A gourmet food tour of Providence

Chef Martin Lyons of XO Cafe.
Chef Martin Lyons of XO Cafe.

“It’s time to master the crepe,” said Bob Burke, owner of Pot au Feu restaurant. “See the side of this pan? It looks like a skateboard ramp because it’s meant to launch things. You’re going to shoot the crepe across the bottom of the pan, up the other side, and flip it. Got that?

“You don’t get to eat the crepes if you don’t do the flip,” he said, urging us to give it a try.

We spent about 45 minutes in this cozy eatery, the oldest French bistro in the United States, not only learning to flip crepes, but savoring them, stuffed with wine-poached pears and drizzled in a delicate sauce made with pear-infused vodka, accompanied with glasses of Beaujolais nouveau.


We were on the Providence Riverwalk culinary tour, offered by Newport Gourmet Tours. The company, which also offers culinary tours in Newport, introduced the two-hour-plus tour last September as a fun way to experience one of the country’s culinary hot spots. (CNBC recently named Providence one of the top foodie cities in the country.)

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“Providence is a great food destination city,” said Mike Martini, former chef and co-owner of the tour company. “I love to find ways to show the incredible food scene in this city.”

The jam-packed, behind-the-scenes walking tour not only took us to some of Providence’s top kitchens to meet chefs and sample signature dishes and drinks, but also included a few cooking and history lessons along the way.

We started at XO Cafe, located in the historic 1799 John Updike House on North Main Street, where executive chef Marty Lyons was serving contemporary, locavore-focused dishes with creative flourish. Chef magazine recently called it the hippest restaurant in the city.

“I had fun with this,” Lyons said, as we sat down in the intimate, brick-walled eatery. He presented us with our first taste on the tour: gnocchi made with parsnips instead of the traditional potatoes. “Parsnips aren’t quite as starchy as potatoes,” he explained, “and they add some fun texture.”


The gnocchi had been browned in butter, tossed with a duck confit, served with a vanilla onion puree and smoked cranberry, and topped with a slice of raw apple.

“I know there are lots of crazy flavors going on,” Lyons said, “but it all works as a whole.”

It was a tasty dish, at once sweet and tart, soft and crunchy, and a good start to the tour.

Martini guided us to Hemenway’s, our next stop, pointing out several landmarks and historical sites along the way. The restaurant, founded by Edward Grace as an homage to his grandfather Charles Hemenway, has been a mainstay on the Providence food scene for more than 20 years. “It’s now owned by the Newport Restaurant Group,” Martini said, “and they’ve brought the quality back to Grace’s time.”

We already knew that the large restaurant, with floor-to-ceiling windows and contemporary decor, was a hot spot in downtown, with high marks for its ultra-fresh seafood. We walked inside, passed the fish counter where people were shucking oysters and peeling shrimp, and went directly into a surprisingly tiny kitchen.


“It’s small, but we make the most of it,” chef Steven Long said, with a sweep of his arms. “Magic happens here.” He joked about handing out aprons so we could help with the dishes, before explaining what they would be serving us: tiny, sweet Nantucket Bay scallops, fresh off the boat.

“A lot of us feel that they’re the best seafood you can get, bar none, better than anything else,” Long said. “They’re like the M&Ms of the seafood world.”

We headed back out to the dining room where we were served the delicate seafood candies with local, roasted spaghetti squash, slivers of sautéed Brussels sprouts and sage butter, accompanied with cold glasses of Sancerre wine.

We left happy as clams and followed part of the capital city’s Independence Trail on to the next restaurant. The 2.5-mile path, marked by a green line painted on the sidewalk, goes by historic sites, highlighting Providence’s role in the American Revolution. Emblems mark significant locations along the trail, and give a phone number to call; dial up the number from any cellphone and punch in the location number to learn more about the site. “The guy who paints the line runs historical tours in town,” Martini said. “The trail also runs right in front of his restaurant.” He pointed to Pot au Feu.

“This was Julia Child’s favorite restaurant in Providence,” Martini said. “She was in the restaurant many times, and even had Bob [Burke] for dinner at her home in Cambridge.”

We headed down to the snug basement, with brick floors and stone walls, and wooden tables set with flowers and candlelight, where we started our visit with a glass of Beaujolais nouveau, taken from a wooden barrel.

“This is a wine you want to date not marry,” Burke said. “It’s just a little fling. You’re going to have some fun with it, but by January, you’re on to champagne.” We raised our glasses and saluted before moving on to our crepe-flipping lessons.

Our next stop, 10 Prime Steak and Sushi, was a short distance away, but an entirely different atmosphere. The sleek, contemporary space with bright colors, curvy angles, and a bubble machine above the door, is lively and fun. Premium steaks were being cooked over hot lava rocks, while chef David Jackson prepared for us his version of surf and turf: cooked sushi with tempura crab and tuna, served with rare steak strips.

Our last stop was The Dorrance, a grand, opulent space, located in a former Federal Reserve Bank. Much of the original 1902 building remains, including a wall safe, ornate woodwork, marble floors and walls, and elegant stained glass windows. The restaurant, headed by chef Ben Sukle, is racking up awards. Bon Appetit magazine named it one of the country’s best 50 new restaurants in 2012. Sukle has also received a best new chef nomination from Food & Wine magazine.

We entered the luxurious space and sat at the long wooden bar. A trio of mixologists prepared craft cocktails, a contemporary version of a whiskey sour. The sweet-sour drink was made with Sons of Liberty pumpkin whiskey and spicy cinnamon, and contained special ice designed to keep the drink perfectly chilled with proper dilution. (We didn’t have ours long enough to verify.) Next came artistically-presented plates, with slices of 60-day, dry-aged sirloin and chickweed harissa greens on a garlic crostini, topped with crunchy radish. This was followed by a dollop of house-made, sweet French vanilla ice cream.

We had originally planned on staying in Providence for dinner. That wasn’t going to happen. We were perfectly and pleasantly full — and knew exactly where we’d dine the next time we were in town.

Newport Gourmet Tours Tours begin for the season April 5 and are offered every Friday at 2 p.m., departing from 121 North Main St., $50 per person. 401- 787-4058,

Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at