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The Best Food and Restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island

Can't-Miss Food and Restaurants in Providence, Rhode Island

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The best restaurants in Providence are sometimes overlooked, considering that Rhode Island is the nation's smallest state, and Providence is so close to culinary powerhouses like New York and Boston. But don't make that mistake, because this is one of the most interesting food scenes in the Northeast. Besides all the seafood -- it's said that no resident is more than 30 miles from the ocean -- here's where you'll find a blend of the foods of old New England, long-time immigrant communities, and Industrial-era Americana -- along with plenty of sophistication thanks to the presence of culinary school Johnson & Wales.

Johnson & Wales: Culinary Arts Museum

Photo of Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum in Providence, Rhode Island.
Johnson & Wales Culinary Museum in Providence, Rhode Island. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner.

Although it's a bit out of the way, food lovers will adore the Culinary Arts Museum at Johnson & Wales. This well-known cooking school (which trained Emeril Lagasse among others) also offers recreational classes at its Harborside Campus.

New York System Weiners or "Gaggers"

Photo of Olneyville New York System Wieners
Olneyville New York System Wieners. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
It may seem puzzling to invoke New York in a New England town where rooting for, say, the New York Yankees is a life-risking proposition, but these weiners (alternately spelled "wieners", but never called hot dogs) are a late-night specialty, served with a meat sauce, chopped onions and a dusting of celery salt. And just why are they called New York System? Find out here.

Despite the nickname "gaggers", or in New England accent, "gaggahs", they're not very big, so the way to order them is "three all the way" -- that's three hot dogs with all the fixings. One place to try them: Olneyville New York System, 20 Plainfield Street.

Sip Thomas Tew Rum, Made in Rhode Island's Craft Distillery

Rum tasting at Thomas Tew in Newport.
Rum tasting at Thomas Tew in Newport. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

Rum was once a huge business in Rhode Island, particularly Newport, but by the end of the 19th century it had entirely faded away. In 2008, the company behind Newport Storm beer, a local craft brewery, launched Thomas Tew Rum, a small batch, hand crafted rum that is almost too good to pour into a mixed drink.  The distillery is open for tours and offers an educational and entertaining tasting.

Enjoy Providence's Sophisticated Dining Scene

Photo of Bacaro Restaurant in Providence
Bacaro in Providence. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

Providence is a college town, and a prestigious one at that, with the presence of both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design. Add to the mix Johnson & Wales' noted culinary program, and you have educated palates paired with culinary creativity. In other words, its fertile territory for great restaurants, and Providence has a number of them. A long-time favorite with a well-deserved local and national reputation is Al Forno, 577 South Main Street, while newcomers are entering the scene all the time, ranging from upscale American comfort food, like Nick's on Broadway, 500 Broadway, to new twists on regional favorites, like Bacaro, 262 South Water Street. Find more restaurants to add to your itinerary here.

In Newport? Check out the restaurants at boutique hotel Forty 1 North.

Expore Rhode Island's Immigrant Roots

Photo of DePasquale Square, at the heart of Providence's Italian neighborhood.
DePasquale Square, at the heart of Providence's Italian neighborhood. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
As a state, Rhode Island is home to a higher percentage of Portuguese Americans than any other, and you can find Portuguese culinary influences everywhere -- linguica and chourico sausage, for example, are common ingredients on even the most mundane diner menus. For an authentic Portuguese meal, a try Madeira at 288 Warren Ave. (Another great area for Portuguese cuisine is actually just across the border in Fall River, Massachusetts.) Other groups that have influenced the cuisine in the state include Italians and French Canadians. More recently, Rhode Island has become home to many African immigrants, especially those from Liberia. Try Elea's to sample this cuisine, at 711 Broad Street.

Del's Lemonade

Photo of Del's Lemonade
Del's Lemonade. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
Del's serves frozen lemonade, with pieces of actual lemon in it, and you'll find it sold at stands and trucks throughout Rhode Island. They'll give you a straw if you ask for it, but you're really meant to drink it straight from the cup while it melts slowly. It's sweet but not overly so, and people who grew up in Rhode Island (or had summer vacations there, which is a larger group) wax rhapsodic about it. It's definitely refreshing on a hot summer day.

Stuffies, Chowder and More from the Sea

Photo of Raw Oysters
Raw oysters. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner
New England is well-known for its seafood specialties, and Rhode Island has a few of its own favorites, all of which revolve around the clam. At the top of the list are "Stuffies", or a hard-shell quahog clam, stuffed with a filling that includes chourico, and clam cakes, which are chopped up quahog fritters, fried in a heavy batter. A more controversial specialty is Rhode Island clam chowder, which can be made with a clear broth, or with tomatoes. Learn more about the curious case of Rhode Island chowder, and the best spots for sampling these Ocean State specialties.

Check out a Diner in its Hometown

Modern Diner in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

The diner was invented in Providence in 1872, when an entrepreneur named Walter Scott decided to serve food from a horse-drawn freight wagon. The genius part of the first diner was its mobility -- Scott could move it to where the people were, and the emphasis was always on simple, hearty, and fast food. To get a taste of history, head to The Modern Diner at 13 Dexter Street, in Pawtucket. Alas, the state's traditional jonnycakes (or corn cakes) aren't a menu standard, but you can order them at Jigger's, 145 Main Street in Greenwich.

Share Rhode Island's Coffee Obsession

Photo of Rhode Island Coffee Milk
Rhode Island Coffee Milk. Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

How, exactly, Rhode Island became a state obsessed with the flavor of coffee is unclear, but one thing that is: it had nothing to do with the advent of Starbucks. While you might order chocolate milk, or even strawberry milk at restaurants in other states, you'd likely get a puzzled look if you tried to ask for "coffee milk", a popular and standard drink here. Here you'll find coffee milkshakes -- although they go by a special name -- which you can wash down with an iced coffee, common even in the dead of the winter.

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