New England, a region chockablock with lighthouses, cozy antique shops and quaint little towns, often has little to offer for those seeking modern, urban cool. Sure, there’s always Boston, but a profusion of 18th-century architecture and tour guides with tricorne hats tends to ruin the mood. Providence, Rhode Island—an hour’s drive south from Boston and a third its size—is a whole different kettle of fish. Although the state capital’s history dates back to colonial times, its aesthetic gives little hint of its long past. In the 1990s, after a 70-year decline ushered in by a faltering economy and organized crime, longtime mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci—who was later sent to federal prison—helmed an overhaul to entice visitors and stanch resident flight. Built in 1994, the Rhode Island Convention Center now anchors hotels and the gigantic Providence Place Mall. These modern edifices dwarf the Federal-style buildings that remain in Providence’s postage stamp–sized Downtown, an area known to locals as Downcity. Providence, which serves as the home to Brown University, Johnson & Wales University and the Rhode Island School of Design, stretches over 25 square miles—a span the New York Times has called “gritty,” but is better described as eclectic.
Providence’s entertainment options contribute to its appeal. As small as it may be, the city’s on-premise scene is as varied as the students, conventioneers, tourists and workers that patronize it. From classic venues to funky new offerings, Providence has a well-earned reputation as a first-class restaurant town.
Southern New England has a large, visible Italian-American population, and Providence offers the food to prove it. In vibrant Federal Hill, which contains over 20 restaurants within a half-mile stretch of Atwells Avenue, traditional Italian restaurants serving dishes like chicken Vesuvio abut slice joints, bars and tattoo parlors.
Al Forno, Providence’s most famous Italian restaurant, sits a mile away on South Water Street. The higher-end venue opened in 1980 by husband-and-wife team George Germon and Johanne Killeen, wins an annual spot on best pizza lists nationwide. Its reputation is well-deserved: The eatery’s proprietors introduced New England to the smoky charms of grilled pies, ranging from $20.95 for the Margherita pizza to $25.95 for the Calamari pizza, and they reportedly sell 200 or more on a busy night.
Cav, a similarly renowned establishment that opened in 1989, features familiar cuisine with a twist, and its bohemian décor comprises a museum-quality mix of African art and antique pieces, including one of the oldest bars in America that dates back to 1864. Dishes include lobster bisque with Tahitian vanilla ($8.95 a bowl) and an entrée of duck confit and seared duck breast with cranberry-orange compote and brandy blood orange demi-glace ($28.95). Cav offers a wine list as varied as its ambience, with a focus on domestic and European bottles ranging from $22 a 750-ml. bottle for the 2013 Redwood Creek Cabernet Sauvignon to $275 for the 2009 Opus One.
Providence’s restaurants offer attractively affordable fare, but until very recently, adventurous diners had to travel outside city limits to expand their palates. Over the last few years, Providence has experienced an influx of residents seeking to avoid the high cost of living in Boston or New York City, and a fledgling, cosmopolitan on-premise scene has emerged.
Regina Lester and her mother-in-law, Jean Lester, saw a unique opportunity to open a restaurant in 2011 when a space opened in an ornate 19th-century building on Dorrance Street that had once served as a federal bank. “We wanted to do something different from what anyone else was doing,” Regina Lester recalls. They named the restaurant The Dorrance, assembling a crackerjack team that included a promising young chef named Benjamin Sukle, and got to work.
“We created a cook room where all the syrups were made in-house and all the juices were squeezed fresh,” Regina Lester says. “We got a really expensive ice machine that nobody else had at the time.” The aim of these elaborate efforts was completely novel: to serve Providence craft cocktails.
Ten years ago, most bars in Providence fell into two categories: “sports” or “dive.” The Dorrance wanted to teach its customers how to drink differently. “Initially, we had to educate them about spirits and turn people on to the concept of cocktails,” Regina Lester says, noting that this approach didn’t go over too well in the beginning. “We served them things that they hadn’t heard of, so at first it was tough. People just weren’t that into it.”
Then The Dorrance scored its first hit: the Up & Cumber ($12), made with Crop Organic Cucumber vodka, St. Elder elderflower liqueur, lime juice and simple syrup. Soon after, the James Beard Foundation recognized The Dorrance and Benjamin Sukle with semi-finalist nods for “Best New Restaurant” and “Rising Star Chef of the Year” in 2012, along with plenty of other accolades that put the venue on the map. These days, The Dorrance is one of the most popular spots in Downcity.
While the Up & Cumber remains a popular choice, the venue’s selection of original cocktails has grown to nearly 20, including the Serious Business ($12), made with Redemption rye whiskey, Averna amaro, Zucca amaro and Skinos mastiha liqueur, topped with Brooklyn Hemispherical Black Mission Fig bitters and a rye-soaked fig.
Current chef Alberto Lopez has maintained his predecessor’s use of fresh, local ingredients in an unexpected way. “Alberto really gets it,” Regina Lester says. “Some people are into experimenting and trying different stuff, and others just want steak and potatoes.” The Dorrance caters to both, with dishes ranging from swordfish and cous cous featuring a rhubarb and Meyer lemon gastrique to New York sirloin accompanied by celery root purée, porcini dust and breakfast radish (entrées are $24 to $38).
As Providence warmed to nouvelle cuisine and craft cocktails, some members of The Dorrance’s original crew opened venues of their own. Two years ago, Benjamin Sukle and his wife, Heidi Sukle, launched Birch, a tiny restaurant in Downcity. The space accommodates 18 diners on high stools around a metal-topped bar. Keeping with the well-entrenched local tradition of affordable luxury, the eatery serves four-course meals for $45, paired with wine for an additional $35. Birch has won raves for its seasonal cuisine, including grilled baby Tokyo turnips with gooseberries and Vermont pork with wild grains and blood sausage.
“In the beginning, we had only two wine reps and developed the list from scratch,” Heidi Sukle explains. “Lately, we’ve made more of a shift toward organic, sustainable and natural wines—stuff that’s a little more obscure and funky.” Selections include Massachusetts’ Westport Rivers Grace Chardonnay ($10 a glass), which blends oak-aged Chardonnay with pressed Chardonnay juice.
Birch offers a smaller selection of craft beer and cider, such as the gluten-free Omission lager ($6 a pint) from Widmer Brothers Brewing and Leipziger Gose ($13) from Gasthaus & Gosebrauerei Bayerischer Bahnhof. The restaurant also serves cocktails ($8 to $12), but doesn’t fuss too much over them. “We try to keep our cocktails simple, local and seasonal because our focus is on food more than drinks,” Heidi Sukle says.
Other alumni of The Dorrance have gone in the opposite direction. In 2012, two of the original bar staff opened their own cocktail-focused bars in Providence. Jesse Hedberg launched Justine’s, a speakeasy hidden behind the curtain of a lingerie shop, while Jay Carr unveiled Eddy, a bar two blocks away from his former employer. “We were the first cocktail bar in Downtown,” Carr says. Fresh from New York City and enchanted with craft cocktails, he opened Eddy with the idea that Providence residents might share his passion. Like diners at The Dorrance, customers were initially perplexed.
“People said, ‘What do you mean you don’t have Red Bull?’” Carr recalls. “When people don’t know a lot about something their insecurities come out, and it’s up to the bartender to figure out how to make them feel comfortable. It was hard at first because we were young and just getting into cocktails.”
Carr resolved to ease his customers into a craft mind-set. “I set the menu up so that if you want to come in and get a High Life or a Narragansett you can, but you can have a Trappist ale too,” he says. “There’s a price point for everyone.”
At first, Eddy only served classic cocktails. “I wanted to educate people,” Carr explains. Then he and his clients got a little more adventurous. “We had a bartender’s choice option on the menu, which was the most expensive thing, but it ended up being the biggest seller,” he says. “That made us better bartenders. We started coming up with drinks, and they’d eventually show up on the menu.”
One of these drinks is the Orange Julius Caesar ($13), now a permanent fixture on Eddy’s cocktail list. “We started mixing up classics with something out of the blue,” Carr says. “The Orange Julius happened by accident. We bought Bols Yogurt liqueur and tried to use it in Daiquiri variations with Shellback rum, which has this really vanilla-forward flavor. We put Bittermens Orange Cream Citrate bitters in to give it some bitterness and more of a creamy flavor.” The drink, garnished with a nest of orange peels, earned Carr a Starchefs.com “Coastal New England Rising Star Bartender” award in 2014.
But Eddy’s most popular drinks are also its least labor-intensive: Customers love the venue’s cocktails on tap ($9). In the winter, Eddy serves Americanos, Negronis and Brooklyn Martinis. In the summer, it’s Gin and Tonics mixed with the locally made genever-style True Born gin from local producer Sons of Liberty and Jack Rudy Cocktail Co. Small Batch tonic from South Carolina. “Batched cocktails are quick and cost-effective,” Carr explains. “I can use high quality ingredients without charging customers $11.”
That calculated mix of high- and low-end offerings is a hallmark of Providence’s burgeoning cocktail scene. Justine’s has a healthy selection of $6 cocktails and Narragansett on tap, while recently opened boutique hotel The Dean features an array of nightlife venues. Karaoke lounge The Boombox offers Asian-inspired drinks like The Rox ($9), blending Kikusakari Taru sake, Angostura bitters, sugar and a Luxardo cherry. The Magdalenae Room serves craft cocktails, such as the Carmen Sandiego ($12), mixing Del Maguey Vida mezcal, Yellow Chartreuse liqueur, Gifford’s ginger liqueur, Carpano Bianco vermouth and black pepper. The hotel’s beer hall, Faust’s Hofbrauhaus, emphasizes Bavarian and American craft brews ($4 to $18 a bottle or pour).
Unsurprisingly, these new adventures have changed the way Providence residents stock their home bars. At Eno Fine Wines, a specialty retail outlet that launched in 2009, customers have opened their minds. “People seem to be willing to experiment more,” says salesperson Aubrie Talarico. “When we recently did a gin event, people were very interested in trying new things.” Their most popular gins now include Uncle Val’s Botanical gin ($35.99 a 750-ml. bottle) from Sonoma, California, and Barr Hill gin ($42.99) from Hardwick, Vermont.
Amid all this experimentation, Providence patrons still gravitate toward tried-and-true venues like Nick-A-Nee’s, a brick shack dive bar that sits in the middle of a strip mall parking lot. Eddy’s Carr understands and appreciates this type of consumer as much as patrons who have more sophisticated tastes.
“I have a customer named Perry,” he explains. “When I see him come through the door, I open a Miller High Life and put it right in front of him. He loves this bar. He tells me it’s his favorite bar in Providence, but all he ever drinks is High Life. It’s how people get treated that makes them come back.”