The Liberal Club menu is a primer of south coast Portuguese-American fare, from chourico sausage and marinated conch salad to shrimp Mozambique and steak topped with a fried egg and hot pepper. Joe Benevides, who has run it since 1975, is a seafood fanatic. Veins throb in his temples when he gets going on the subject of scallops. It is common, he says, for second-rate purveyors to treat them with sodium tripolyphosphate so they bulk up and look bigger. “It kills, absolutely kills the flavor,” he announces to our booth and the booths around us. “We have the best seafood in the world, right here, from New Bedford. Why mess with it?” To prove the point, he personally brings out a silver plate of 4 baked dayboat scallops for sampling. Gilded with a translucent veil of breadcrumbs and set in a sizzling pool of garlic-charged melted butter that blends with fallen crumbs to create veins of crunch on the bottom of the serving dish, they are dense and creamy, each single one a nice appetizer.
When other appetizers arrive – onion rings, stuffies, fried smelts and calamari sautéed in garlic, oil, and hot peppers – the waitress asks if we want oil and vinegar to go with them. “You do!” she says when we look puzzled by the mundane offering. Out comes a gravy boat full of marinade so crowded with herbs, minced garlic and chopped green onion that each spoonful is a savory bouquet delicious enough to spread like tapenade across pieces of dinner roll torn from the bread basket.
Located in a neighborhood of homes, industry, and business all interspersed – a configuration typical of Fall River since its salad days – the Liberal Club is more than a restaurant. It also is a bar, a social club, and a function hall. Regulars come for shots and beers in the cool, dark tap room every weekday morning and couples come on Saturday night for highballs, prime rib, and whole lobsters or fried lobster tails. While the banquet rooms are capacious, the restaurant’s dining room is modest, its wooden booths arranged side by side in such a way that a partition can be removed between two, making them into a long table for a party of eight. It began as a soccer club in 1915, when soccer was huge in Fall River among immigrants from the British Isles, and the club continues to run the bar, separate from the restaurant. That means you place orders with two waitresses – one from the restaurant, one from the bar – and you pay two checks, one for food, the other for drinks.