Back in October, before serving as a judge at the 12th Annual New Bedford Seaport Chowder Festival, I was making the rounds past the booths as they set up their cauldrons on Pier 3.
I recognized almost all the restaurants, and those I didn’t usually turned out to be caterers, assisted living centers or from Rhode Island.
There were a couple exceptions: one was a hairdresser there simply to show off her homemade recipe, and the other was Willow Tree.
Now, Willow Tree isn’t new, but I’d always assumed it wasn’t open, judging by how the parking lot was always empty when I drove by.
It turned out, the breakfast and lunch joint near the west end of the CoveWalk on Rockdale avenue, had been shut down for a bit and was now under new ownership. Jennifer and Michelle Pereira, who had worked as waitresses at the restaurant as teenagers, were now running it, and their parents had purchased it.
I checked out a few online comments, and they were nearly universally positive since the re-opening in June 2017. It called for a Dine Out.
On a recent rainy Sunday late morning, with a chilly drizzle falling, we packed the car up with myself, my wife Becca and our six-month-old Cooper, plus grammy and grand-pere, to check it out.
The parking lot was nearly full when we arrived a little after 11, but we found spots and were quickly offered a table at the front of the large, open dining room. They were quick with a high chair and everything appeared spotless.
The walls still have that fresh-paint glow, although the decorations leaved a little to be desired. The white walls were sparse, giving it a bit of a cafeteria feel — no tableclothes or placemats lent it that atmosphere as well — but the lively dining room bustled with busy waitresses and friendly chatter to keep you from lamenting the overall plainness.
My dad started off with a cup of coffee ($1.50), which he said was robust without being bitter, but wasn’t quite as hot as he likes it. I ordered a glass of cranberry juice ($2.50 for a large), and they’re not kidding when they say large. They might as well list it as a liter of juice.
The large menus feature a full page of breakfast options and a full page of lunch choices, plus an extensive specials menu that changes weekly. There were enough offerings we had to ask the waitress to come back the first time she stopped by to see if we were ready to order.
I selected the tex mex omelette (ham, onion and peppers topped with salsa and cheddar cheese), which was served with home fries and toast for $6.75, then added a side of corned beef hash, my personal favorite breakfast food, for $3.75.
The omelette was light, airy and cooked through, the inside packed with chunks of salty ham, sweet onions and crunchy peppers. The salsa was a little bland — the dish wasn’t marked as spicy, but I expected a little more zip — but smooth with a robust tomato flavor. The cheddar cheese wasn’t entirely melted on the top, but as I ate it became gooey and stretchy.
The corned beef came piping hot to the table. Although it was obviously of the canned variety — still good in my book — it had been crisped up on the flattop, giving it a little caramelization and a nice crunch to some bites.
The home fries reminded me of the ones at Dillon’s on County Street, my normal breakfast haunt — soft and fluffy with a liberal application of paprika. These had more grilled onions mixed in, however. We weren’t offered a choice of toast, so four slices of buttered white bread adorned each plate.
Grammy (known to me as simply mom) ordered a piece of sweetbread French toast ($2.99, a dollar for each piece thereafter) and a veggie cheese roll, which was served with home fries for $4.75.
The French toast was one of the best things we ordered, not at all soggy and dipped in an egg batter with what tasted like cinnamon and vanilla. The cheese roll was soft with a nice variety of grilled vegetables piled on top.
My dad went for the Willow Tree special, which might as well be called “Kitchen Sink Included.” For $6.99 he got two eggs, two sausages, two slices of bacon, a pancake, a piece of French toast, home fries and toast.
His eggs came perfectly over-easy, with crisp bacon and tasty link sausage. The pancake was a bit doughy, but the regular French toast was also cooked through and tasted of the same egg batter.
My wife was the only one feeling lunch, so she ordered the cheeseburger lettuce wraps off the specials menu. The rest of the lunch menu featured 20-odd sandwiches, several with a Portuguese bent, plenty of fried seafood options and tremendously cheap prices — the marinated sirloin tips with two sides is a mere $9.99.
The trio of burger wraps consisted of ground beef, cheese, tomatoes, diced pickles and ketchup wrapped in romaine lettuce, although they were out of romaine so they offered to wrap them in iceberg instead.
The cheeseburger was more of a scramble, as opposed to a single patty cut in three segments. It hit the carb-free, sweet-and-savory profile Becca was looking for, plus the pickles provided a nice snap and gave it that familiar burger note. Normally it’s served with fries for $6.99, but my wife asked for a side of two scrambled eggs instead, which ended up coming with another side of home fries and even more toast.
As we were winding down the meal, my mom, who recently underwent oral surgery, was eyeing a hand-written sign advertising smoothies. She got a blueberry and banana one — there was some confusion among the waitresses as to what the flavor options were — which wasn’t overly sweet and had a nice, smooth consistency, but wasn’t as cold as she’d hoped and the banana dominated the blueberry.
We ended up packing up several leftovers, including half my omelette, a full order of home fries and a good half-dozen slices of toast. Our bill came to $44.91 with tax, before tip. Be warned: They only take cash.
In many ways, Willow Tree is a quintessential breakfast place. Huge portions of freshly cooked food for rock-bottom prices. They throw in a bit of creativity and a passion for good service. Not that I’d ever been there under old ownership, but from what I understand, the Willow Tree is back and better than ever.
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