Today, we all know about the farm to table and locavore movements, but it wasn’t always that way. Forty years ago there was no East Side Monthly and there also was no kale, no sushi, no lattes, no venti, no gluten-free, no foodies, no fat free, no low carb, no organic produce, little vegetarian and no vegan. Martinis were made with gin and vermouth. Real men didn’t eat quiche. Restaurants were intolerant of lactose intolerance and the maitre d’ thought you were the nut for saying you had a nut allergy.
Pockets were on pants, not on sandwich boards, and wraps were made of fur and worn to dinner by fashionable women. In nice dining rooms, jackets and ties were required for men.
Fondue parties were common. “Chablis” was any white wine and “Burgundy” meant red – any red wine. Chardonnay had not entered the lexicon. Meatloaf, spaghetti and chow mein were the bill of fare when East Side Monthly was born.
Tastes, They Are-a Changing
The ‘60s had brought big changes to America and many of those changes were becoming mainstream. People were getting interested in food, wine and cocktails. Betty Crocker was ceding the spotlight to Julia Child, who was teaching eager homemakers to master the art of French cooking. And although nothing like the Food Network existed, television was beginning to teach people new ways to cook, eat, drink and entertain.
The East Side was changing along with the nation. The food revolution was about to change the way people did everything that had to do with eating. It would change the food in supermarkets and restaurants. It would change what people cooked, what they ate and how they viewed the world.
The biggest change, oddly, had little to do with the food itself. It had more to do with how food got from where it was grown to where it was eaten – the grew and chew routes. The interstate highway system was making it possible for big refrigerated trucks to deliver fresh food across the entire nation. That meant fresher foods in season.
New Englanders waited until June for the next luscious taste of fresh strawberries, July for cherries and autumn for apples. But that was all about to change. A little start up called Federal Express was figuring out it could fly the summer crop of South American strawberries to winter weary palates in the United States. Suddenly a food could be grown anywhere on the planet and eaten a few days later anywhere else. Farms no longer had to be nearby.
A World of Flavors
The cultural explosion happened when ingredients that made food authentic began to become available to restaurants and supermarkets. It’s how the IGA became the Eastside Marketplace. It brought Bread and Circus to the East Side and two Whole Foods.
To taste authentic cultural food back then, you either had to have friends whose grandmother was from “the old country” or travel the world to taste the food of other nations.
The old saying about restaurants is that the three most important ingredients for success are location, location and location. And soon the East Side became a great location. It spontaneously began to grow clusters of successful restaurants. With each year more and more cultural names were added and became represented.
Thayer Street came first as adventurous students began to push the food boundaries and “cross culture” morphed out of the “counter culture.” Here’s a list of some of the memorable eating destinations I remember, which hopefully will bring back some memories for you as well: Spats, Andreas, Ronnie’s Rascal House, Montana’s, Papillion, Lloyd’s (original), Louie’s, Ruby’s, Alfredo, Adesso, Meeting Street Cafe, Kabob and Curry, Bob’s Big Boy, East Side Pockets, Paragon, The English Pub, Spike's. The chains finally invaded with mixed results: Baskin Robbins, McDonalds, Dunkin’, Starbucks, Au Bon Pain, IHOP, Ben & Jerry.
Families gravitated to Wayland Square with its safe bets of Newport Creamery, Minerva’s Pizza, the East Side Diner and Ruffles. More adventuresome diners were drawn to the Gatehouse (“where the old Red Bridge used to be” as we say in Rhode Islandese), Waterman Grill, Haruki and Red Stripe.
The Wickenden Waterfront cluster has bustled ever since the Hot Club and has spawned some great eateries. Among them are (or were) the legendary Al Forno, the Fish Company, Whiskey Rebellion, the Wine Bar, the Steam Company, the infamous Shooters and a host of incarnations at the site of Lola’s Cantina.
Up from the water on Wickenden, the Coffee Exchange, Cafe at Brooks, Amy’s, Taste of India, Duck & Bunny, Abyssinia, Brickway, Sakura and Pizza Pie-er took hold.
Hope Street broke out into three clusters: SoHo, RoHo and NoHo. South Hope around Rue De L’ Espoir, Guidos and Big Alice’s; RoHo – at Rochambeau and Hope – with Aspara, Pizzico, Davis’ Deli, Seven Stars, 729 Hope and Blaze; NoHo – North Hope where Hope meets the Boulevard – La France, Barney’s Bagels, Garden Grill, Chez Pascal, India, Lloyds, Max, Oak, Cook & Brown and Ran Zan.
Then there’s NoMa – North Main near Fains grew “fern bars” like Panache, Allary’s, Steeple Street, Blue Point, Al Forno (birthplace), New Rivers, Mills Tavern, XO, Throop Alley, David’s Potbelly and Café Chocklad.
Don’t forget WaNoMa – Way North Main – that started where Howard Johnson’s used to be, where Ground Round used to be and where Gregg's is now.
South Main grew with the Left Bank, L’Elizabeth, Black Dog, Neath’s, Bacaro, Barnsider, Pakarang, Hemenways, Parkside and the Cable Car Cafe. Scattered stand-alone eateries were found at Club 133, Tortilla Flats, Carrs, Geoff’s, the Butcher Shop and Bagels East.
Still Hungry After All These Years
The appetite for food on the East Side has been (and continues to be) insatiable. Providence now ranks only second to San Francisco for the number of restaurants per capita. Many of those restaurant seats have been found in the diverse and delicious restaurants located between Fox Point and Oak Hill. They are the ingredients of a rich and flavorful stew that has steadily simmered for the last 40 years, one thing has never changed on the East Side: their passion for good food is as robust as ever. Bon Appetit!
Bob Burke is co-owner with his wife Anne of the Pot au Feu Restaurant, which began about the same time as East Side Monthly. The Pot has been a favorite of East Siders, despite being down the hill and across the river in downtown.