The cheese wall at Farmstead in Wayland Square
Talking to the owners of Farmstead and Flan y Ajo Tapas Bar about bringing the Downcity area to life is like a study in generation gap.
When explaining why Farmstead is closing its Westminster Street sandwich shop July 2 after three years, owner Matt Jennings, 35, sounds weary of the revitalization game. "I just don't think downtown Providence is there yet, you know?"
But for Diego Luis Perez, 23, and Siobhan Maria Chavarria, 22, who will open a permanent home for their tapas business in Farmstead's to-be-vacated Westminster storefront in August, Downcity is full of possibilities.
Perez is confident that if more 20-somethings take the initiative to open businesses downtown, "it can be a total destination." The pair speaks of owning a community kitchen and eliminating the open-container law so diners can picnic in parks during the warmer months.
Jennings, who calls Perez and Chavarria "great kids," has a more tempered take on downtown. The area needs grocery stores, he says, and dry cleaners — "essential elements of a commerce center that will create a livable space."
But maybe Perez and Chavarria's enthusiasm is just what this property needs. After all, the Westminster Street lunch scene doesn't have it easy.
Restaurateurs blame limited parking, high rents, and customers who hesitate to venture to unfamiliar places. The word "parochial" comes up a lot when describing local shoppers.
Farmstead has found a loyal following willing to cram in its tiny storefront for sandwiches with corned beef tongue, or cilantro aioli, or harissa, but the owners are unsure if these customers will trek to their Wayland Square location after this weekend.
"Only in Providence can a phrase like 'all the way on the East Side' sound like you're walking the Appalachian Trial," says Tom Perry, manager and senior cheesemonger at Farmstead.
The Westminster lunch places stick together. Each eatery fills a niche, from sushi at Sura to the salad bar at Gourmet Heaven.
So when Farmstead Downcity announced its upcoming closing, the news hit the other businesses in the street like a family member announcing a long-distance move.
"Every business on this street, if you take out any one of them, everything changes," says head waiter Matea Mancia of the Roots Café.
Jennings and his co-owner and wife Kate, 34, are scaling back to focus on the Wayland Square shop and raise their toddler.
"If they stayed, that would be ideal," says Small Point Café's Brian Barbieri wistfully.
But if Farmstead is like a beloved son moving out of the family home, the storefront's new tenant will be the newborn baby, entering the neighborhood with piquillo peppers and (hopefully) sidewalk seating.
The space will focus more on social eating than other restaurants in the area, they say, with patrons standing at the bar to munch on small plates of potato omelets, cured meats or olives before heading back to work, home for dinner, or to the theater.
"It's going to be really quick, and it's going to be nothing like fast food," Chavarria says. Despite the word "bar" in the name, Flan y Ajo will not serve alcohol, but customers can bring wine for Chavarria and Perez to turn into sangría.