The heart of the city

The new documentary, 'Haven Brothers: Legacy of the American Diner,' celebrates the iconic Providence food truck
By PHILIP EIL  |  June 4, 2014

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AT YOUR SERVICE Owner Sal Giusti. [Photo by Richard McCaffrey]

Haven Brothers Diner will be parked outside the Columbus Theatre on Saturday, June 7 when Jeff Toste’s documentary, Haven Brothers: Legacy of the American Diner, premieres inside.

This is a great idea.

Not only does the truck — which, at various times in the film is called a “fixture,” a “landmaahk,” and “A shining food oasis in a desert of night” — richly deserve the food truck equivalent of a stroll down the red carpet. But the arrangement makes perfect business sense. The 75-minute film has an uncanny way of eliciting cravings for chili fries; hot dogs slathered in onions, relish, and mustard; and Haven Brothers’ world-famous “Triple Murder Burger,” a greasy tower of ground beef, melted cheese, fried egg, bacon, onions, mushrooms, and condiments wedged between two halves of a bun. Once the film ends, there will be a feeding frenzy for the ages.

But the sight of Rhode Island’s favorite late-night chow spot positioned under a theater marquee on Broadway will also be a little weird — a bit like, say, if the Big Blue Bug were to flutter its wings, go airborne, and come to rest on the other side of I-95. One of the key moments in Toste’s film occurs in the mid-1980s, when then-Providence mayor Joseph Paolino, Jr. booted the diner from of its timeworn spot on Fulton Street next to City Hall. Petitions, protests, and angry letters to The Providence Journal followed.

Paolino, interviewed decades later for the film, is both contrite and defiant when discussing this. He acknowledges that evicting the diner was “probably one of the dumbest things I ever did when I was mayor of Providence,” but there was a rationale, he says. “Haven Brothers was attracting a large amount of motorcycle groups and gangs into that area,” he says, “and I thought it was disruptive and . . . a great deal of noise pollution.” The ensuing brouhaha, stoked in part by talk radio hosts and what Paolino describes as “liberal reporters” is proof, the former mayor says, of how political opponents will use “the smallest, dumbest thing” as a weapon against you.

In the end, the diner got the Rhode Island version of a “happily ever after” ending. Paolino invited Haven Brothers back to its parking spot, and proceeded to throw a 100th-anniversary “Champagne and Hot Dogs” gala in its honor. Never mind that the year was 1988 and the diner was founded in 1893. “They figured . . . it was close enough,” Ivan Giusti, son of the diner’s current owner, Sal Giusti, says in the film. “You know how politics is.”

Today, the iconic red script on the diner’s shining metal exterior still reads, “A PROVIDENCE TRADITION — SINCE 1888.”

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"SUFFERING FOR MY ART" Toste.

LIVING HISTORY

Haven Brothers is not America’s first food truck. That distinction, as a recent New York Times Magazine article points out, goes to another street vendor from our capital city. “In 1872, a vendor named Walter Scott cut windows into a small covered wagon and parked it in front of a local newspaper office in Providence, R.I.,” the May 2 article “Who Made That Food Truck?” begins. “Sitting on a box inside, he sold sandwiches with pies and coffee to journalists and pressmen working late.” “You can trace this whole industry to him,” Johnson & Wales Culinary Arts Museum director Richard Gutman told the magazine.

But Haven Brothers was a pioneer in other ways. Despite its masculine name, it was actually founded by an Irish immigrant and mother of six, Anne Haven, with the insurance money left when her husband died. At the time, single women weren’t allowed legal custody of their own kids, let alone the chance to run their own businesses. That is, unless they were widows.

And so, in 1893, an institution was born, serving hot meals at odd hours to, among other customers, workers coming and going from the city’s more than 1500 factories. Booming cities have big appetites. In Haven Brothers, Rhode Island Historical Society executive director C. Morgan Grefe calls the diner a symbol of “in many ways, [the] best economic moment in our history.”

Grefe is one of more than 100 interviewees in the film. Aside from Paolino, there are other ex-politicos. Buddy Cianci recalls late nights working on budgets at City Hall when he would sneak out for beans and burgers. “Haven Brothers is kind of like the original squatter,” he says. “Don’t know how the hell they got permission to be where they are, but no one’s gonna move ’em!” Former Congressman Eddie Beard (US Rep from RI’s 2nd District from 1975-1981), meanwhile, says a trip to the diner was an effective gauge of public opinion. “If you were worth your weight in salt, politically, you’d better make sure you got in there,” he says. “If things were not going good, people let me know.”

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