In Providence, R.I., I saw more monuments dedicated to Roger Williams than to Stewie Griffin. As it should be: The rogue Puritan minister founded the Rhode Island colony in 1636; Stewie is the animated infant with the plummy accent voiced by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design. One established a haven for religious freedom; the other converses with a talking dog named Brian and plots against his mother, Lois. Not the same contribution to society, I know, and yet both man and baby embody the character — and quirks — of Providence.
The Ocean State capital is open-minded and sometimes outrageous. On a recent weekday morning, a three-eyed troll hobnobbed with bus riders at Kennedy Plaza, an ironclad excuse for arriving late to work or a coffee date. The hub of higher learning is also smart and urbane. I could feel my brain cells multiplying while walking around the College Hill campuses of RISD and Brown University. Standing in line for coffee at Brown’s campus center, I started to question the wisdom of choosing that other college town to the north.
Providence is one of the oldest cities in the country, and I grew accustomed to seeing historical plaques announcing a structure’s birth year and tripping on sidewalks buckling under centuries of soles. But I also heard plenty about the future, including Plant City, a veg-centric food hall set to open next month, and a new pedestrian bridge that will connect the shores of the Providence River. Unfortunately, after three days on the ground, I never found a Stewie statue. However, I did learn that the Providence Athenaeum has a children’s reading room and allows dogs and talking inside the 188-year-old library. Perhaps someday I will meet a real-life Stewie and Brian among the hallowed stacks. In Providence, that wouldn’t be at all weird.
Big Nazo Lab (bignazo.com, 401-831-9652): Rub your eyes all you want, but that giant troll bouncing around Kennedy Plaza, 250 Westminster St., is not a hallucination. Last month, Big Nazo Lab, a 30-year-old performance troupe populated by fantastical puppets, expanded with a new location inside the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus terminal. The Space Transformation Station, which sits adjacent to the ticket window, is an open-door studio and gallery where visitors can watch the creative process and meet the finished product, such as Cornea, who was awaiting repairs for damage caused by rain and grabby children, and the Robo-Monkeys, who appear at electronic dance festivals on stilts. Founder and director Erminio Pinque has also filled a window display facing Washington Street with his menagerie of misfit mutants and dispatches the characters several times a week to mingle with the downtown crowd. “Public spaces should have public art happenings,” Pinque said as Bluebee Troll swooshed its cratered face against the glass pane. In the upcoming year, Pinque plans to establish Space Transformation Stations in three nearby towns, adding more constellations to his Big Nazo universe.
Columbus Theatre (columbustheatre.com, 401-621-9660): Columbus Theatre, one of the city’s top cultural venues, has a colorful history, including a period with several shades of gray. The theater opened in 1926 and was modeled after an 1880s Italian opera house. Nearly a century later, chubby cherubs still float in a domed ceiling and 36 composers stare out from scarlet walls. Over the years, a steady stream of entertainment has marched down the red-carpeted aisles, including vaudeville acts, silent and European art films, opera and, in the 1960s, adult flicks. The theater found its groove in 2012, when a collective of musicians called the Columbus Cooperative took over programming. The Columbus hosts about 10 shows a month on its two stages (800 seats downstairs, 200 upstairs), showcasing national and local bands and comedians who sometimes test out new material on the audience. Insider tip: Mike Birbiglia’s brother lives in Providence, and the funny man mixes business with family visits.
Roger Williams Park, 1000 Elmwood Ave. (rwpconservancy.org, 401-680-7219): Roger Williams Park is a people pleaser; its nickname is the People’s Park, after all. The 435-acre green — and sometimes petal pink — space contains the country’s third-oldest zoo, which unveiled a rain forest exhibit in December; a natural-history museum and planetarium; a botanical center; rose and Japanese gardens; and several historical buildings, including the recently restored Betsey Williams Cottage. In 1871, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Roger Williams donated her 102-acre farm to the city for public use. If the weather is too nice for indoor activities, cruise around in one of the swan and pirate boats or walk along footpaths lining ponds rippling with wildlife. On the one-mile Bluff-to-Bluff Trail, I shadowed a beaver swimming in Polo Lake until I ditched the rodent for a plastic horse at Carousel Village. (Rides on real ponies are also available.) On Fridays from April through September, more than 15 food trucks gather in the park to, yes, serve the people.
Providence Athenaeum, 251 Benefit St. (providenceathenaeum.org, 401-421-6970): The Providence Athenaeum is thick with stories, and not just on the written page. Edgar Allan Poe courted poet Sarah Helen Whitman here. His Lothario move: signing an anonymous poem she admired. H.P. Lovecraft, who lived up the hill, was a common fixture inside the 19th-century Greek Revival building, and his legacy endures in its collection of his stories and letters, as well as the very normal-looking bronze bust of the weird fiction writer. The institution, which predates public libraries, is one of only 16 membership libraries remaining in the country. But you don’t need an Athenaeum card to take a self-guided tour (grab a brochure at the circulation desk); attend an exhibit (“Providence Unveiled: Stories from the Archives” opens on June 3); catch a special event, such as an author reading or puppet show; or hunker down with a good book (choose from about 180,000 volumes). Visitors sometimes leave behind poems in the desk drawers. One read, “True love will find you in the end.” Considering Poe’s way with the heart, he was probably not its secret scribe.
Frog and Toad, 795 Hope St., www.frogandtoadstore.com, 401-831-3434
Torn between Frog and Toad’s two locations? Well, if this helps any, the East Side spot has been cramming homes with creative kitsch for 18 years. The West End store, which opened last fall, has more urban gardening supplies and local art prints than its sister shop. You can also hop between both; the two stores are less than four miles apart. For Frog and Toad originals, look for cards, prints, patches, stickers, buttons and pencils designed by the company’s own studio. Sample birthday card: “You’re Old. But Like, Cool Old” beneath a drawing of R.I. painter Gilbert Stuart in sunglasses. Sample pencil inscription: O.B.D.’s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya Shimmy Yam Shimmy Yay.” Wares without the Frog and Toad imprimatur but with its subversive style include wooden magnets featuring the faces of Justin Bieber, Beyoncé and Ryan Gosling, and prayer candles of Saint Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Saint Oprah and Saint Robert Mueller. Rhode Island rah-rahism is also on full display. “My other ride is a Quahog,” reads a bumper sticker that any lemon would love.
Stock Culinary Goods, 756 Hope St., stockculinarygoods.com, 401-521-0101
You don’t need a degree from Johnson and Wales University or a chef’s toque to shop at Stock Culinary Goods, a store with everything for the kitchen but the sink. “We are a neighborhood cooking center for home chefs,” said owner Jan Faust Dane. “We want to be accessible to as many people as possible.” Of course, established chefs pick up supplies here, too, as the Wall of Fame polaroids can attest. Dane carries many well-known brands, such as Le Creuset and Mason & Cash, as well as cooking commodities, including whisks, cake pans and cookie cutters in A-to-Z designs. (For L: “lobstah.”) She also clears significant shelf space for local products, such as the cast bronze horseshoe crab bottle openers by Matt Hall, whale-shape cutting boards by Andiamo Woodworking, coffee milk-scented candles from Aster Candle and ceramic mugs with mugs by Anna Highsmith. (Match the vessel’s facial expression with your pre-caffeinated mood.) If all of this food prep is making you hungry, pick up some potable eats, such as Anchor’s almond butter toffee or Jacobsen’s salted chocolate caramels washed down with a Nitro Cart cold-brewed coffee or LuLuna’s flavored kombucha on tap.
Arcade Providence, 65 Weybosset St., arcadeprovidence.com, 401 454-4568
Arcade Providence isn’t just any mall; it’s the oldest indoor mall in the country, predating Orange Julius by nearly a century. Built in 1828, the National Historic Landmark has assorted shops and restaurants on the ground floor and lofts on the upper two levels. The arcade focuses on independent retailers with local roots. The Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Council, a nonprofit group specializing in weird fiction, runs a store devoted to Lovecraft and writers inspired by his works. In addition to books and anthologies, the retailer also sells resin figurines and drawings of Cthulhu, plus accessories (tote bags, tarot cards, skulls) suitable for NecronomiCon (held Aug. 20-23 this year). Carmen & Ginger, one of several vintage stores in the mall, focuses on men’s and women’s clothing, toys and housewares from the 1930s through the ‘70s. Owner Christine Francis, who could lead a master class on costume jewelry history, carries spectacular pieces by now-defunct Rhode Island jewelry makers, Trifari and Coro. If you thought costume jewelry was cheap, you thought wrong.
Craftland, 212 Westminster St., shop.craftlandshop.com, 401-272-4285
”Providence has a rich vein of creative weirdos,” said Andrew Roidoulis, who works at Craftland and sells his pieces here. “We are celebrating the idiosyncratic nature of handmade crafts.” The retail shop grew from a holiday pop-up to a year-round retail store carrying about 130 artists, many hailing from the area. Owner Margaret Carleton, for one, transforms melted Mardi Gras beads into lamps, night lights, pins and rings. She is also a beekeeper, though she uses soy for her candle line, the Night Gardener. (Scents include lemon poundcake and whiskey vanilla.) Paul Davis frames classic images of Rhode Island — Del’s lemonade, Newport Creamery’s Awful Awful milkshake — in photo developing trays. Roidoulis, whose family printed T-shirts for such bands as the Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin, weaves tie-dye scraps into wall hangings using the Scandinavian rya technique. There is a veritable petting zoo of cute and cuddly animals, which appear on jewelry, hair clips, wallets, mobiles and even gauges for knitting needles. However, several pieces may require a PhD to wear, such as the bracelets made with a 3D printer, and necklaces and rings by the Massachusetts design company Nervous System. You might have also seen their 3D organs on the May cover of Science magazine.
Dean Hotel, 122 Fountain St., thedeanhotel.com, 401-455-3326
A quote on an exterior wall of the Dean Hotel states, “For a long time, I went to bed early.” The Proust line from “Swann’s Way” applies only to guests who stayed up the previous night belting out sake-soaked tunes in the hotel’s karaoke bar, the Boombox; downing drinks at the Magdalenae Room; dining at North, which serves dinner till midnight; or all of the above. The hotel’s earlier incarnation also spurned sleep: Before the new owners took over seven years ago, the former church boardinghouse was a strip club with book-by-the-hour rooms. Today, the 44 rooms and eight suites are booked by the night and come furnished with steel bed frames made at the Steel Yard, an industrial arts center in Providence, and elephant-carved nightstands by Will Reeves, a RISD instructor. Antique pieces such as pommel horses and a 17th-century velvet chair from the Netherlands happily coexist with contemporary works, such as the neon “FINE” sign illuminating the lobby. A red rotary phone hangs near the bathrooms, which are covered in vintage fashion sketches. If it rings, answer it. According to the message above: “It’s for you.”
Hotel Providence, 139 Mathewson St., hotelprovidence.com, 401-861-8000
At first glance, Hotel Providence feels like the home of your great aunt — the one who married well, shopped extravagantly and divorced strategically. The decor is elegant and tasteful, as it should be: The collection comes from Stanley Weiss, an international art and antiques dealer who returned the hotel to its original splendor in 2005. (The property opened as the Westminster Hotel in 1882, became the Hotel Blackstone in 1913 and ceased operations in 1976.) In the lobby, a pair of notebooks offers a self-guided tour of the artwork on the ground level and second floor. Pieces include a dashing horse carved out of a single block of jade, an art nouveau lamp perched on the original wood staircase and a portrait of a female art dealer whose eyes watch guests take multiple trips to the plate of cookies. The 80 rooms also contain antiques and local art, and the 16 suites celebrate regional authors. If you want absurdist dreams, book the Dr. Seuss room; for nihilistic nightmares, spend the night in the H.P. Lovecraft suite.
Wayland Square (goprovidence.com/neighborhoods/wayland-providence, 401-456-0200): Wayland Square, an upscale neighborhood on the East Side, is small in size but deep in shopping and eating experiences. All but three stores are independently owned, and one of the chains, West Elm, prominently displays Rhode Island-made goods. In the midst of my soap-sniffing investigation — would I rather bathe in Shore Soap Co.’s Mermaid Kisses or Salty Mariner? — an employee proudly informed me that his colleague painted the primordial landscape mural outside. Across the street, Wendy Brown Home specializes in “bed, bath, table linens and everything that goes with them,” said its eponymous owner. “Everything” could mean Liberty of London hankies, French hand cream or faux fruit. “Everyone needs a velvet strawberry,” Brown said. At the Providence Perfume Company, I sidled up to the Custom Perfume Bar and inhaled the essential oils. (No synthetic fragrances allowed.) In addition to the DIY fragrances, perfumer Charna Ethier holds classes and sells her own line of fragrances, such as Vientiane, an olfactory ode to sandalwood. Properly spritzed, I popped into Paper Nautilus to scan the used books and bought za’atar flatbread at L’Artisan Cafe & Bakery. After 5, I hailed an elevator to Mare, the city’s only rooftop restaurant. In the winter, the staff sets up igloos, but in the warm air, all I needed was a couch with a view.
College Hill (goprovidence.com/neighborhoods/college-hill-benefit-street-providence, 401-456-0200): In College Hill, I received a tuition-free education. Walking along Benefit Street, where houses date from colonial times, I learned that Declaration of Independence signer Stephen Hopkins lived here and John Brown (as in Brown University) lived there. The historic neighborhood is home to the Ivy League college and its Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology as well as RISD and its museum, the country’s fourth-largest university art museum. Not bad for the smallest state in the union. RISD Works, the art museum’s store, sells pieces by alumni, but I arrived after closing time, so I could only window shop. (The reason for the delay: I was trying to locate the building with the schooner weather vane that I had spotted from higher ground.) I followed a guide to H.P. Lovecraft sites to a monument inscribed with a quote that eerily foretold my recent quest: “Flooded old fanlights and small window panes, And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes.” The author often visited Prospect Terrace Park, where Roger Williams rests in peace — just as providence had divined.
PVDonuts, 79 Ives St., (pvdonuts.com): Lori and Paul Kettelle felt like orphans in the Land of Dunkin’ before the Johnson and Wales University and RISD graduates, respectively, opened PVDonuts three years ago. The married couple’s Fox Point doughnut shop, which can attract upward of 700 people on a Saturday, offers seven varieties including brioche, old-fashioned, filled and vegan, as well as 25 to 30 flavors that change monthly. One of its most popular and audacious creations is a pileup of Thanksgiving fixings — fried chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes and a gravy drizzle — on a cranberry-glazed brioche doughnut. For Easter and 4/20, the bakers collaborated with a vegan bakery to create a cookie-dough-filled doughnut with a brownie topper. (No animals or plants named Mary Jane were harmed in the baking process.) Several doughnuts have achieved permanent status, such as Cereal Milk (Fruity Pebbles soaked in milk and turned into a glaze) and Coffee Milk, a tribute to the state drink. “Ninety-five percent of the menu is just crazy,” said Paul, before he closed the box lid on a chocolate tahini brownie doughnut, Cadbury creme (marshmallow filling, chocolate glaze), blueberry pie (blueberry jam filling, pie crust topping) and Banoffee (banana creme, toffee).
Nicks on Broadway, 500 Broadway (nicksonbroadway.com, 401-421-0286): The menu at Nicks on Broadway resembles a movie played backward: Diners see the credits — to the farmers, growers and producers — before the main attraction. So, by the time you reach the roasted mushroom and oat fritter or the chicken pate with pickles, hot mustard and chargrilled brioche, you will already be familiar with the RIMushroom Company and Baffoni’s Poultry Farm. Derek Wagner, who took over the nocturnal joint 18 years ago, caters to folks who might not have the work schedule or appetite to eat three square meals a day. The restaurant therefore serves brunch five days a week, during times (8 a.m.-3 p.m.) that more traditional eaters call breakfast and lunch. Four times a week, Nicks offers dinner a la carte or as a four-course, $70 tasting menu. Most of the food is made or butchered in-house, including the breads, pastas, charcuterie and citrus-flavored salts. The cozy interior, which includes an open kitchen, family-style booths and two bars, encourages conversation with strangers. You might chat up a cook from another restaurant, an employee on her day off or Wagner’s dad, who built the tables and counters supporting his son’s food.
Al Forno, 577 S. Water St. (alforno.com, 401-273-9760): Al Forno is more than an Italian restaurant; it’s a love story between two RISD graduates who fell hard for each other, for Italy and for its cuisine. “We wooed each other with the food we loved in Italy,” Johanne Killeen said of her courtship with her late husband, George Germon. In 1980, the pair opened the award-winning dining destination, focusing on Italian — not Italian American — dishes. The menu evokes a travel journal. For example, the appetizer called clams al forno was inspired by their time in Rome, and the fried calamari pizza is a play on the french-fry-topped pizza they saw in Sicily. The restaurant does take a few detours from tradition. For instance, Germon introduced the idea of grilling the pizzas directly over the wood fire, instead of to the side of the heat source. Every dish is made to order: The pastas are boiled to order, the Caesar salad croutons are grilled to order and the ice cream is hand-churned to order. Because of this personalized service, diners are encouraged to order dessert at the same time as their entree. In the spirit of the owners’ romance, try the fruit tart for two with a big smooch of crème anglaise.
Oberlin, 186 Union St., (oberlinrestaurant.com, 401-588-8755): Benjamin Sukle doesn’t toss around fancy culinary terms at his three-year-old restaurant, Oberlin. For instance, instead of “crudo,” the au-courant name for uncooked seafood, he uses “raw.” As in: raw scallops, raw fluke, raw bluefish and raw black back flounder. The accompaniments are equally straightforward, such as sesame and radish for the scallops, soy and parsley for the fluke, and olive oil and lemon for the black bass, John Dory and flounder. “I want to make simple food and use undervalued and underutilized seafood,” said the James Beard Award nominee, who also adheres to a sustainable and locavore ethos. The kitchen also turns out five to six handmade pastas a night, including chitarra cacio e pepe — essentially pasta, cheese and peppercorns. The seasons dictate the menu, so griddled turnips, roasted fingerling potatoes and a winter radish salad will soon make way for asparagus, ramps and rhubarb. The most complicated concept is the restaurant’s name. Most people assume Oberlin refers to the Ohio college, even though Sukle attended JWU. But the chef has an easy explanation: His dad grew up in Oberlin, Pa.