Emily Saladino heads to the capital of Rhode Island to see how the city once called the “Beehive of Industry” is creating a new buzz as the “Creative Capital” of New England.
Founded in 1636, Providence, Rhode Island is one of the oldest cities in the United States. With six colleges within its city limits, the infusion of youthful energy has created a spirit of tolerance and open-mindedness. But these days, Providence is known for much more than being a real life version of La Cage aux Folles. Flanked by Boston to the north, Cape Cod to the east, and leafy Connecticut to the west, Providence has had to try harder to carve its own niche. Recent civic renovations along with restaurant and hotel openings are modernizing this colorful city and now many more people want to call it home.
While previous generations of Brown and RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) graduates grabbed their diplomas and headed straight for I-95, recent alumni have stuck around. They migrate to sleek new residential projects downtown, linger in hip bars and boutiques, and open stylish small businesses. Culinary stars from Johnson & Wales and beyond helm some of the country’s most exciting new restaurants, and a former brothel recently reopened as a boutique design hotel. This underdog is about to have its day.
Thanks to a diverse immigrant population and constant influx of culinary school graduates, Providence’s dining scene competes on the national level. The recent resurgence in the historic neighborhood known as Downcity includes Birch, an 18-seat tasting counter helmed by James Beard-nominated Benjamin Sukle. For a mere $49, Sukle and Heidi, his wife and general manager, serve four courses of utterly seasonal, locally-sourced fare like raw Rhode Island beef, Point Judith squid with shitake mushrooms, and meaty roasted carrots with toasted grains.
Downcity has more casual options, as well. Last fall, a Boston ex-pat opened Ken’s Ramen in a former parking garage. The swinging counter spot pairs 30-hour chicken paitan broth with custom-made Sun Noodles, street art, and a hip-hop-heavy soundtrack. Ken’s neighbors include Ellie’s Bakery, a Gaelic-leaning café from local girl-made-good Ellen Slattery, and Figidini, a modern spin on traditional wood-fired-pizza parlors.
Over in Federal Hill, bypass the Chianti-and-cannoli tourist traps for North, a tiny, no-reservations joint opened by three Johnson & Wales grads in late 2012. Dishes at North—like littleneck clams with charred onion dashi, hot and sour Chinese-American bok choy, and fried chicken with everything brioche—span the globe and hint at co-founder James Mark’s stints at Momofuku Ko and Milk Bar in New York City. Nearby, the trio’s “non-traditional” North Bakery offers a bright, glass-walled space for serving up corn and cotija muffins, homemade “Faux-reos”, and dandan-noodle hand-pies filled with spicy roasted goat.
One of Rhode Island’s more enduring culinary legacies is coffee milk, a java-centric spin on chocolate milk that is equally beloved by gastronomes and grade-school kids. For a highbrow take on the hometown favorite, head to Fox Point, where craft roaster Dave’s Coffee opened its first brick-and-mortar café last year. The sleek space serves espresso and pour-overs as well as organic milk stirred with Dave’s own cold-brew, small-batch coffee syrup.
There are six college campuses within city limits, but Providence nightlife is hardly child’s play. At the Eddy, local barman Jay Carr riffs on classic cocktails like Aviation or Blood and Sand within a small space that boasts exposed brick walls and a U-shaped bar. Try to grab one of the candlelit tables, favored by comely night owls and off-duty doctors from nearby Rhode Island Hospital.
Carr cut his teeth at The Dorrance, a destination restaurant in a grand 1901 building a few blocks over. The former Federal Reserve Bank has 30-foot ceilings, Victorian-meets-Versailles interiors, and the swankiest bar in town. Craft spirits like Crop Organic vodka and Half Moon Orchard gin embolden house cocktails, and stained-glass windows and a Daniel Chester French sculpture of Rhode Island’s Roger Williams keep history alive.
In warm weather, Downcity’s hottest scene is Rooftop at the G. The city’s first rooftop bar opened in summer 2014 as part of a massive overhaul to the 1920-era Providence Gas Company building. The mixed-use development now occupies an entire city block, encompassing the seasonal rooftop, 55 residential units, and a basement-level pub. Soon, the G will open a fine-dining seafood restaurant, Garde de la Mer, in the adjoining 1860 Teste Block building.
Lots of cities have self-proclaimed “speakeasies,” but Justine’s captures the era perfectly—right down to the vintage lingerie. Owner Mark Sears, of Federal Hill’s swinging The Avery, opened this spot within an unmarked intimates shop in Olneyville in 2013. In addition to classic cocktails like Mary Pickfords and Manhattans, Justine’s serves snacks and charcuterie boards.
SPEND THE NIGHT
If an anonymous room in a big-box chain sets your suitcase on edge, consider The Dean, a 52-key design hotel that opened in a former brothel last year. Industrial chic interiors by Brooklyn firm ASH NYC wink at the building’s sordid past with scarlet-lit hallways, and guest rooms combine vintage paintings from Paris’s Les Puces with mod ironwork and furnishings by local sculptor Will Reeves. The hotel also has a karaoke lounge, candlelit cocktail bar, Teutonic-leaning beer hall, and the first brick-and-mortar café from Rhode Island roaster Bolt Coffee.
Those looking for slightly more demure digs should head a few blocks north to the Providence Biltmore hotel. The 1922 landmark is in the process of a $13 million renovation of its 294 guestrooms, lobby, and 19,000 square feet of meeting and event spaces. The Grand Ballroom, an Art Deco rooftop space, has knockout views of the Downcity skyline.
Rhode Island’s T. F. Green Airport, located 10 miles south of downtown Providence and linked to the city by direct rail, will debut its first-ever regular passenger service to Europe this summer. German carrier Condor Airlines will link the city to Frankfurt, Europe’s third-largest international airport. The twice-weekly flights are scheduled to debut in June 2015. T. F. Green has previously had charter service to Europe, but Condor’s arrival marks the airport’s first direct transatlantic passenger service. It’s big news for the little capital that could.