NEWPORT, R.I. — Salvation Café was the only restaurant on Broadway when the owners flung open their doors for their first service more than 30 years ago. They offered a wide-ranging menu that catered to locals and helped build the neighborhood into its own destination just outside of tourist-driven Thames Street. For the last decade, chef Todd Coonan has been in charge of the menu and led a tight-knit kitchen.
And then in December 2021, the restaurant’s owners announced they were closing for good. Most recently, Cabana, owned by New York City restauranteur Callum McLaughlin, opened in its place. And he invited Coonan, 35, of Portsmouth, to make his return to the kitchen that he’s known for the last decade.
What was special about Salvation Café?
Coonan: It started as a one-room restaurant that eventually expanded into a three-story space with four dining rooms with two bars. It featured a lot of local cuisine, and it was probably one of more eclectic menus with dishes that were inspired from France, Italy, South America, and Korea. We focused on sustainability and regionality. I started as the sous chef. Then the restaurant went under a renovation and the executive chef said he wasn’t going to return. I took over at 26 years old.
How did you get in the restaurant industry?
I’m from New Hampshire. I was born and raised in Plymouth. My father was a bartender at a local restaurant and I was a dishwasher there. And then one night I was called into a shift. I thought it was going to be a dish shift, but I wound up on the line. I was 15 years old.
What made you leave New Hampshire?
New Hampshire doesn’t have a lot of restaurants — especially at that time. Trying to move up in the field is almost impossible. Most of the chefs I worked under were at the restaurants I was working at for 10 or 15 years, if not longer. So the opportunity for advancement was limited.
You took over the kitchen at Salvation when you were 26. Who was in charge of the menu and sourcing ingredients?
The kitchen was pretty much on me. I was in charge of designing, implementing, and creating the menu specs. I was the one who found the farmers and bakeries. I’m still using a lot of those same vendors, like Rhode Island Mushroom Company in Newport and Greenview Farm in Wakefield. As for oysters, we’re getting East Beach Blondes from Ninigret Pond. They are petite, but briny, local, and very consistent.
How much experimenting did you do with the menu?
When you’re starting out, you put something down on a specials menu and then track the sales to see how well it’s doing. If a special sells really well for a week or two, I would put it on the regular menu.
As for surprises? I’m always shocked by how much people eat things like bolognese or hot macaroni and cheese in the summer when it’s already like 100 degrees outside. That’s when I’m looking forward to serving fresh salads, ceviches, tartare, and oysters.
Are those hearty dishes getting ordered by visitors or locals in the summer?
Both. I learned that items like a bolognese will always sell because it’s a comfort food. But people [in Newport] want that year-round, not just when it’s cold.
And now you’re at Cabana, which is owned by a New York City restauranteur who just moved to Rhode Island. Is Broadway still a destination for locals?
Some tourists manage to make it up to Broadway, but for the most part, we [restaurants on Broadway] are considered “restaurant row” by the locals. I stayed on with Cabana because I love this location. I met [McLaughlin] and the investors and felt comfortable with staying on. He has restaurants in New York City that serve New England seafood. We are in New England serving island-inspired flavors, and that was built because of the two of us.
[McLaughlin] wanted tacos and a rum-themed bar. The rest of the menu were items that I’ve done previously and that I knew worked in this area.
You’re located in Newport, which is expensive. But it’s also summer — peak tourist season — and inflation is hitting the pocketbooks of restaurants and diners. How is it impacting the kitchen crew at Cabana?
Some things are finally going down, but a lot of things are now going up. We’re just constantly working on portion size. You have to be more conscious of where you’re sourcing products from. Sometimes some companies get better deals on certain products. So you might be able to find those avocados for, you know, 50 cents each at one purveyor or 25 cents at another. But we try to keep prices at a similar price point while also keeping the cost down. It’s a constant balancing at where it’s more work on the sourcing side.
There’s sometimes where you place your orders at night, get it in the morning, and you’re missing items like butter, chicken, and bread — staples. So you have to go out and find it all over again.
Anything in particular that is hurting the wallet worse than other ingredients?
The beef market has gone up about 25 to 30 percent. But the chicken market has gone up more than 120 percent over the last year. It’s more than double the cost than it was last year — which is absolutely insane for chicken.
Is there any silver-lining?
You really don’t want to [fluctuate] portion sizes too much. But right now, customers are feeling inflation so much at the grocery store as well, that they aren’t blinking (as much) when they see a chicken entrée for $20 on a menu. Because they are paying $7 per pound right now at the store.
Who is helping you in the kitchen?
I didn’t have to hire anyone. I brought the entire kitchen from Salvation Café to Cabana. I have three cooks in the kitchen. Two of them are brothers and the other is their uncle.
What should people expect from your fall and winter menus, which are already coming up?
Lots of new items, from duck confit to roasted root vegetables, pickled beets, and all kinds of other fun fall plates. It’s going to slow down in Newport in the winter, as it always does, so we’ll be running three-course dinners starting [in the next couple of months].
Where on Aquidneck Island do you go out when you have a day off?
I honestly don’t. I have my son whenever I’m not working and there aren’t many places where you’re going to bring a 4-year-old other than McDonald’s or Denny’s. So I cook for him: He loves cucumbers, carrots, rice pilaf with peas, and chicken. If you ask what his favorite food is, he’ll probably say strawberries or sugar.
Many in Newport thought of Salvation Café as an institution, one where you felt like family when you dined there and worked there. Is it possible to replicate that at Cabana?
I think we have the opportunity to build that here. We’ve kept in touch with the locals, kept a lot of the same staff on to preserve that feeling. We want people to come into the restaurant and be confident in their choice of dining that evening.