Michael Chandley at Cellar Stories
Before I came to Providence three years ago, my knowledge about the city could have fit in the palm of my hand: it’s small; there’s a big Italian population; and the former mayor — who, for some reason, a lot of people still really like — had gone to prison. Oh yeah, and there was that TV show about the doctor.
I was coming here for college, and it was good enough that Providence had more than a few restaurants and plenty of stores that weren’t Wal-Mart. In other words, it wasn’t out in the boondocks, no matter what New York or LA transplants might say.
After getting here, I didn’t learn much at first. People had told me about some of the city’s better-known attractions, the ones that draw suburbanites and out-of-state tourists, like Federal Hill and WaterFire. I made my parents take me to Al Forno. There were even a few pilgrimages, alongside my short skirts-and-heels-bedecked classmates (sparking complaints about the seemingly far walk from College Hill), to Fish Company. For an embarrassingly long time, Providence Place was as close as I got to Downcity.
But after moving off campus and getting a bicycle, everything changed. Only after doing some exploring on my own two wheels did I happen upon the dilapidated mansions and old mill buildings of the West Side, some now converted into art collectives and community organizations, and figured out the geography of the cosmopolitan center sandwiched between Washington, Empire, and Westminster streets, and the unexpected nightspots of the Jewelry District.
It turned out Providence has a lot to offer — if you know how to look. It’s a quirky little city whose principal charms are quirky and little, and for my money, riding a bike is the best way to find them.
The following is a list of some of my favorite local discoveries, with a general emphasis on the idiosyncratic and the original. No, Providence is not New York or LA, and that makes it much easier for small businesses, artists, and odd little holes-in-the-wall to survive and even flourish here. For all of its new construction projects and its attempts at a broader reputation, the city retains a funky local character that makes it accessible and exciting — with much more to offer than just great Italian food and a river topped by periodic fires.
Most vintage stores are a mess of polyester and paisley, with musty racks upon racks that require a discerning eye and a lot of patience. Not so with ROCKET TO MARS (144 Broadway, Providence, 401.274.0905). The bright, colorful store is stocked with a hand-picked collection of clothes, furniture, and general kitsch that is enough to make the nostalgically inclined shopper go wide-eyed with delight. It’s quite rare to find such a range of mint-condition goodies, from greeting cards and embroidered curtains to full sets of floral tableware. The hand-picked clothing selection is particularly stellar, with some distinctive finds for both women and men.
The EAST BAY BIKE PATH runs 14.5 miles from East Providence to Bristol along a beautiful stretch of Narragansett Bay coastline, providing a pleasant reminder that this is, after all, the Ocean State and there are nicer bodies of water than the Providence River. An ideal escape from city living, the path passes alternately through small-town suburbia and coastal backwoods, hitting Haines Memorial State Park, Colt State Park, and passing by various beaches. Road construction in Providence makes it a bit tricky to reach the starting point, but it’s worth the effort. If you need some extra motivation, the delicious Daily Scoop ice cream shop has two locations along the way: one at the halfway-point in Barrington, and another just past the path’s end in Bristol.
The counter-intuitively titled CELLAR STORIES (111 Mathewson Street, Providence, 401.521.2665, www.cellarstories.com) located downtown — on the second floor — has the biggest collection of used and rare books in the state, stocking everything from pulp classics of the 1950s to treatises on stamp collecting. Fiction is much cheaper here, usually in the $5-$10 range, than at your average book store and you might even find a much-needed textbook in one of Cellar Stories’ academic sections. The store itself offers a kind of wonderful total chaos, with books practically emerging from the floorboards and falling from the ceiling. This is as it should be: alongside high shelves and leather-bound volumes, the musty disarray brings to mind that creepy bookstore from The NeverEnding Story. And if you can’t find the obscure title you’re looking for among the huge selection, the nice salespeople will help you track it down.
CAPTAIN SEAWEED’S (162 Ives Street, Providence) is a Fox Point institution that has it all: nautical-themed décor, an outdoor patio, and the biggest accumulation of mullets — both sincere and ironic — this side of Appalachia, especially on Monday nights when draught beer costs $1. The brew is cheap, the pool table is centrally located, and the TVs are permanently tuned to NESN, so Sox fans don’t have to do their drinking and screaming at the screen in private. If you’re looking for shabby-chic, beware; this place is just plain old shabby. But that’s its charm. Where else can you sip a cold one with some local guys below a life-size hammerhead shark with a hand hanging out of its mouth?
It’s no surprise that one of the best art schools in the country has a superlative museum, with a collection of more than 80,000 works housed in a converted former mansion on Benefit Street. The collection is more notable for its range than for specific finds; ancient art from East and West, European and American decorative arts, from the Middle Ages to the present, and costume and textiles from all over the world accompany the more traditional museum fare of Western painting and sculpture. But what really sets THE RISD MUSEUM (224 Benefit Street, Providence, 401.454.6500, www.risd.edu/museum.cfm) apart from bigger institutions with flashier collections are its quirky and imaginative special exhibitions, like last year’s “Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the present” and Henry Horenstein’s current “Honky-Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981,” running through October 7. Another highlight is the annual faculty show, when some of RISD’s behind-the-scenes talent finally goes on display.
You may want to save MILL’S TAVERN (101 North Main Street, Providence, 401.272.3331) until payday, or until your parents come for a visit. It might break the bank, but it’s worth it. With high mahogany and brick walls, a seasonal menu chock-full of local produce, and free valet service, Mill’s is far from your typical tavern. The interior oozes elegance, and the open kitchen’s wood-burning oven, wood rotisserie, and wood grill cook the inventive, Portuguese-influenced dishes to succulent perfection. The raw bar and fish options are delicious, but this is really a meat-lover’s paradise, serving everything from braised short rib and rabbit stew to prime New York strip. Did I mention the desserts? Do not miss the unbelievable bread pudding made with Portuguese sweet bread.
Bookmark WWW.LOTSOFNOISE.COM, the bible of the underground music scene in Providence, complete with a calendar of shows, listings of local bands and venues, and postings of rare and live recordings in a range of genres, from screamo to found sound and beyond. If it’s loud and/or a little bizarre and 99 percent of the population has never heard of it, it’s here. More than just an online listing, lotsofnoise.com is all about fostering a local community of musicians and music-lovers, with forums for discussion (music-related and otherwise), connecting bands, musicians, and venues, as well as reviews of the latest stuff to hit the international anti-mainstream. If you turn your nose up at the latest acts to come through the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, lotsofnoise.com may have just what you’re looking for.
More than just your average art-house cinema, the CABLE CAR CINEMA & CAFÉ (204 South Main Street, Providence, 401.272.3970, www.cablecarcinema.com) is a veritable institution of cutting-edge film. In addition to showing the latest independent and international pictures to make the rounds, it plays host to various local festivals, including the Rhode Island International Film Festival and Brown’s French Film Festival, as well as to Magic Lantern Cinema, an ongoing experimental film and video series. With couch seating, pre-show live music, and a café that’s vastly superior to the Providence Place food court, the Cable Car is the place to go for discerning local cinephiles.