The Orchid Lounge reopens

Thu, 06/06/2019 - 6:30pm

An old piece of Block Island history has been brought back to life. The Orchid Lounge, a popular bar in the 60s and 70s, in what was then the Royal Hotel, has been reopened at the Harborside Inn.

How many times do you hear, “I remember Block Island when...” when speaking with islanders, or ancestors who lived on the island? Those conversations are usually about perilous ferry rides to and from the mainland, the roller-skating rink where The Empire Theatre is now, John Rose & Co. Hardware store, which stocked everything for everyone, the Oceanview and Vaill hotels standing grand, with vistas overlooking the water.

A year or two ago, Marc Scortino and Katie Simlick decided to bring a little of old Block Island back to life at the Harborside Inn. Last week the Orchid Lounge, was rechristened in the newly renovated interior of the Harbor Grill restaurant on Water Street. Marc and Katie stated that their mission was to pay homage to what was possibly the most beloved (or hated) establishment in Block Island history.

The original Orchid Lounge was owned by John and Rita (who goes by Red) DiTraglia and in its day it was the place to go for fishermen, locals, and transient workers, mostly men, who, as Marc put it, worked too hard and wanted to go out, have fun, relax and listen to some music and have a drink. The original bar was very dark, with heavy curtains that hung over the windows, creating an intimate atmosphere that took the customer away from the world of the island and into a stress-free haven populated by waitresses wearing floor-length dresses with a flare to show a peek of ankle. 

Rita and John ran the place with a theatrical bent; a large memorable mural covered the back wall and promotions to get customers into the place were legendary. John once proclaimed that he would walk across a tightrope strung over the bar on opening night, and peppered the town with ads touting this great feat. The evening came and the lounge was packed, a rope was strung across and people waited all night to see what John would do. As the hour grew late and the crowd grew drowsy with drink, John turned off the lights and said, “That’s it, everyone go home!” — his mission of drawing a paying crowd accomplished.  

Terry Mooney was one of the few patrons sitting at the newly reborn Orchid Lounge who recalls the old place as well. He said he would sneak in at age 14 to take a peek at the ladies, and would be politely escorted out every time. Terry is thrilled that the Scortinos have resurrected the lounge as it brings back a lot of great memories for older people and notes that the simplicity of the place remains the same as it was, a great place for people to come and hear music and just hang out.

Another patron recalls that the lounge was really popular; “it was always open rain or shine, day or night. Block Island wasn’t the way it is now, it was just fishermen and workers and this was the place to go. I’m glad Marc and Katie turned it around and brought it back.”

With 91-year-old Rita’s blessing (she met Marc and Katie at 11 a.m. at her house in Florida) and said, “Sure, what do I care? Whatever!” Marc and Katie visited with Rita to gather some history, photos and memories of the place.

The Orchid Lounge has been reborn with several nods to the old and an infusion of new. The waitstaff wear orchids in their hair and one wall is painted purple to echo the color of the flowers scattered throughout the space. The walls are dark -paneled with comfy leather booths across the back wall; a beautiful wood bar rests in the center of the room and several smaller vintage antique bars define more intimate areas to sit and talk. Reproductions of old barstools line the bar and in the corner of the room is a piano set up for Marc to play from 4 to 8 p.m. every Friday and Saturday. 

The space has a feeling of a modern speakeasy, where you might go to grab a drink and bite to eat, as you wait for the late boat to come in, or maybe you want to grab a glass of wine and listen to Marc tickle the ivories as you enjoy the summer breeze floating in from the porch. Brunch will be served there too, once the season picks up, along with breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.

The drink menu at the Orchid Lounge is extensive and fun; many are modern concoctions served in retro glasses. We tried a Spiked Agua Fresca from the Keeping It Light portion of the menu: Ketel One Botanicals, Chareau Aloe Liquor, watermelon, cucumber, mint, lemon, Simple syrup and seltzer. We thought it tasted like a summer day and would be perfect on a lazy evening after a day at the beach. Other drinks were listed under the “I Need a Remedy” and “I’m on an Island” headings. We tried one from each: Dragon’s Milk and Blueberry Crush; and finally sipped an Orchid Mai Tai from the “I’m Feeling (F)Risky” section.  Pineapple, lime, mango passion fruit blend mixed with two different rums and Grand Marnier made this drink a tropical delight.  

The lunch and dinner menu have a little something for every appetite. Asparagus fries were crunchy and fresh served with a lemon dill aioli. A Beet and Goat Cheese salad with Pistachio Vinaigrette was a hit with everyone at our table, Korean Short Rib Tacos were perfectly cooked and boasted a sweet and spicy flavor, and we all devoured the Blackened Tuna Reuben.  The grilled yellowfin tuna was rare in the middle and balanced nicely with the wasabi and pickled-onion slaw on rye bread with a light touch of Thousand Island dressing, a novel take on a classic. It speaks well to the themes echoed throughout the bar, of old and new mingling together to create a comfortable atmosphere for tourists and locals alike.

In their mission to resurrect the Orchid Lounge, Marc and Katie asked Rita to confirm or debunk some legendary stories from the old days. Now patrons have the opportunity to become the visitors and locals who will create their own legends and myths that will live on into the future. Stop into the Orchid Lounge, have a bite to eat and a cocktail; look at the pictures from years ago and make some new memories of a place of yore made new again.