When Ari S. Heckman was growing up in Providence and interested in urban development, he once took photos of neon dancing ladies in the window of a downtown strip club and brothel as part of an art project.
Heckman, who witnessed many changes in his city, including moving rivers that would host popular Water Fire events and reopening a long-dormant Providence Arcade into a thriving retail, dining, and residential location, contributed to the change in January when he opened the Dean Hotel, an upscale boutique lodging carved out of that former brothel.
“No, I never went in there,” said Heckman, 30, founder of ASH NYC, a real estate development and design company he founded and which created the Dean. “I just took pictures from the outside.”
Heckman isn’t the only one taking chances on the city. Last year, 28 shops and restaurants opened here, and more are slated for this year, according to James S. Bennett, the city’s economic development director.
Last year the city created a “Come to Providence” brand, and it’s paid off, Bennett said, with a routine hotel occupancy rate of more than 80 percent, and accolades from places like Saveur magazine, which last year included Providence among the world’s best small cities for dining, and a Travel + Leisure reader’s poll that ranked it tops for pizza and burgers, and second for fine dining.
Food has long been a draw, said David Dadekian, chef, writer, and founder of Eat Drink RI, which hosts an annual festival, scheduled this year for April 24-27. One reason is the culinary graduates from Johnson & Wales University who want to stay in the city where they learned their trade, he said.
“Providence has been a great spot for restaurants for the last 10 years, and in the last few, regardless of the economy, business is succeeding and growing,” Dadekian said. “We’ve had a lot of new spots open in 2013 including Ken’s Ramen, and Birch, which is new and already one of the best restaurants in the state, run by Benjamin Sukle (a 2012 James Beard Foundation semifinalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year).”
Part of the lure is the culinary diversity, Dadekian said, including Italian, Asian, Latino, and Peruvian food, along with the booming popularity of food trucks that pepper the city from spring through fall.
For years, anyone walking by the Biltmore Garage on Washington Street saw only a dingy gray building full of cars. Now the first floor is home to a handful of shops and restaurants created by Cornish Associates, headed by city native Arnold “Buff” Chace Jr., whose holdings include Mashpee Commons on Cape Cod and several other properties in Providence.
“Ken’s Ramen is there and very busy. DownCity Outfitters, which is out of Atlanta, liked the city and is locating there, and there’s Figidini Wood-Fire Eatery, and Ellie’s Bakery,” said Joanna Levitt, Cornish’s director of commercial leasing and marketing. “Buff bought the building with the intention of putting shops and restaurants on the first floor and retaining parking on the upper five floors. We’re incredibly pleased with the outcome, sales are doing quite well.”
Cornish is also developing The Aurora on Westminster Street, which Levitt said “will be a venue for cultural activities, theater performances, jazz and DJ music, and dance nights.”
Ellie’s Bakery is a popular spot for morning coffee and lunch, an offshoot of Gracie’s, a restaurant near Trinity Repertory Company, run by Johnson & Wales grad Ellen Slattery. One recent cold afternoon, Ellie’s was packed with patrons snacking on fresh pastries, lunch that included duck confit on blue-cheese sourdough and tomato-and-Parmesan soup, and coffee from New Harvest Coffee Roasters in Pawtucket.
“The city’s in a renaissance,” said Ellie’s manager, Courtney Ortiz. “Something new is opening around here practically every week.”
Peter Cronin, who along with his wife, Pamela, opened Benefit Juice Bar & Café late last year, said doing business on Benefit Street in the city’s educational core is like “being in the East Side bubble of happy. Everyone’s in a great mood, it’s got a great vibe. I’ve never seen a place where people who don’t know each other come in and talk.”
The Cronins were in business in the Caribbean for many years before returning to their roots several years ago to take care of family. They opened the juice bar in an area he likened to “SoHo and Greenwich Village, it’s a melting pot. We get art professors from RISD and people from Brown. There’s the Barker Playhouse right next to us, so there’s a definite European feel here.”
Business has been good from the start, he said, with vegan-friendly fare like the Nutty Monkey smoothie with banana, almonds, almond milk, and peanut butter, and the Jazzy Beat, a juice with beets, carrots, celery, apples, and lime. They also serve a variety of sandwiches and paninis, and offer gluten-free bread.
“We took the modern approach with juices and teamed it with an old-school cafe feel, with local art on the walls and art books to read,” said Cronin as he sat in the small eight-table dining area next to an antique Westinghouse refrigerator that holds sodas and water. “There’s a lot of positive energy in this area, people are excited to be here.”
The downtown residential rate has doubled in the last 10 years, according to city officials, and one of the newest spots to live is the Providence G on Dorrance Street, in a building that once housed a gas company. It is also home to the G Pub in the basement, a sprawling restaurant with long, burnished-walnut bar and a speakeasy feel. The building will have the city’s first rooftop bar and restaurant come warmer weather, said Brendan Moran, property manager.
“This has a New York City feel,” said Moran, a city native, of the luxury apartment building with a lobby of towering windows and gleaming steel, and 56 units, nearly 80 percent occupied. “We have multiple venues in one building, an indoor garage. All the features that didn’t really exist in Providence, we’re creating.”
In the artsy lobby of the 52-room Dean Hotel, Bryan Gibb, 23, has set up shop with Bolt Coffee Co., a Rhode Island company that does catering. Gibb saw locating at the hotel as a “win-win. It gives us a place for a brick-and-mortar operation,” albeit a tiny, 60-square-foot one that Gibb uses to crank out espressos, cappuccinos, and macchiatos, using coffees from around the country.
Scheduled to open soon at the Dean are Faust, a beer, bratwurst, and pretzel restaurant; the Magdalenae Room, a Euro-style lounge; and the Boom Box, modeled after Korean karaoke bars.
Nearly everything in the hotel is from Rhode Island or New England sources, including sturdy metal bed frames from the Steel Yard in Providence and elephant end tables made by RISD alumni.
“This was the type of project I really wanted to do,” Heckman said. “You can see the imprint in what you’re doing. In New York, this would be a drop in the bucket. In Providence, you can have a unique, lasting impact.”
Paul E. Kandarian can be reached at email@example.com.