PROVIDENCE — Not so long ago, Providence was seen as a gritty rest stop on the highway between Boston and New York. Travelers didn’t stop long enough to see (or taste) what was happening here.
“When I started working at the Providence-Warwick CVB in 2005, my boss handed me a piece of paper, a poll of people looking at different destinations and where they ranked in terms of restaurants. We were second to last,” said Kristen Adamo, Providence-Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau president. “I thought, ‘This can’t be right.’ It’s not that we’re not good, it’s that people don’t know we’re good.”
Now, the city’s restaurants regularly land on must-eat lists from the likes of Travel + Leisure, The New York Times, and GQ, thanks in large part to Adamo’s culinary marketing, which started with the launch of an ambitious offering: a restaurant week.
“They were mostly doing it in major cities, but as a second tier city that punches above its weight, we were like, ‘Let’s give it a whirl. Let’s see how it goes,’” she said.
The first Providence Restaurant Week was in 2006, with 40 restaurants. Before the pandemic, the program had grown to twice-yearly events that lasted several weeks in the summer and winter, with close to 100 participants across the state.
Then came COVID-19, and the worst year for tourism and hospitality in a century. Restaurants adapted to offer outdoor dining, which allowed them to get by until the second wave of the pandemic hit and winter made dining outdoors less feasible. Indoor dining in the state is currently restricted to one household per table, with limited capacities, and outdoor dining allows for two households per table.
Traditional Restaurant Weeks had to adapt, too.
“We knew we needed to support local restaurants because it has been such a traumatic and challenging year,” Adamo said. “For us, it was about taking the infrastructure that we knew was successful, that has a built-in audience, and making it adaptable to COVID-19 and supporting the restaurants the best way we can.”
The theme for this winter’s event, which started on Jan. 10 and runs through Feb. 6, is “Stay Local, Eat Well.” For the first time, the event is offering hotel packages, encouraging Rhode Islanders to have dinner downtown and staycation at a participating hotel, like Hotel Providence, which is offering 20 percent off their regular hotel rates and enhanced amenities for their “Hindsight is 2020” packages. Instead of the hotel’s usual complimentary happy hour in the lobby, a discounted wine and beer menu is available for guests to have in their rooms. (The hotel’s restaurant is currently closed, and therefore not participating in Restaurant Weeks this year.)
“We started it softly because we weren’t sure how it was going to go. Now we are honestly having a hard time keeping enough beer and wine in stock,” said Greg Nawrocki, director of sales and marketing for Hotel Providence.
Bottles of wine start as low as $15, and Nawrocki said the room service program seems to substitute for visitors’ traditional pre-dinner happy hour cocktail.
“They can’t get that experience of going to the restaurant a little earlier and sitting at the bar to have a cocktail,” he said. “So they’re really liking this.”
Facing low occupancy, the city’s largest hotels — The Graduate Providence and the Omni — have opted to close during the pandemic. With just 80 rooms, Hotel Providence has been able to weather the storm, even though occupancy rates have dropped from about 70 percent to about 25 percent. “While not great, it’s OK right now,” Nawrocki said. “We have been able to remain open the entire time throughout COVID, so we consider ourselves pretty lucky.”
By including hotels in this winter’s event, “We thought this was a great way to capitalize on Providence’s reputation and make it more inclusive,” Adamo said.
There are fewer restaurants participating this winter — just over 40 — but those that are have more flexibility than in the past. Diners can choose from breakfast, lunch or dinner and, instead of the traditional $34.95 for three courses, restaurants can set their own price point. Restaurants can also decide on the kind of menu they want, offer a takeout family meal that serves four, or include cocktails to-go.
“We threw out the format,” Adamo said. “We felt like we needed to give them more freedom.”
“This is an opportunity to become more creative, and I think that’s a good thing,” said Ruth Ferrazzano, who owns Murphy’s in downtown Providence.
Ferrazzano started working at Murphy’s in the late 1970s and bought the 92-year-old restaurant in 1997; she now co-owns it with her son, Louis Ferrazzano. “They didn’t pigeon hole us this time. They said, ‘What do you want to offer? What price range?’ We needed that flexibility this year.” To raise visibility for one of the restaurant’s signature meals, Murphy’s is offering a breakfast Restaurant Weeks menu, showcasing the Irish breakfast normally served only on weekends.
She said that in a year that has been hard across the board, having a location downtown without the normal crowds, especially those out-of-town visitors staying in nearby hotels, has been especially challenging.
“It’s almost like having to rebuild our whole industry all over again,” she said.
For Esther DeQuattro, who owns Pane e Vino and Massimo on Federal Hill with her husband, chef Joseph DeQuattro, Restaurant Weeks are times to introduce new menu items to gauge customer reception and entice diners into coming back for something different.
“Every time we do Restaurant Weeks, whether it’s the summer or the winter, it’s always very successful,” she said. “It’s just a big hit.”
The DeQuattros have been longtime participants in the event, offering dinner at Pane e Vino and lunch and dinner at Massimo. After much discussion, they ultimately decided to keep the same three-course, prix-fixe offering.
“We just feel like all of our guests have always responded well to what we’ve offered,” DeQuattro said.
One of her favorite dishes will be appearing on the Restaurant Weeks menu at Pane e Vino. “It’s stewed veal, and we serve it with peas over creamy polenta with Pecorino Romano cheese,” she explained. “I know it sounds really simple, but it is just about the most amazing thing that we offer in the winter.”
At Massimo, the Restaurant Weeks menu has a Wild Boar Sausage with braised escarole, sweet potato and pickled mustard seeds. “Even though it’s not something that your grandma would make for you every Sunday, all of the components are really comfort food components,” she said.
The pandemic has prompted local restaurants to respond to the increased demand for carry-out meals. The first day that Massimo offered takeout after the restaurant’s pandemic closure, DeQuattro had to call in additional staff to meet the unexpectedly high demand. That hasn’t changed during Restaurant Weeks, she said. For the first time, they had to make sure their special menu items would work well to-go.
“We’re very mindful of making sure that what we’re introducing carries as well,” DeQuattro said. “We had to adjust our menus for that. You don’t want to take a dish home and then it’s just not the same when you get home.”
They’ve also added online ordering to their websites, which wasn’t needed before the pandemic because their volume of takeout was much lower. It’s just one of the many modifications restaurants have had to make to survive this past year, including partitions between tables, lower dining capacities, contact tracing, and enhanced cleaning.
“Some people are hesitant [to go out], but restaurants are being so careful,” Ferrazzano said, describing the adherence to those protocols she has observed in her own dining experiences. “We have so much at stake. I only go out once a week, and everywhere I go is extremely careful. All the protocols are in place. I’m proud to see, as an industry, what we’ve been doing.”