Thames Street Kitchen was my favorite Newport restaurant. Like many others, when I heard it was closing I marked my mourning process with a farewell eat. My disappointed conversation over dessert with one of the owners wasn’t unique. Still, I could understand. Farm-to-table menus that change every week are exhausting, especially in a family-owned restaurant where the owners cook, wait tables and host as well.
When Winner Winner emerged in April at the same location, a chicken rising from the ashes, I wasn’t shocked. It would seem that their sister restaurant, Mission, was proof of concept enough. If gourmet hamburgers and hot dogs are an off-Broadway hit, why not chicken on the other side of town? The logic is sound. Winner Winner does one thing, chicken and fixings, and it does it very well.
There is great attention to detail at Winner Winner. There’s not just a pinball machine in the entrance, there’s a milk crate underneath to stand on so your kid can get some analog in their life. They have a basket of wet wipes at the counter. You will need them. Embroidered chicken décor? Yep! A painting of two cocks with boxing gloves battling during a lightning storm? Naturally. Finally, in the bathroom there’s a carefully curated, thoroughly postmodern pairing of heritage breeds of chicken and fashion/celebrity photography, all with matching poses. It’s frankly the best such collection I’ve ever seen. The entire interior is thoroughly dressed down from its tablecloth and wineglass days, but it’s sharp, clean and fun. Black and white letter board gives a vintage feel, while bench milk crate seating is perfect for splitting a six pack and a bucket of chicken. Yes, there is still BYOB.
All of these touches are fun, but the chicken has to be good, and it is. Consistency is the hardest thing to ensure at a restaurant that produces a lot of the same thing; I’ve been there a half-dozen times at this point and it has never disappointed. The menu is so simple it fits in a sentence: fried chicken sandwiches, fried chicken, rotisserie chicken, biscuits and sides. If you are a vegetarian, don’t bother; this is a place to satisfy your urge for bird. I think the fried chicken edges the rotisserie ($16 for half a chicken, biscuit and side) for me, but both are good depending on your mood and taste. If you’re new, the fried chicken sandwich ($8.50) is a foolproof recommendation and while it’s punctuated with a little pickle and sauce, it’s great because the chicken is great; well spiced dark meat, with lots of flavor and just a little heat. The texture is perfect, from crunchy crust, to juicy interior.
The sides are where we start to see that there’s extra culinary horsepower under the hood. This is not the stodgy potato salad ($3.50) of your sad work function; it has texture and is nicely herbed and bright. The black-eyed peas and ham ($4) aren’t mush, they have a little bite and fantastic depth of flavor. Last time my wife and I were there they had a watermelon and feta salad with cucumber as a special ($3.50). It’s unusual to eat something spiced with sumac and togarashi with a spoon you took out of a repurposed agricultural water filter. They never venture out of the formula entirely, though. The salad was interesting and different, but still in the plucky wheelhouse of summer and fried chicken. It was so normal that seconds before eating it I had barbarously picked up my wife’s chicken leg… “you weren’t going to eat that right?”
All the straight up staples are dead on. The biscuits ($3 for 2) deserve some special attention and are not to be missed. With honey butter basted generously in their soft innards, they are chubby little heavenly clouds with browned edges and craggy tops. The mashed potatoes ($3.50) might sit inconspicuously in a puddle of gravy, but the gravy is for real. The rich but balanced chicken flavor speaks to someone actually knowing how to make stock and sauces, with no packets in sight.
At the end of my hibiscus sweet tea ($2.50), I noticed there was a whole hibiscus flower steeped at the bottom. I don’t know what speaks to Winner Winner more, the fact that this is the sort of extra detail and quality you should expect all over, or whether I didn’t notice it, sitting right in front of me for half an hour. I was trying to notice things too, for this piece, honestly, but then came the fried chicken and biscuits.
677 Thames Street, Newport