Is Providence really the coolest city in the US?
PROVIDENCE — “You wanna get blasted on yip?” the young man with weirdly symmetrical hair inquired.
I barely had time to ask the important questions (“What’s yip?” “Why is your hair so symmetrical?”) before he tapped some white powder from a tiny packet onto his car key. Wait, is that cocaine?
“Get a nostril ready,” he instructed. “We’re gonna party.”
I hated to be the one to rain on his parade, or sneeze at his cocaine, but I explained that my white powder of choice is generally found on donuts.
“That’s cool man,” he said before simultaneously snorting from the key and looking sad. No one in the bar seemed to notice.
I felt bad that this generous Johnson & Wales University student had no friends to share his nose candy with, but sympathy didn’t stop me from fleeing the downtown bar. I was suddenly craving powdered sugar donuts.
I was in Providence for the weekend to rediscover a city that I last visited more than a decade ago when WaterFire was the talk of New England and Providence Place was the mall of the moment. In urban development years, a decade is a long time. Since then I’ve read nothing but superlatives about the city of 179,000. In 2014, Travel + Leisure named Providence America’s favorite city. Last year GQ jumped on the Providence bullet train and bequeathed it the title of coolest city in the country.
I tend to approach any list that names the hippest cities, best towns for architecture, or outstanding beaches for avoiding seagull attacks with trepidation and a spoonful of vinegar. It’s subjective malarkey to me.
But then I’d hear about another amazing Providence restaurant opening in a once-seedy part of town, or a new hotel occupying a building that once housed a bordello. It seemed to be falling into place. Providence was gaining what the kids call “cred.” But the poncho that broke the alpaca’s back was when I read that the upper floors of a historic building had been converted to micro-lofts.
Is there anything cooler than micro-lofts? How about a city that calls its downtown “Downcity”? Or maybe a hipster culinary student who calls his cocaine “yip”? I was ready to drink the Providence Kool-Aid and declare it the finest in New England, but thought it best to explore a bit first.
For my Providence return, I stayed at the Dean, the 52-room budget boutique hotel that once housed the aforementioned bordello. The Dean Hotel does all the right things, such as incorporating repurposed industrial objects into design elements. The Dean has a beer hall, a slick cocktail lounge, a coffee shop, and a karaoke bar. I stopped by the karaoke bar with every intention of singing, but there was a surly crowd in attendance. I was suddenly scared that my off-key warbling would draw boos and moldy produce. There wasn’t enough yip in all of Providence to get me on that stage.
I officially started the weekend at the RISD Art Museum. RISD and Brown are the academic ying and yang that make Providence such a thriving and vibrant city. RISD is currently showing a retrospective of Todd Oldham’s 1990s work in its museum, and I had forgotten how important and prolific Oldham’s fashion career was before he transitioned to home design (the exhibit runs through Sept. 11).
The city smartly gives its arts scene a bear hug with events such as the PVDFest, a four-day festival (taking place June 2-5 this year) which includes bands, art installations, a parade, a block party, and Dutch street theater. During my trip, a city merchant’s association held an outdoor Cinco de Mayo festival. The weather was dreary, but there were long lines at the food trucks. Passing through the Cinco de Mayo fiesta were ladies with giant hats and men dressed like members of a gay Dixieland band headed to Kentucky Derby parties at downtown — sorry, Downcity — bars and restaurants.
I skipped food trucks and more powdered donuts for dinner at a buzzy place called Birch. The restaurant had just 18 seats at a U-shaped bar. Dinner was a spectacular bargain at $49 for four courses prepared by chef Benjamin Sukle. Every four course meal deserves a digestif, and I took mine in the form of the $7 pirate’s punch at a watering hole called the Eddy. And for research purposes, I followed that up with a trough-size glass of prosecco at the Dorrance. The Dorrance is the most elegant bank-turned-restaurant and bar I’d ever seen. It was distracting that the lead singer of the band entertaining the crowd was reading the lyrics to Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” off his phone as he was performing the song, but the crowd didn’t seem to notice.
I knew that getting to all of Providence’s renowned restaurants would be a challenge over a single weekend. It’s a burgeoning culinary capital. The task was made even more difficult when I went to breakfast and ate more than my weight in morning rolls and breakfast sandwiches at Ellie’s Bakery. I walked around Downcity hoping that an accumulation of steps on my Fitbit would make me feel slightly less slovenly. The area is filled with unique stores such as the clothing boutique Clover and an indie gift shop called Craftland. There are some great stores on Westminster Street, but there are still plenty of empty store fronts in the vicinity.
Not to sound like a gloomy Gustave, but there were also more empty retail spaces than I expected in the Arcade, which is the much-ballyhooed historic mall that received an overhaul and houses the micro-lofts.
Please don’t take these observations personally, Providence. The Arcade may have a few vacant spots, but it also has Carmen & Ginger, a vintage store where I could have spent an entire afternoon looking at old cameras, tie clips, and retro housewares. Providence has so many thrift stores that its visitor’s bureau published a map of them.
I’d heard such good things about the 40-acre Roger Williams Park Zoo that I decided to take a break from walking on Thayer Street to see the elephants and eagles. I was impressed, although I was a bit frightened by the large tribe of goats. Still, any zoo with pronghorns and cheetahs scores high marks in my tattered book.
I made a trip to the must-not-miss North, a restaurant off Federal Hill favored by gourmands because one of its cooks is an alumnus of Momofuku and the restaurant isn’t afraid of using daring ingredients. It doesn’t take reservations, but people patiently wait. It was delicious, and the food was visually stunning. I began wondering why that ill-fated promotional video for the state of Rhode Island needed to include a clip of a kid skateboarding in Iceland when I saw plenty of interesting things everywhere I went.
Another dinner led to another round of post-dinner cocktails, which inevitably led to a round of deep thoughts on the walk back to my hotel. “Is Providence the coolest city in the country?” I pondered to myself.
I didn’t need to ponder too hard. According to a very short-lived marketing slogan from earlier this year, Rhode Island was “cooler and warmer.” I’m not sure what that means. Lukewarm? Room temperature? Providence, by association, is also cooler and warmer. It’s admitting that it’s not the coolest city, just cooler, and, um, warmer. Problem solved.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions when you visit. What I can report with authority, however, is that it’s not a bad place to spend a weekend.