
Fr. Michael Najim, pastor of St. Pius X Church, just a block up the hill from the restaurant, said he recently dined at Cinder and found the food to be "honestly delicious!"
"I’m always happy to see more successful small businesses in our town," Najim said in an email exchange Friday morning. "Small businesses are the heart of every small town like Westerly.
"Rory graciously gave me a tour of the restaurant and I was very impressed with the setup," he added. "I hope they continue to be successful ... Personally (and maybe a bit selfishly!) I find it wonderful to have a great restaurant that I can walk to in a few minutes."
Douthit, 36, grew up in Connecticut and spent his childhood summers in Watch Hill, where his family has deep roots. He became friends with Agnello when he was about 14 and washing dishes at the Olympia Tea Room, he recalled. Agnello, a Pawcatuck native, was working across Bay Street for the Nicholas family at St. Clair Annex.
"It seems like we've known each other forever," said Douthit, who moved to Colorado after graduating from Davidson College and opened Aspen Brewing Co. with two pals. While he contemplated heading to Cornell for a master's degree in hospitality, he worked at Little Nell, a Relais & Châteaux property at the foot of the Rocky Mountains. From there, he went on to work at Daniel Boulud establishments in Boston, New York City and London.
Douthit moved back to the area in late 2017, he said, and has been working on the Cinder project since 2018, when he and Agnello decided to buy the land where Amanda's Pantry once stood. That building was demolished in 2020, and the new building, constructed by Agnello and his father-in-law, Steve Jarzombek, was completed in late 2021.
Despite the years of permitting and approvals and working with the state Coastal Resources Management Council to make sure the project met the council's Urban Coastal Greenway policy, both men say they are delighted with the outcome.
"We're very happy with it," said Agnello, 37, who graduated from Stonington High School and the University of Connecticut, then worked in real estate development in New York before returning to the area with his wife, Ashley Jarzombek, who owns a shop called Anther, a few blocks away on Beach Street.
"We don't fit into a box," Douthit mused as he explained Cinder's philosophy: non-traditional cuts of meat cooked low and slow that can be touched up with spices and sauces (think maple carrot yogurt, spicy tomato sugo and herb salsa verde) and served to guests within minutes of their placing their orders.
"Tasty, tasty food that's affordable and served with speed," he said. "Slow cooking, affordability and speedy service is the key."
Douthit said dishes like osso bucco and coq au vin, often considered to be "fancy dishes," are actually made from meats that are slow cooked — or braised — and seasoned well.
At Cinder, he said, diners can find dishes with Asian, Mideastern, Mediterranean, Southern Italian and Latin American influence, for instance, that are served atop either bowls of crispy rice or slices of fresh naan — an oven-baked flatbread.
The French have a phrase, 'Mise en place," Douthit said, "which means 'putting things in place.'"
That's the goal at Cinder, he said, to have everything in place and ready to serve customers quickly and efficiently — "within ten minutes."
"The feedback has been fantastic," he said, "and I am super proud of our team."
"It's funny," Douthit said. "We got branded as a barbecue place early on, and people will come in and say, 'Where's the corn bread? Where are the baked beans?'
"We're smoked, not barbecue," he explained. "But we have plenty of other things, and I hope people give us a try."
Cinder also serves wine and beer will soon add cocktails to the list.
Douthit said when he was living back in Colorado, some friends told him they were returning to Westerly to open a restaurant focusing on craft beers and homemade pretzels. He remembers scratching his head and pondering the merits of such a plan, the same way he wondered about a craft coffee house in a tucked-away strip mall on Beach Street.
"And now look at the Malted Barley," he said, "and at Junk & Java."
"I'm tired of underestimating Westerly," Douthit said as he looked out at the Pawcatuck River. "This waterfront is wildly underappreciated."
Agnello, who oversees the smokers at Cinder, said this is just the first of what he hopes will be many projects with Douthit. While plans are under wraps for the moment, he, too, sees the potential that awaits along the Pawcatuck riverfront.
For several years, Agnello ran two shops in Watch Hill — Huxter and Hope & Sundries — with local photographer Read McKendree.
"I am so thrilled to see the success of Cinder," McKendree said in an email Saturday morning. "It's an amazing addition to Westerly and the ever-evolving Main Street corridor."
Cinder has "a unique and exciting menu," he added, one that "is bringing new life and energy to the food scene in Westerly."
"Nothing beats the brisket naan and a cold beer, while sitting at one of their fire pits overlooking the Pawcatuck River," McKendree said.
Jack Felber, who owns the iconic Olympia Tea Room in Watch Hill with his wife, Marcia, remembers when Douthit first started working for them as a dishwasher in their busy summertime kitchen.
"He was one of those people that just stood out," Felber said. "Washing dishes can be an awful job but Rory brought joy to the job ... real joy.
"He took joy in completing the job. In a restaurant, that joy spreads. It spreads through the kitchen and then spills over into the whole restaurant."
Joann Nicholas, who owns St. Clare Annex in Watch Hill with her husband George and son, James, said she "couldn't be happier" for Douthit and Agnello.
Sam and his brother, Will Agnello, were both longtime valuable employees, she said, and "I adore both Sam and Rory."
As far as the name of the restaurant, the two childhood friends came up with it together.
"It's an homage to fire," Douthit said. "There's a lot of potential in it ... a lot of energy. Plus, it's easy to remember."
Cinder is open seven days a week from noon to 10 p.m.
On Saturday and Sunday mornings, Cinder teams up with the owners of Loveridge Place — a Pawcatuck-based bakery known for using locally sourced ingredients in their house-made pastries, breads and bagels — to offer "Breakfast with Loveridge Place" from 7 a.m. to noon.
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