PROVIDENCE -- It has become increasingly commonplace for Bostonians to make the hourlong drive down to Providence just to eat, and every week, it seems, there are more reasons to make the pilgrimage. From meals prepared by student chefs at Johnson & Wales University to gourmet chocolatiers and diners-turned-dinner-spots, the ''Renaissance City" continues to reinvent fresh, good cooking. And that's what keeps its culinary scene on the map.
In the past two decades, the downtown has been rejuvenated and reshaped. Public works projects have rerouted rivers and moved railroad tracks underground. Plans to revive the waterfront have resulted in WaterPlace Park and the Providence Riverwalk. ''When my husband and I moved here 18 years ago, everything was really different, with no real downtown to speak of -- but it still felt like a city on the verge," said Nancy Lloyd, a Providence resident who's involved in education and the arts.
A diner with a gourmet touch. Page E5
Nowadays, strolling in Providence is a pleasant proposition, and when springtime hits, you can easily bike or walk through its neighborhoods and sample the distinct flavors of each.
Downcity is home to such historic buildings as the Providence Biltmore. Opened in 1922, it's the city's oldest and grandest hotel, with 291 rooms, period photos and postcards on the wall, and a new 5,500-square-foot Elizabeth Arden Red Door Spa.
With recent improvements and additions, including art installation video screens behind the front desk and a convenient lobby monitor that shows real-time flight information from T.F. Green International Airport, the hotel is no boring grande dame. In the lobby you'll find the latest outpost of McCormick & Schmick's Seafood Restaurants (the company was cofounded by Bill McCormick, who once parked cars for the venerable hotel). Happy hour is a hopping time at the bar, when oysters and a few other items go for $1.95 apiece.
Providence being an artsy place, dinner is often accompanied by a show, and the place to see one is the Trinity Repertory Company, an award-winning theater company in its 41st season. It's the largest arts organization in Rhode Island and performs in the Lederer Theater, once the historic 1917 Emery Majestic, its carved terra cotta Italianate facade beautifully preserved. Recent performances include Anton Chekhov's ''The Seagull," Suzan-Lori Parks's ''Topdog/Underdog," and Charles Strouse's ''You Never Know."
Rent a bike from Providence Bicycle and explore the arts and cafe culture that pervades this college town. Across the river, by Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, is the RISD Museum. It houses a small but admirably comprehensive collection of 80,000 works, including ancient Greek sculpture, Peruvian textiles from AD 300, lily-pad bowls and blown shot glasses by Louis Comfort Tiffany, and hot-pink cow wallpaper designed by Andy Warhol in 1966.
A changing exhibition schedule reinforces the museum's commitment to a wide spectrum of artistic periods. Upcoming shows will feature a loan exhibit on Edgar Degas, the annual graduate student exhibition, and a futuristic mural of a flooded Brooklyn waterfront circa 5004, as envisioned by contemporary painter Alexis Rockman.
Looking for a spot to rest? Have a coffee at the RISD Cafe and browse through its adjoining bookstore. If you're still feeling energetic, pedal up Hope Street to Garrison Confections, where you can sample a line of artisanal treats by award-winning chocolatier Andrew Garrison Shotts; his chocolates feature surprising flavors, such as ginger caramel and strawberry balsamic.
Across the street is Seven Stars Bakery, where the RISD Cafe gets its breads and pastries each morning: durum rounds, chocolate croissants with dark Belgian chocolate, pumpkin-walnut muffins. With a large, light-filled space and outdoor seating, it's a popular neighborhood hangout.
The charmingly winding streets around RISD and Brown may be peppered with tea shops and sweet bakery spots, but don't forget the Providence school that's dedicated to food, Johnson & Wales University, with its highly-regarded Culinary Archives and Museum.
It's a few miles south of downtown, but foodies will love the fascinating esoterica on display. With more than a half-million artifacts in its collection, spanning five millennia -- spoons from ancient Egypt and China, 16th-century cookbooks, a 1926 diner car, tools from Julia Child's kitchen -- it's recognized as the premier food history museum.
For an inside look at the culinary and hospitality world, head for the Johnson & Wales Inn in Seekonk, Mass., 6 miles southeast of Providence. At this student training ground, you can try excellent New American fare at the restaurant, Audrey's, run by student chefs.
Of recent prominence in Providence's culinary history is Federal Hill, the city's Little Italy. You can hit some lemons while hunting for authentic Italian fare, but if you do a little careful research, you will avoid the tourist traps and come across beautifully prepared antipasti and made-to-order seafood dishes. Mediterraneo is among the trendiest spots, with a Latin nightclub upstairs providing salsa on weekends.
But don't let the flash distract you from the food: imported Parma prosciutto, delicately fried baby calamari, caprese salad with grape tomatoes and aged balsamic, and native littleneck clams sautéed in olive oil, wine, plum tomatoes, and garlic. In warm weather, open French doors and sidewalk tables allow customers to enjoy meals al fresco.
Along the same cobblestone street is Cassarino's. For many, it's the first and only Italian restaurant in Providence. Old-world, dimly lit, and offering Northern Italian cooking at affordable prices, this restaurant with the bright red awning is a local landmark and is always crowded. In addition to classics such as perfectly crisped veal parmigiana, Cassarino's offers colorful new Italian takes such as roasted duck with a raspberry glaze and risotto.
Federal Hill's favorite pastry shop, Pastiche, is a 20-year-old institution. Glass display cases are filled with gleaming fresh fruit tarts, coconut angel cakes, orange poppy scones, and mascarpone tortes. With cafe tables and a seasonal patisserie menu, the shop is a little slice of France in Providence. ''It's a cute place to get dessert and treat yourself if you're eating dinner in the neighborhood -- and even when you're not," said Esther Chak, 28, who lives on the West Side.
Old favorites notwithstanding, there's always plenty of young culinary talent here (having a cooking school ensures a steady flow of qualified chefs). In the flourishing West Side and Armory district, produce stands and hole-in-the-wall breakfast joints meet hipster cafes, meticulously restored Victorians, and colorful modern furniture boutiques. Restaurants such as Nicks on Broadway, a diner serving dinner Friday nights; Julian's, also on Broadway; and White Electric Coffee attract the artist population from loft spaces nearby. Their menus are eclectic, fun, and experimental -- just right for the slice of Providence that's shaping up to be its next great neighborhood.
Bonnie Tsui is a California-based writer.