The ﬁrst thing we do at Sonny’s is ask Mark Ryan, the tavern’s talented bartender and co-owner, to bring us a cocktail. We leave it in his hands. Perhaps it’ll be the Lemon Meringue, a frothy, light dessert concoction made with gin, egg white, vanilla liqueur, and lemon. We don’t even like gin, but we love this. Or maybe the award-winning Mingus, with Buffalo Trace, Dolin Rouge, cherry liqueur, Green Chartreuse, and lavender bitters. Somehow it all works, and we may order another. Or, if it’s a chilly night, he could bring us a Bearded Lady. “It tastes like smoke and leather,” he says. “It’s a little Mad Men-esque, but a lot smoother."
This working-class bistro in downtown Dover, opened by husband-and-wife team Dean Baltulonis and Amanda Gouin and their New York City friend, Mark Ryan, started out foremost as a community tavern. “We always wanted Sonny’s to have that neighborhood feel, a place where everyone feels comfortable and can call it their own,” Baltulonis says. And word spread quickly of Ryan’s alchemy behind the bar. “We sold a lot of Jack and Cokes when we ﬁrst opened,” Ryan says, “but people grew with us.”
When the demand for food soared, they built a new kitchen and brought in (former) seasoned chef Justin Rexroad. The cozy where-everyone-knows-your-name appeal is still there, but the food is several notches above pub grub, thanks to clever and artistic work in the kitchen and a strong ethos for local, fresh ingredients.
The menu changes frequently, but there are star dishes that make repeat appearances, like the Roasted Corn Fritters, soft and crunchy balls made with grilled corn. And what great tavern doesn’t offer Deviled Eggs? Here, they come three ways with seasonings that change. On our visit, they included house bacon, blue cheese mousse with a chive salad foam, and cured salmon—one-bite wonders. If you’ve come ravenous, or with a group of friends, consider a few more small plates to share, like the Gnocchi Tots, served with a black garlic aioli, or the popular Crab Cakes, served with an herb remoulade.
The top-selling dish is the hefty cooked-to-order Sonny’s Burger, which can easily vie for one of the best burgers in the Seacoast. (In fact, it was the catalyst for the trio to open their newest restaurant, Eastern Burger Company in Stratham, which focuses on artisan, locally-raised, grass-fed burgers and Kobe beef hot dogs.) Sonny’s Burger is a tender, ﬂavorful, grass-fed patty topped with a spiced aioli, melted cheddar cheese, crunchy pea shoots, and juicy yellow tomatoes, sandwiched in a soft brioche bun. Wash it down with a cold glass of house-made Ginger Beer.
Other signature dishes include the ultra-tender, 48-hour sous vide Pork Shank, served with a white bean puree; it’s a ﬁlling, soul-satisfying comfort dish on a cold night when you’re craving something hearty. The St. Louis Ribs, another heavy hitter, are smoked with porcini mushrooms, giving them a nice earthy undertone. If you see the Carolina Style Fried Chicken on the menu, don’t pass it up. This is not your ordinary fried chicken dish. “It’s like a fun take on coq au vin,” Rexroad says. “It doesn’t look like your typical fried BBQ chicken mess, but it still has that ﬂavor.” First, the chicken is prepared sous vide for 24 hours in sweet BBQ sauce. Then it is dipped in buttermilk and fried. It is at the top of our lists for best-ever fried chicken—barbecue ﬂavor, crunchy on the outside, and tender inside. If we could have them text us when it goes on the menu, we would.
Fresh seafood might include classic Fish and Chips, served with a house-pickled vegetable tartar sauce and malt vinegar fries. Look for Rexroad’s crowd-pleasing New England Clam Chowder to return to the menu when the temperature drops. It’s a modern, creative take on the regional classic, with local carrots, ﬁddleheads, sorrel, red potato, and sauteed monkﬁsh ﬁlet, ﬁnished with saffron.
Of course, you should save room for dessert. Our choice: the rich and decadent Sea Salt Butter Caramel Chocolate Mousse; need we say more? Ryan can also suggest one of his magic potions from behind the bar, guaranteed to end your dinner on a high note, and send you warm and fuzzy into the cool night.
328 Central Avenue