Dining News

The Old Grist Mill Tavern Reopens

Keeping true to the original, down to the details

The Bay Magazine ·

It’s been over 28 months since and you couldn’t make this up: a run-away banana-laden 18-wheeler over-turned and struck the Old Grist Mill Tavern’s gas main, reducing the second story of the historic Seekonk property to ash. It’s been a halting rebuild process, involving a lot of wrangling with insurance companies, and even court dates. Owners Greg and Sue Esmay are now overseeing the final preparations for a grand re-opening sometime in early November.

I asked the owners how they are able to balance the economics of the rebuild against the need to preserve its historical character. Greg chuckled ruefully and said, “well, we didn’t do a good job on economics, or we’d be open by now.” For Greg and Sue, it hasn’t been much of a balancing act. Instead, their goal has been no-compromises: To “return the Grist Mill to the Grist Mill.” “Most modern buildings have a 30-year life expectancy,” Greg says, and to put something generic and impermanent atop structures from the 1700s was anathema for him.

This isn’t the first time the Esmay’s have acted as caretakers of the beautiful character property. Initially They managed for the Darden Group. When they made designs on turning it into an Olive Garden, Greg and his wife stepped in and bought the place. It’s strange to think what could have been lost if it went the way of infinite regrettable breadsticks. Given Olive Garden’s recent struggles, it may not even have been in business, but were it to have burned down, there’s no way its owners would be spending time sourcing authentic pecky cypress for wall coverings, as Greg has been, to keep true to the original, down to the details.

During the hiatus, many of the Old Grist Mill Tavern’s displaced loyal customers have supported the Esmays by frequenting their other restaurant, the Wharf Tavern in Warren. Greg hopes to reward them when the Grist Mill re-opens, with a sense that “when they walk in, they will feel like they are coming back,” rather than it being a new restaurant. To that end, everything has been restored to the original design.

This meant replicating the wood beamed “big top tent” style ceiling, with few straight lines, as much an engineering problem as a building one. When replacing destroyed booths on the interior, they went to the same company that supplied the earlier ones, New England Seating. Who they found on the end of the line, decades later, was the son of the original owner.

While the heart of the interior and exterior are meant to be a faithful reproduction of the original, Greg considers this second fire to be another chapter in the Grist Mill’s 300-year-old history, not something to be erased. You’ll find Tiffany Lamps that have been salvaged from the fire with warped glass and lead. For years there was a tradition of donating duck decoys to adorn a wall, these will return, partially singed. The Old Grist Mill Tavern sign over the bar is likewise singed at its corner. Greg says there’s a choice to be had, and he has decided, “not to have a facelift” when the wrinkles appear. Instead these details all make up just part of the 300-year-old story of the place, and, as this reconstruction shows, this chapter is in good hands.

390 Fall River Ave, Seekonk. 508-336-8460

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