Prateek Shewakramani may have gone to Providence to go bar-hopping with friends, but he found some of the best food he’s ever had — and that’s saying a lot from someone who lives in New York City.
“The wings at the Rosendale are some of the best I’ve ever eaten, even better than the hundreds here in NYC — tons of flavors and fried just right,” he said. “And the chicken and waffles I had the next day was an amazing brunch. Everything is so close-by you can walk and get a few different experiences and vibes — you still have the old family-run places, but there are all of these new places popping up with creative menus and twists on traditional cuisines.”
Among his favorites is Local 121, half restaurant, half “saloon-like” bar that after years of being used as a dining hall by Johnson & Wales University—whose culinary school has become a Providence talent incubator—was renovated to reveal beautiful original woodwork. Today, cafeteria trays are nowhere to be found, but the hideaway spotlights local beers, creative cocktails, and such inventive apps as pizza with a fried-dough crust.
Shewakramani is just one foodie singing this small city’s praises, which is also a favorite day trip for area chefs. Michael Schlow makes it a point to do at least one summer drive from his home in Boston for a lobster roll at Hemenway’s, and Rachel Klein, an alum of several Boston hot spots including Liquid Art House and Providence’s X.O. Café, thinks of her former home fondly.
Robert Sisca, another J&W grad who lives in nearby Cranston, R.I., commuted over an hour to Boston’s Bistro du Midi before deciding this winter to keep it as locally sourced as his produce. Now with a shortened commute as the corporate executive chef at the ProvidenceG, a historic building that includes swank Garde de la Mer, the all-seasons upscale bar Rooftop at the G and Providence GPub, he’s able to dedicate his time to inventive menus, training kitchen leaders, and working with local farmers and vendors. The results are apparent tableside: delicate Hamachi crudo with Asian pears, green garlic, and almonds (pictured), smoked white asparagus soup with a poached egg, prosciutto, and frisse, and layers of crispy-sweet French toast topped with duck confit, lingonberry, and a cured egg yolk all grace the menu.
But the creativity doesn’t stop on the plate, says ProvidenceG director of operations Jeff Mancinho. “Art is such a foundation here, just like the culinary scene. We’re trying to integrate it all and capture everything that is Rhode Island,” he said. Mancinho’s latest endeavor includes working with local artists on digital pieces for his renovated space that will transform over time, and reflect the city’s attitude of changing with the times.
Providence hosts outdoor arts festivals and music events almost each weekend from spring through fall and as home to the Rhode Island School of Design there’s a larger focus on integrating compelling media into the everyday (including painting murals on large brick building “canvases” downtown) says Christina Robbio of the city’s visitors bureau. The most famous art installation, the eighty bonfires installed on rivers running through the city center as part of the WaterFire sculpture by Barnaby Evans, are incorporated into several evenings of music and entertainment annually.
One of the best places to catch the action is riverside at Café Nuovo, where recent J&W grad Savannah Barrow decided to stick around and work as a pastry chef after graduation instead of heading back home to Pennsylvania. Why? One word: “Food.”
“It’s really such a small city but there’s so much going on,” Barrow says. “I just don’t feel like I’m ‘done’ here, and I love how you can go from one end to the other of Providence in like 10 minutes and there’s all different culinary experiences.” Rather than a competition, she says, it’s “more like a community and you always have friends in restaurants even talking about food on their days off.”
One of Barrow’s favorite places to spend a night off—and be inspired—is at Nick’s on Broadway, where the open kitchen with bar seating invites admirer for artful plating of local oysters, fish, cheeses while imbibing from an extensive wine and beer list. She also enjoys kayaking on the Providence River, local bike riding, and hiking, shows at Providence Performing Arts Center, and a breadth of experiences at the RISD art museum and Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum, where the coats of famous alums like Emeril LaGasse and the Food Network’s Tyler Florence hang alongside interactive exhibits.
Things were just a bit different when they were in school, however. “Providence exploding as a food destination has been an evolution, and Johnson & Wales certainly had something to do with that,” says the school’s media relations assistant director Miriam Weinstein. “The industry has changed from being a ‘cook’ to a ‘chef’ and TV has continued to add that well-deserved credibility — there’s a changing mindset in the business that continues to evolve and us with it.” That includes the school’s new Changing the Way the World Eats program, which focuses on the farm-to-table movement, wellness, and sustainability.
Those have all been tenets of the experience for years at Gracie’s, where many culinary students—including Sisca—have cut their teeth either in the kitchen or serving plates like russet potato gnocchi with lamb sugo, duck with buckwheat spaetzle, Japanese turnips, rhubarb, and fiddleheads, or matcha cheesecake tart. Many ingredients are grown locally right on the rooftop of Gracie’s downtown and overflowing breadbaskets are filled in a red wagon lovingly wheeled over daily from Ellie’s Bakery (a great place to grab breakfast, too). These fixtures, says Weinstein, are just two of the many reasons why Providence “has become a true food destination.”
As for Shewakramani, he’s already planning another road trip. “It’s a great city to visit for a day or a weekend, it’s a great blend of history and modernity so it’s relaxing but not boring,” he said. “You can just try a few restaurants and bars, walk around the Brown (University) area or downtown. I’ll probably end up going back at least one or two more times this summer!”
Carley Thornell is a travel writer whose experiences eating street food in Japan, English peas in the UK, free-range steak in Argentina, and Brussels sprouts at Estragon tapas in her hometown of Boston have provided unforgettable culinary inspiration. Shout out at email@example.com.