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How Providence is Becoming a Foodie DestinationBy Richard Bradley

Providence, R.I. is a small city with a feast of culinary options.

  • Squab at Gracie's. Photo courtesy of Gracie's
  • A dish at North's. Photo by Andrew McQuestern

New York Times restaurant reviewer Pete Wells recently began a write-up of a new Manhattan pizza place with an apparent jibe at Providence, the capital of Rhode Island.

Wells wrote, “When New Yorkers hear that Violet, a new restaurant in the East Village, serves a style of pizza that comes from Rhode Island, they start to smile, as if getting ready for the punch line.”

The point was clear: Big city foodies don’t give Providence much respect.

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In fact, Wells continued, New Yorkers shouldn’t be so snooty: Providence pizza “is not a joke.” It’s actually pretty great.

It’s also part of one of the most diverse and ambitious food scenes of any small city in the country. The abundant restaurant options in Providence range from locally sourced American food at New Rivers, to the Asian-influenced North, to the artisanal American tasting menus at Gracie’s or South American cuisine at Los Andes. The list could go on—you can find the food of the world in Providence.

Wickenden Street Dining, a popular spot among college students

Several things explain why. One is a cohort of sophisticated diners who can support such a restaurant culture, ranging from the academics who work at Brown to the hipsters from that college and others, like the Rhode Island School of Design and Providence College. Many of these young people stick around after graduation, helping to rejuvenate a downtown filled with beautiful building stock, walkable streets—and top-notch restaurants.

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Another factor is Providence’s ethnic diversity: Whites, including significant groupings of Italians and Irish, constitute about half of Providence’s population, and African Americans about 16 percent. Filling in the last third are clusters of Latinos, Asians (especially Cambodians) and Portuguese-speakers from Portugal and Brazil. This ethnic diversity quite literally translates into a culinary melting pot. And finally, there’s the impact of the local Johnson & Wales University College of Culinary Arts, which provides a steady stream of fresh cooking talent.

Providence has its challenges, including a legacy of corrupt local and state government and relatively high unemployment. Mayor Jorge Elorza is putting the stink of corruption in the past, however, while economic development around food, health, entrepreneurship, colleges and tourism is helping boost the regional economy. Fueled by its fantastic food, Providence is picking up steam.

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