Al Forno and Gracie's and the restaurants of Federal Hill are what Boston folks are most familiar with; they're establishments. But there's a more casual, DIY side to Providence dining, as befits a city that's home to both RISD and Johnson & Wales. Here there are coffee shop hangouts brewing house-roasted beans, mellow bars serving cheap cocktails and great food, and offbeat restaurants from Taqueria Pacifica - a Tex-Mex cafe in an art gallery/performance space - to Julian's, which feels more punk rock than space opera, despite serving omelets called "Jedi Mind Trick" and "Sith Lord" to hungover hipsters. Providence has a long list of these smaller, eclectic places where people of all kinds come together and eat, in a spirit rather more relaxed than Boston's. And new restaurants keep opening all the time.
Two such places have become neighborhood institutions. On the West Side, Nicks on Broadway began five years ago as a minuscule diner with vinyl booths, a few wobbly stools at a counter, and a dedication to fresh, local ingredients. Behind the counter was a team of short order cooks with decidedly non-short order sensibilities: short order chefs. Johnson & Wales grad Derek Wagner opened the place when he was 24. Nicks - Wagner kept the name of the original diner - served breakfast and lunch, and both were phenomenal: fluffy pancakes topped with fruit compotes, egg wraps and tofu scrambles, duck sandwiches served on butter-soaked brioche.
Last fall, Nicks moved to a new space a few blocks away (still on Broadway) and around New Year's started serving dinner four nights a week. The bigger digs aren't quite as charming, but they are spiffy - red walls, lots of stainless steel - and they must be a lot easier to cook in. About a third of the restaurant is taken up by an open kitchen; seated at the counter fronting it, you can watch the team cook and hear them shout instructions in kitchen-ese. The spirit of the old space remains.
Happily, during the day, so do the pancakes and sandwiches. At night, what you get changes slightly depending on what's fresh. This time of year, soup means ingredients such as sweet potato and squash; on a recent evening, two earnest women make a supper out of bowlfuls while lamenting the state of health care and education. As I eat the autumnal puree - spiked with cheddar for an addictive richness - all I'm thinking is "Soup, mmm." No spoonful left behind.
In a warm salad of maple-glazed shrimp, the maple flavor is subtle and doesn't overwhelm the shellfish; wilted spinach, bacon, and cauliflower offset its sweetness. A few nights earlier, this warm salad took the form of spicy shrimp with watercress and Asian flavors. Grilled duck comes with mushroom and bell pepper succotash one night, roasted pumpkin polenta and apple jus another. Nicks serves the filet mignon of the duck world. The meat is boneless, not fatty or chewy, just tender, rosy slabs.
The kitchen can be off: Scallops on one visit are a bit overcooked; lemon pudding is grainy. (Pears poached in red wine and gently spiced are a better way to end the meal.) The service can be off, too: There's the occasional long wait for something that should come up quickly; one time the host disappears in the middle of seating us. And I would really love to see a more interesting wine list. But these are acceptable tradeoffs for the up-close view of a hardworking chef making a go of it.
Across town in Wayland Square, La Laiterie is another local favorite. Husband-and-wife team Matt and Kate Jennings opened the restaurant last year next to their cheese shop, Farmstead. (They met working at Formaggio.) Where the design at Nicks is industrial-chic, La Laiterie's is cozy: low lighting, lots of wood, a corner bar, and a chalkboard on the wall. The bistro showcases Farmstead's products, on their own in cheese plates and incorporated into the likes of grilled corn with harissa aioli and Idiazabal, grilled cheese, and cheesemonger's mac 'n' cheese. That macaroni was singled out last month in a Bon Appetit feature on small restaurants; it's too creamy and not zippy enough for my tastes, but fans of the ultra-rich will swoon. The grilled cheese, on the other hand, is just right - cheese and fruit (teleme and pear were featured recently), optional bacon, and arugula, served with excellent polenta fries.
There's plenty here for the lactose-intolerant, too, from charcuterie platters of house-cured meats to steak, pork chops, and "pan-seared sustainable fish of the day." As at Nicks, accompaniments revolve around proteins depending on what's in season. You can watch summer turn to fall on your fish - gone last month's cherry tomato, citrus, and haricots verts succotash, replaced by cipollini onions, mushroom ragout, and pommes puree.
And as at Nicks, there can be a looseness to the service. When the mac 'n' cheese fails to show up one night, we inquire. "Oh," our waitress says. "I totally spaced it. Do you still want it?" We do, though our entrees are already on the table. La Laiterie's burger is topped with sweet-spicy peppadew jam and a choice among several good cheeses, but our medium-rare order is raw in the middle. Our waitress's reply when we point it out: "Yeah, the guys in the kitchen do that. Next time just send it back."
If dining is theater as well as sustenance, La Laiterie occasionally breaks the fourth wall: Fully in character, a server should apologize for such slips or comp something, but here we're all just people interested in good food. La Laiterie has a passion for local ingredients, a wine list composed of low-priced, interesting choices, a fantastic beer selection, and the art-school-meets-gourmet sensibility - simultaneously down-to-earth and cool - that's characteristically Providence.
Devra First can be reached at email@example.com.