One night this fall (well, twice, actually), my 23-year-old daughter and I walked up our Oak Bluffs street and sat down at the bar at the Sweet Life Cafe and had dinner. First, can I tell you how sweet it is to be able to sit at a bar with my daughter, both of us now grownups? We ordered grownup cocktails and tried to decide between ordering off the regular menu or the restaurant’s new pub menu (or maybe something from each). She suggested a good cocktail for me, and I went to take a picture of my autumnal-looking drink (a bourbon concoction called the “Summer-Fall”), asking her about how I might filter it. She, Instagram native that she is, shook her head and said, “Rookie mistake, Mom.” Ahh, these babies do grow up.
As we sat in the comforting arc of candlelight, a little girl in a fairy princess dress — maybe 3 or 4 — click-clacked from the dining room toward the kitchen in attention-getting tap shoes. Within a few seconds, a nice-looking older woman — grandmother, I was guessing — scooped up the princess, sparkling pretty much from curly head to toe, and carried her into the kitchen.
“Hallie,” I said to my daughter, “she so reminds me of you.” How could so much time have passed — 22 years or more, so fast, and this same restaurant still here in the same place?
I might have come to Sweet LIfe for the first time when my daughter’s older brother turned 3 and my little girl was a very busy 1-year-old. I have a picture I cherish of my father holding the birthday boy, who was pinching his grandfather’s cheeks, while we sat around enjoying our meals outside at the Sweet Life, August sunlight blessing us all at a family Sunday brunch.
The Sweet Life has always been so — not just a walk-to neighborhood destination, but a place to go for special events — first dates, toddler’s 3-year party, family reunion, special date night, anniversary, dinner with a grown daughter.
Even one of the Island’s “first couples” clearly thought so: I remember the word going out one August night about five years ago that Michelle and Barack Obama were enjoying dinner at the Sweet Life, and many neighborhood residents gathered on the porch of the Oak Bluffs Inn, across the street, to enjoy the Obamas enjoying their dinner.
The good news is that with new ownership three years ago, the Sweet Life remains a destination special-event place, but has become even more: A neighborhood place to go hang out, at the expanded bar on the expanded terrace in the summer, and now, with a fall-into-winter bar menu at the redesigned cozy bar.
The night after Hallie and I dined at the bar, I asked Erin Haggerty-Ryerson, who co-owns Sweet Life with her husband Hal Ryerson, a few questions, the first of which was: Who was the sparkly princess in the tap shoes?
“That was our daughter, Loretta, in the princess getup,” she laughed. “She was having dinner with Hal’s mom. She picked her own outfit (and tap dancing shoes!).” Erin went on to tell me about the plans for the fall and early winter: The affordable pub menu for those sitting at the bar on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays (the full menu is still available at the candlelit tables); the Chef’s Tasting Dinners on Sunday nights that include four or six courses, and an upcoming New Year’s Eve party (details to come).
I knew Erin a bit because she used to write stories for The Times (most of them about food and health). Erin’s got a journalism degree from NYU, and Hal went to the Johnson & Wales culinary school, and cooked in New York City, Boston, and on the Vineyard. In 2017, they bought the restaurant from Susan and Pierre Guerin, who had bought from Mary and Jackson Kenworth, who started the restaurant and who still own State Road and Beach Road. Erin and Hal renovated the interior last year, making the bar area both bigger and somehow, more intimate.
The success of our mother-daughter outing wasn’t just about the food, but that cozy bar, the friendly bartender, the warm lights, and having each other’s undivided attention for an hour. And, well, it was about the food.
We ordered pub fare — the intriguing-sounding (and tasting!) Fried Quail with lavender, honey, and local arugula ($18); Arancini with burrata, almond romesco and rapini ($13), and “Wing Dings” with Thai chili peanut sauce ($12). They were all really good. We’d filled up some on the really good bread, so ended up pining for, but not having room for, dessert. The next time we went back and ordered off the regular menu, the same thing happened. Both the pub and regular menu change often, but here’s an example of what you might see on the regular menu:
Housemade Gnocchi with local pork Bolognese, crispy Parmesan, spinach, and black truffle; Hamachi Crudo, tonatto, squid ink anchoiade, cucumbers, and wild rice; Seared Scallop, local carrots, miso, butter poached leeks, and sunchokes.
Next time, we’re walking to the Sweet Life for just desserts: Panna Cotta (with Grey Barn Elderberry Grenoise), or Almond Shortbread, or Sticky Toffee Pudding, which sounds like you would imagine, but actually includes popcorn, which I could picture Loretta, in her sparkles and tap shoes, enjoying.
I predict lots more family time (and Sticky Toffee Pudding) in our future, just up the street.
The Sweet Life Cafe, 63 Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs, open Wednesday through Sunday, 508-696-0200; sweetlifemv.com.