A sweet team

Erin and Hal Ryerson of the Sweet Life Cafe are a match made in restaurant heaven.

Husband and wife team, owners Hal and Erin Ryerson, at Sweet Life's outdoor seating area. —Randi Baird

The Sweet Life Cafe on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs has been a Martha’s Vineyard mainstay for decades, and the husband and wife team that runs the restaurant now have worked hard to maintain its tradition and character, while putting their own unique spin on things.

In 2008, the stars began to align for Erin and Hal Ryerson. That year, Erin and Hal met while working at the Outermost Inn in Aquinnah — Erin was serving, and Hal was working in the kitchen. They immediately hit it off, and in short order began on their path to becoming partners in all aspects of life and business.

“I started coming here in the summers when I was in college in 2000. My best friend from high school’s grandparents had a house on East Chop,” Erin said. “We would come and live in their garden shed and work.” Erin’s connection to the Island grew quickly, and in 2006 she moved here to live and work year-round. Hal spent summers at his family house in Chilmark and already loved the Island. Erin, who said she was initially drawn to the Vineyard by the intense and exciting summers, met Hal, and the two left the Outermost Inn to work at Detente in 2010. 

Over the years working at Detente, the pair became good friends with Kevin and Suzanna Crowell, then owners of the Edgartown restaurant. The Crowells eventually saw that the Sweet Life Cafe was on the market, and decided to purchase the establishment and take over. While the Crowells were getting the ball rolling over at Sweet Life, Hal took over the kitchen at Detente, and Erin managed the front of the house. 

A year or two later, the couple moved to New York so Erin could attend graduate school at New York University to study journalism. “Hal was cooking in New York, which I feel is kind of a rite of passage for serious chefs,” Erin laughed. Their future together was solidified in 2014 when they got married, then moved to Cambridge and had their daughter, Loretta. 

When Loretta was a baby, Erin and Hal would visit the Island and stay with Kevin and Suzy, who still owned Detente and the Sweet Life Cafe. “We were staying with [Kevin and Suzy] for the weekend, and Kevin mentioned to Hal that they were going to be selling Sweet Life,” Erin said. “Hal and I just locked eyes. A lot went into the decision, of course, but like three months later we bought the restaurant and made plans to move back to the Vineyard.”

Right away, the restaurateurs knew they wanted to retain the character and warmth Sweet Life has always been known for. “At first, we felt like we were captains of this ship, but the ship and the way the ship operated stayed the same,” Erin explained. “When we built the bar and renovated the dining room, we were forced to use our own sense of style, so things like the tile, the bar, and the wallpaper are our own little flavor.”

Although the menu at Sweet Life was always varied and focused on locally sourced ingredients, Hal wanted to make the food offerings his own upon taking over. “I knew I wanted to be creative, and I knew I wanted to focus on utilizing the community for a lot of my ingredients,” Hal said. “Proteins, produce, herbs and things — I’ve had a really good and long-standing relationship with a lot of the fishermen and farmers out here.” Hal revamped the menu with a handmade pasta section, some unique seafood offerings, dishes made with foraged ingredients, and began to envision a constantly rotating nightly tasting menu that would inform the regular menu. 

Radicchio salad, pickled shallots, Marcona almonds, beets, and charred allium. —Randi Baird

The Sweet Life menu is reprinted every day to update dishes, swap in new creations, and accommodate the seasonality of their food providers here on the Island and nearby. “We do a six-course tasting menu every night that is ever-evolving, and if something from that is a real hit, we will replace something on the regular menu that’s not doing as well,” Hal explained. 

For Hal, new ideas for menu items come from inspiration of all kinds. Sometimes an exciting  new flavor will come to him in a dream, in which case he writes it down as soon as possible. Other times he will be driving, and will jot down concepts for a fresh dish on a notepad he keeps in his truck. “I’m constantly reading cookbooks, getting inspiration from other chefs I’ve worked with in the past, and it’s always a team effort. Everyone here gets to have a say in what goes on the menu — it’s one big collaboration,” Hal said. 

One thing Hal takes pride in is the way he works with underutilized seafood. While you can go to Sweet Life and get a delicious serving of striped bass, Hal likes to take different kinds of seafood that is plentiful but often overlooked and incorporate it into his menu. “Right now I have a really great skate wing on the menu. It’s in the ray family, and has a sweet flavor profile similar to scallops,” Hal said. “I have hake on the menu. It’s very similar to cod, but it’s much more sustainable. Both of those fish are coming out of Provincetown right now — we always try to keep it as close to home as possible.”

Seared day-boat scallops, kohlrabi fondant, pea-dill puree, and spring onion oil. —Randi Baird

Heading into the winter, it can be slim pickin’s for what’s caught right here on the Island. But Sweet Life has a number of community partners that provide fresh food whenever they have it: fish from the Net Result, scallops from the Martha Rose, and produce and protein from North Tabor Farm, Allen Farm, Grey Barn Farm, Morning Glory Farm, Beetlebung Farm, the Garden Farm, Milkweed Farm, Ghost Island Farm, and Slip Away Farm, just to name a few. Hal and Erin even grow their own microgreens, herbs, and edible flowers to use when concocting creative dishes. “I also really love going to the Farmers Market and stopping at each place to pick out little things here and there,” Hal said. 

Over the past few years, Sweet Life has gained a new following in the community — jazz lovers. Erin said it’s all thanks to Island musician Rose Guerin, who has been instrumental in bringing new and distinctive opportunities to witness great live music to Oak Bluffs. “Rose had a vision for music at Sweet Life since we bought it in 2017. She knew it had to be jazz, and we knew it had to be outside. It took us a few years to get the patio set up and make it all happen, but we’ve had jazz on Thursday nights in the offseason for a few years now. Rose and Jeremy [Berlin] love that patio space, and the community clearly loves it,” Erin said. “We’ve got the lights, the outdoor bar, the vibes, it just feels right for jazz.”

When asked about the work-life dynamic Erin shares with her husband, she said that, although she is obviously biased, she thinks they couldn’t be a better team. “We really don’t know another version of this life — we met each other when we were both working in food service roles, so it’s like a built-in part of our relationship,” Erin laughed. “Obviously there is very little separation between work and home. We will be talking about our kid in the kitchen and talking about the restaurant at home, but it always seems to work.”

According to Erin, the reason she and Hal work so well together is because their ultimate vision for Sweet Life, and a sweet life as a family on Martha’s Vineyard, are perfectly aligned. “We love this place, and we care so much about the quality of food and the service we put out,” Erin said. “We have disagreements, but it’s all part of this amazing process where we are both looking to refine the way we do things to meet that shared vision.”

The Sweet Life Cafe, 63 Circuit Ave., Oak Bluffs. Visit sweetlifemv.com for operating hours, menus, information on special events, and more.