An Artsy, Affordable Weekend in Providence, RI: Part I

by  Christine Wei | Oct 23, 2015

If you’re looking for the kind of sweet New England charm that goes on postcards, Providence is not the place to visit. That's not to say that the city doesn't have beautiful college campuses and historic architecture. It's just that Rhode Island's capital is more of a place where artsy young talent meets urban grit. It's a city that becomes more interesting once you delve below the pretty surface.

Providence has a colorful past: Founded nearly 400 years ago as part of the original 13 colonies, it grew wealthy thanks to an Industrial Revolution-era manufacturing boom. Then, as the story unfortunately often goes, it fell into decline as industries shut down before and during the Great Depression. After that, organized crime gave Providence the kind of reputation that Detroit, a place known for poverty and crime, had in the Midwest. 

But creativity runs through the city’s fabric -- it is, after all, home to the renowned Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, and the nonprofit Johnson & Wales University. These days, a younger generation of gifted artists, chefs, and locals who love their hometown have the reins, and the boldness, to experiment and to move Providence forward. Their passion is evident in the boutiques, abundant galleries, and delicious restaurants that they’re either in the process of establishing or reinventing.

For travelers, a weekend trip to Providence isn’t just a chance to enjoy arts and culture without breaking the bank. You could say that Providence is on the cusp of a Renaissance. Its “downcity” neighborhood is home to many of the city’s eclectic storefronts -- and feels as safe as any. In other parts of town, new mayor Jorge Elorza has big plans to repurpose every single one of the city's 500 abandoned buildings into affordable homes and creative workspaces. Service at its T.F. Green Airport is growing, with seasonal international flights from destinations like Frankfurt and the Cabo Verde Islands off the western coast of Africa. All of this is a detailed way of saying: A visit here is a chance to support and celebrate a city on the rise.

RISD Museum / Christine Wei

What to Do
Unsurprisingly, one of the best places to get a sense of the city’s wide range of creative talent is at the 120-plus-year-old RISD Museum, where 100,000 objects run the gamut from Greek and Roman art, to contemporary works, to textiles and photography. For the art lover, $12 admission is worth it -- particularly if you can time your visit to a free event like a film screening or an orchestra concert in the beautifully skylight-lit Grand Gallery, where paintings cover every wall.

Of course, you can find plenty of art outside of museum walls, too. Street art covers the city, particularly in downcity. A new and notable addition are a pair of murals by two Polish artists on Washington Street, installed as part of this year’s International Arts Festival. One features a whimsical look into a world of mushrooms, inspired by "Through the Looking Glass," while the other depicts, intriguingly, a man with a rat on his shoulder.

At the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales University, foodies can geek out on gastro-history. Go back in culinary time with vintage menus and cookbooks, then trace the evolution of dinner, and see how kitchens have evolved from open hearths to rooms full of appliances. There are plenty of vintage gadgets, old posters and advertisements, as well as fantastical chocolate and wedding cake creations. Tickets cost $7.

For more sophisticated fun, catch a show at the Trinity Repertory Company, now in its 52nd season. Productions by MFA students cost a reasonable $12, while other tickets may start at $25 or $46, depending on the theater and the show. We love that each venue is small and intimate -- the Dowling Theater encompasses only seven rows. The current season includes "Romeo & Juliet," "A Christmas Carol," "The Hunchback of Seville," and more.

Mural on Washington Street


The Duck and Bunny / Christine Wei

Where to Eat
Quality aside, perhaps one of the best things about dining in Providence is that there are few chain restaurants, save for Capital Grille, which was established in the city. For a nutritious start to the day, head to Ellie’s Bakery, known in town for its honey beer bread, brioche, and potato bread. Arrive before 11 a.m. for its signature breakfast sandwich with farm egg, cheddar, and tomato jam on English muffin ($5, or $6 with bacon or sausage). Arrive later and choose from a classic grilled cheese ($6) or fancier sandwiches with fillings like roast pork belly or poached pear and brie ($9.5 each). Note that Ellie's is closed Sundays.

Over on the east side of town, near the universities, The Duck & Bunny sits right on Wickenden Street -- a trendy stretch dotted with restaurants and shops in standalone houses. The restaurant offers a daily brunch from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and serves up 10 variations of sweet and savory crepes ($10-$14) and eggs "bun-a-duck" with toppings like smoked salmon, bacon, tomato, and pesto ($12-$14). On weekends, don’t miss the Portuguese sweetbread pudding topped with caramelized onion, bacon, and scallion ($6) -- a nod to the neighborhood’s immigrant history.

For dinner, perhaps there’s nowhere that’s as quintessentially Providence as Local 121. The 1890s space is historic -- the refined dining room is characterized by stuffed banquettes and Art Deco details, while the Tap Room's stained glass windows throw colorful light across the room's mahogany panels. Meanwhile, the kitchen embodies the revitalization and energy sweeping the city. It’s helmed by Tyler Demora, a young chef who changes up the menu on a daily basis based on what's fresh and in season. You might try appetizers like sweet corn soup with chorizo, jalapeno, and spelt ($9) or yellowfish tuna tartare with watermelon, shiso tempura, and riesling vinaigrette ($15). Mains run the gamut from house-made fettucine ($18), pork chop with curried white beans, grilled carrots, and peach chutney ($34), or lobster house spaghetti ($33).

Gracie’s Providence is a smart splurge for foodies, too. Though it’s the city’s only AAA 4-Diamond restaurant, prices are affordable: a three-course prix fixe costs $45, five-course $85, seven-course $100, and nine-course $120. (A la carte dining is also available.) We started with a Hudson Valley foie gras with roasted fig and sunflower seeds, followed by scallops with corn grits, butternut squash, and Brussels sprouts. A chocolate apple torte ended the meal on a sweet note. Bonus: Bread from Ellie’s is served as a pre-meal treat.

Continue Reading: Where to Shop & Where to Stay in Providence

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