WARREN, R.I. — On a crisp afternoon, my daughter and I stopped by a friend’s furniture studio housed in a cavernous mill. Our girls raced among rows of Shaker-style chairs awaiting finishes in colors called kelp and Brittany blue. From there, we strolled to a stylish restaurant, where a waitress shucked oysters outside as a guitarist riffed on the corner. The 5-year-olds twirled and picked flowers then recharged with housemade ice cream. The adults sipped sparkling wine and nibbled chocolate cookies sprinkled with sea salt.
So goes life in Warren, R.I. Never heard of it? That’s not surprising. Since I moved to the country’s smallest state from Paris, travel writers have been busy covering Providence, naming it both the best and the coolest. But for my money and time, I’d head to this tiny town of 10,000 on the East Bay that attracts artists and artisans and their supporters. Galleries, shops, and theaters dot the historic district, while redevelopment of the old American Tourister factory promises new possibilities.
Already, the options for sophisticated dining and drinking are multiplying. “Someone described Warren as ‘the Brooklyn of Providence,’ and I was like ‘Wait,’ ” laughs Katie O’Donnell, who owns Bywater with her husband, Brian. “It’s grown so organically. People pick up on the authenticity.” Burgeoning businesses — including those highlighted here — are breathing life into empty buildings against a backdrop of boatyards and farms. In this way, it feels happening without seeming overly hip.
Hope & Main (Hope & Main, 691 Main St., Warren, 401-245-7400, makefoodyourbusiness.org)
“It’s this town on the verge,” explains Lisa Raiola, founder and president of Hope & Main, a culinary incubator that has launched the likes of Tom’s BaoBao. Hence, her decision to open her nonprofit in a 100-year-old schoolhouse in Warren. “We feel like this place was ripe for an idea like that. It speaks to the character of the town.” Chat with member companies at the monthly “Meet Your Maker” market, attend a special event like “Taste of the East Bay,” or just ask for an informal tour.
Nick Haus (Nick Haus, 51 Broad St., Warren, 401-903-2005, www.nickhaus.com)
Designer Nick Haus had his eye on Warren for three years before nabbing the two-building property where he resides with his husband and runs his eponymous shop of art, antiques, and vintage goods. “It’s an outlet for my obsessive collecting,” jokes Haus, who also operates online. “I always wanted a brick-and-mortar location. I wanted there to be a visceral connection to everything.” Customers can freely handle the American craft pottery and a gouache by Eugene McCarthy in the 170-square-foot room.
O&G Studio (O&G Studio, 30 Cutler St., Suite 220, Warren, 520-247-1820, oandgstudio.com)
O&G Studio makes old new again, allowing traditional craft to remain relevant through design, says Sara Ossana, who founded the studio with Jonathan Glatt. Their heirloom-quality furniture, featuring domestic hardwoods, has appeared in “Elle Decor,” “House Beautiful” and “Vogue,” among other publications. “There’s such a rich history of making here,” Ossana adds. “Our glass guy is a block away. Our metal guy is a block away. A far trip is to Providence.”
Water Street Bar at the Peg (Water Street Bar at the Peg, 51 Miller St., Warren, 401-215-3831, thesquarepegwarren.com)
“We were getting kind of squishy in there,” explains Amy Cary, who owns The Square Peg restaurant with her husband, Joel. Their offshoot — Water Street Bar — extends the party to a standing-only space outfitted in subway tile and exposed brick. The cozy crowd is kept entertained eating free popcorn and drinking the house lager. After a pint, head to Jack’s Bar for a bag of cheese curls and a Fisherman’s. I consider it a form of hipster offsetting.
Bywater (Bywater, 54 State St., Warren, 401-694-0727, bywaterrestaurant.com).
“It was very location-based,” O’Donnell says about opening Bywater with Brian, following jobs in fine dining. “We loved the building.” Serving coastal cuisine, their 32-seat restaurant quickly earned a loyal clientele thanks to its locavore approach and magazine-worthy interior. The menu contains classics like smoked trout paté and surprises like steamed mussels with lager and kimchi. Try them with the daily shrub cocktail or the wine on tap.
Galactic Theatre at Podsnappery (Galactic Theatre at the Podsnappery, 508 Main St., Warren, 401-310-0569, podsnapperyri.com)
“I was like, ‘This is cool, but what’s next?’” musician David Podsnap recalls thinking of his vintage shop. Soon after, he moved his merchandise down the street, and the Galactic Theatre was born. About 50 people can squeeze into the space, catching cult films and acoustic acts. With no cover charge, it’s a pass-the-hat kind of place. Podsnap compares it to a house show, adding, “That’s the kind of vibe we have. We feel at home. And we’re good friends.”
Or about to be. When I arrived there on a recent night with a group to hear a country-rock singer, two guys recognized us from Jack’s and introduced themselves. As it happened, my friend knew one of them by his artwork at a nearby collaborative.
“Warren isn’t following a trend,” Ossana observes. “It’s just people doing what they love.” That includes the folks behind Chomp, Eli’s Kitchen, Imago Gallery, 2nd Story Theatre, Tusk N Trunk and more. They’re my definition of cool. Providence can be best, but Warren is where it’s at.