Rhode Island’s largest city is still pretty small in comparison to other East Coast metropolises. However, Providence’s compactness makes exploring its distinctive personality all the easier.
Since the renegade Puritan Roger Williams established Providence as a safe haven for religious dissenters, the city has retained an individualist flavor. Since former Mayor “Buddy” Cianci’s infamous “Renaissance” revitalized the area in the 1990s, Providence has morphed into a hip, creative city that offers lively verve sans the big city bite of Boston and New York.
Though much of the city’s offerings are accessible on foot, Uber or Lyft rides between the various neighborhoods (like Downtown, Olneyville, College Hill and Fox Point) tend to be inexpensive and especially worthwhile during the frostier months. A surprisingly diverse array of restaurants, independent shops, and nightlife options await, however you decide to explore the biggest city in the smallest state.
Federal Hill is the epicenter of Providence’s Italian American population, and its culinary offerings are some of the city’s finest. One of the newest and most promising contenders is Massimo (134 Atwells Ave), a self-described “New World Italian” restaurant whose signature dishes include Fettuccine alla Carbonara, replete with guanciale and an egg, or the fig and gorgonzola pizza. The dining room is outfitted with a lounge and bar, featuring wines selected from small Italian boutiques that Massimo promises you’ll find “nowhere else.”
For further sophistication, there’s birch (200 Washington St), a New American eatery downtown. The pocket-friendly four-course dinner includes an assortment of palate-pleasing delicacies that have graced the pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. Diners may encounter such playful combinations as broccoli with grilled clam, basil and mint; slow-roasted Vermont pheasant paired with sunchokes, quince and dulse; or kohlrabi marinated with cherry leaves and Vietnamese coriander, topped with apple and crème fraîche.
Craving seafood while in the Ocean State? French bistro Loie Fuller’s (1455 Westminster St) has a concise menu with standard nautical fare, like pan-seared scallops in a tomato vinaigrette. The standout, though, might be the Moules-frites, a classically salty pairing of mussels and fries (offered at a discount on Monday nights). The wine list is respectably lengthy and the steaks are popular as well, should mollusks not be your thing.
For the casual carnivore, there’s Harry’s Bar and Burger, which boasts two delicious locations (121 North Main St and 301 Atwells Ave). Sliders come two to an order, though you might want to give into temptation and add a third —especially if you’re dining during happy hour (3-5 p.m.), when burgers are half-price. Items of note: Harry’s Meltdown is a sinfully scrumptious pile-up of caramelized onions and Swiss cheese complemented by sweet potato fries slathered in an appropriately green “kryptonite” aioli.
One of the most authentic Rhody culinary experiences is Olneyville New York System (18 Plainfield St), home of “gaggers” or “gaggahs,” as natives affectionately refer to miniature hot dogs, one of Rhode Island’s signature foods. Meat sauce, onions, yellow mustard and celery salt have adorned these wieners since 1946. Wash ‘em down with a cup of coffee milk and you can officially say you’ve eaten like a Rhody local.
Federal Hill is indeed a dining destination, but Providence also features a sizable lineup of Asian eateries, from typical Cantonese takeout to the not-easily-forgotten sizzle and simmer of Lamei Hot Pot (256 Broadway). Choose your broth, meat, veggies, tofu and other fix-ins, then toss your selections in the hotpot at the table and watch as your meal cooks before you. The experience is as sensorial as it is sumptuous.
Veggie Fun (123 Dorrance St) is a healthy twist on typical Pan-Asian fare, with vegan and kosher takes on dishes like General Tso’s and Malaysian yellow curry. The orange-flavored seitan swaps out chicken for wheat protein, covered in a gooey sweet sauce and served over a spry bed of broccoli. Add even more flavor to your meal with a Fun beverage, like the mint lemonade. Banana spring rolls are an ideal chaser to a guilt-free dinner.
Apsara Palace (783 Hope St) is a favorite among locals for its expansive menu of Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai and Chinese cuisine. Enjoy the variety of soups, noodles, chicken dishes, stir fries and more at this casual, welcoming space. The drunken noodle is enticingly spicy and the nime chow spring rolls are matched with a peanut sauce that’s made them a choice appetizer among patrons. The huge portions are affordable and made for sharing, so feel free to bring a party in tow —or a bottle of your favorite wine, as Apsara is BYOB.
Every city needs a posh boutique or two, and Shoppe Pioneer (253 South Main St) fulfills that role. Proprietor Natalie Morello offers customers carefully curated vintage wares and selections from indie designers and contemporary fashion. Customers praise Morello for her attention to detail, refined taste and a shopping environment that’s friendly and chic. Check out this spot for reasonably priced, high quality finds.
For non-sartorial vintage surprises, POP – Emporium of Popular Culture (219 West Park St) is a worthwhile destination. This retro wonderland is packed with items from the past, dizzyingly displayed in a showroom that feels like a hybrid between a Martin Denny record and a New Wave disco. Want some X-Ray Specs? Lawn flamingos, a Barbie-pink phone or tiki decor? How about Elvis paintings, a crocodile head or chrome furniture? POP is the place for these and other ephemeral, curious and just plain weird delights.
Need a book for the plane ride home? You may find a tome at Cellar Stories (111 Mathewson St), a used bookstore with invitingly long, tall shelves. Well-organized and fairly priced, the selection is generally unmatched by other used bookstores in the area, particularly if you’re looking for nonfiction titles in history, psychology, the social sciences or religion. There’s a separate section dedicated to art books, and the store also deals in rare texts and periodicals.
Providence pubs tend to reflect the city’s kaleidoscope of character. Ogie’s Trailer Park (1155 Westminster St) is a fine example: the Atomic Age-inspired lounge features refreshing cocktails, like mint juleps and Grasshoppers. Order food at the trailer attached to the wall, where deep-fried deliciousness like ranch-dusted tater tots or mac-n-cheese croquettes await. Gluten-free and vegan options are available as well. When the weather’s warm, indulge in the gingery kick of a Moscow mule outside in the tiki garden/patio space.
A posh interior at Ogie’s (Photo: Ogie’s Trailer Park)
Step even further back into time —to Prohibition, perhaps— by parting open the velvet curtains that lead into Justine’s (11 Olneyville Sq). Located beside a lingerie shop, this speakeasy-style pub is intimate, dimly lit and somewhat hard to find. Get more bang for your buck with their old-fashioned cocktails like the Manhattan, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, temptingly priced, compared to other watering holes in PVD.
Trinity Brewhouse (186 Fountain St) offers a brewpub experience in the heart of the city, conveniently located near the convention centers, playhouses and other entertainment venues. The rotating selection of beers, ales, porters and stouts are brewed on-site. There’s plenty of seating —in the bar, basement and outside— to enjoy what Trinity does best: hoppy brews like Tommy’s Red, Maple Brown and Imperial Pumpkin Ale.
For such a small city, Providence offers an impressive number of options for a night out, concentrated within a few blocks of downtown concrete. To get your groove on, head to The Salon (57 Eddy St). There are two dance floors —one upstairs, one below— each with their own DJs. After dancing shoulder-to-shoulder in the dark, often packed basement, laced with a hint of Bacchanalia, come up for air on the upper floor, where it is more open and a note brighter.
Aurora (276 Westminster St) is a sleek event space, lounge and bar that frequently fills its calendar with live music and video premieres. The cocktail selection is imaginative, with favorites like the tequila-laden Bananarchy, an assuredly sweet way to inaugurate the night’s shenanigans.
The Dark Lady (19 Snow St) is the most well-known spot in Providence’s gay community. Live drag shows are a staple here, as are weeknight outings that cater to a variety of tastes like “Karaoke,” “Kink” and “Pop 2k.” Even when not performing, drag queens are the club’s emcees, hosting the night’s festivities. Stop by to mingle with Providence’s feminine royalty. Also check out Aurora’s calendar for popular pop up events like “Gay Goth Nite.”
Dusk (301 Harris Ave) is outside the main club district, so you might want to Uber there, though there is ample parking in back as well. The bar is spacious, but the live music —or, on select Friday nights, the impassioned retro set that is “Soul Power”— usually has the crowd moving and grooving. The music ranges from hardcore to experimental glitch pop played on tiny vintage synthesizers. Regardless of what’s playing, Dusk is a great spot for dancing — low-key and lacking in intimidation, providing a comfortable space to get loose.