HARRISVILLE — The culinary students were not impressed. But the travel and tourism majors tended to see the bigger picture. I was eating lunch at Wright’s Farm Restaurant with 33 Johnson & Wales University students — and about a thousand other diners. We were having what they were having: family-style chicken.
Every year Bob Billington, an adjunct professor at Johnson & Wales who is also president of the Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, takes his Ecotourism students to Wright’s Farm to experience this uniquely northern Rhode Island tradition. The focus of the course is sustainable tourism, he said, noting that the Blackstone Valley is just now emerging from the grave it dug itself into over the last century by destroying its natural resources in the name of industrial progress. And part of sustainable tourism is the effort to preserve cultural traditions.
“This meal — family-style chicken — was born here and grown here,” Billington said. “This is the only place you’re going to find this meal served this way. Part of sustainability is preserving the culture. This meal is part of the culture.”
For the uninitiated, family-style chicken dinners typically include baked chicken, rolls, salad with Italian dressing, French fries, and pasta with tomato sauce. Everything is served family style, you can get unlimited refills, and the price hovers around $10-$12. There are at least a dozen restaurants in northern Rhode Island that offer some version of the meal.
Culture notwithstanding, Steven Favereaux, a senior from Meriden, Conn., majoring in culinary arts, described the meal as “mediocre — and I’m being kind.” Favereaux said he favors more plant-based and whole foods, and he found the family-style presentation decidedly downscale. Allana Kizis, a food and beverage management major from Wolcott, Conn., added that she appreciates robust spices in cooking and found the fare a little bland.
But two of the program’s international students were favorably impressed. Lauren Harder, a travel and tourism major from East London, a small town on the east coast of South Africa, said she had never been to a restaurant with family-style service. “I loved it,” she said. “I thought it was a great experience to share with my classmates.” And Shi Qiu, from Chungking, China, called the lunch “interesting and wonderful — and the chicken was perfect.”
Frank Galleshaw, whose family has owned Wright’s Farm, the largest restaurant in the smallest state, since 1972, estimates that the establishment serves 10,000-12,000 chicken dinners a week. Everything is fresh, he said, from the chickens to the rolls baked in house to the salad dressing, marinara sauce, and fries. Do you have to get roast chicken? No, of course not. You can choose anything else on the menu — and that would be steak.
While we sat in the Carriage Room, set up banquet style to accommodate large parties, Wright’s also has smaller, more intimate dining rooms. Happily occupying a table for four was the Mignogna family of Worcester — Louis, Brooke, Barron, 4, and Owen, 1. “The boys love French fries, bread, salad, and chicken,” Louis Mignogna said. He added that two family members have food allergies and Wright’s provides a detailed ingredient list, “which makes us comfortable eating there.”
Wright’s accepts reservations for parties of 10 or more, so you’re likely to have a short wait for a table. Many diners spend their wait time in the large gift shop, where you can find jewelry, clothing, leather goods, toys, sports memorabilia, and Wright’s food items. There’s usually a line at the fudge counter, which stocks varieties such as penuche, pistachio, and Reese’s peanut butter cup, along with the standard flavors. Galleshaw said he’s planning to ramp up the fudge business to distribute the confections across New England, along with the restaurant’s signature salad dressing, red sauce, and chicken pot pies.
While Wright’s holds the record for sheer volume, it’s certainly not the only player in the family-style chicken dinner business.
Three miles away is Village Haven, another family-owned restaurant built on birds. Rachel and David Narodowy bought the restaurant in 1977. The couple has five sons and two daughters, and at one time or another, all have worked there, Rachel Narodowy said. Two sons work full time at the restaurant now, and several grandchildren are busboys and waiters.
Unlike Wright’s, Village Haven offers a full menu with some 25 entrees. Nonetheless, 80 percent of the business is family-style chicken, Narodowy said, with prime rib and baked stuffed shrimp a distant second and third. Everything is made in house, including the lip-smacking-good cinnamon rolls that come with every meal. We liked the crisp, brown skin on Village Haven’s roast chicken; Narodowy said whole birds are purchased locally, and then cooked in blue steel pans at a high temperature. Penne with red sauce, french fries, salad, and a Hoodsie-like ice cream round out the meal.
At Village Haven, as at most restaurants serving family-style chicken, you can take home anything you don’t eat in the first round, but if you call for repeats, doggie bags are not allowed.
The Bocce Club in Woonsocket is where the tradition began. The story goes that sometime in the 1920s the Pavonis first served family-style chicken dinners to friends after a game of bocce at their home. A stepdaughter, Mary Tavernier, later opened a small dining room called the Bocce Club in the cellar of the family home. It’s still in business, tucked into a residential neighborhood off Diamond Hill Road.
A half-mile away, Nick Haddad runs the 77 Restaurant, formerly the Embassy Club, another early family-style chicken dinner restaurant, dating from the 1940s. While the 77 offers a full menu, about 75 percent of dine-in customers and virtually all of the takeout customers choose the chicken, he said. We liked the meat sauce on penne, which Haddad said is still made from scratch according to the original Embassy Club recipe.
Preserving an area’s culture is hard work, but that doesn’t mean the preservationists can’t have a little fun. The Village Haven staff makes a practice of picking up chicken-related tchotchkes to amuse patrons. We especially liked the sign above the door on the way out: “I dream of a world,” it reads, “where chickens can cross the road without having their motives questioned.”