Iconic Rhode Island

10 Ocean State restaurants with local legacies going back over 50 years – and the foods that put them on the map

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Ever have an Awful Awful? Even if you haven’t, you probably know what it is and where to get it: exclusively at Newport Creamery. Just like if I say Gregg’s, you think of a slice of Death by Chocolate cake. Rhode Island has a long list of signature foods and the restaurants known for creating them. We all have our favorites and it’s all highly personal. So how do we select a Top 10? Well, you find a way to narrow a list verging on 100 with careful curation dictated by a single requirement: It’s a widely recognized restaurant that’s been around for a half-century or more. Might you find your favorite missing from this list? Sure, but for the sake of this article, we’re offering a sampler of our state’s culinary foundation, establishments that have been around for generations – and will be for many more to come. I once read that most Rhode Islanders have never visited Block Island; if that notion applies to this list, many of us have several restaurants and foods to experience, so let the culinary adventures begin!

 

Aunt Carrie’s • Est. 1920

Legend has it that when Carrie Cooper added clams to her corn fritters, the clam cake was born. This establishment by the sea has been serving up hand-held favorites on a seasonal schedule for 102 years. Amy Foy is one of two owners, each a great granddaughter of founders Carrie and Ulysses Cooper, and credits much of the success and longevity of Aunt Carrie’s, honored as one of America’s Classics by the James Beard Foundation, to keeping things the same. “We’ve made a real effort to stay true to our roots. Our restaurant has been a summer tradition for families for several generations. When they visit with us, we hope it evokes a warm familiarity and happy memories.” Foy also cites her employees of mostly high school and college students for keeping things afloat, especially during last year’s “Pandemic Summer”: “It can’t be said enough, our young staff made it all possible.” Foy states the most popular items are clam cakes and chowder, lobster BLTs, and homemade cinnamon raisin bread but is quick to add, “You can’t visit Rhode Island without trying our clam cakes, lobster roll, and Indian pudding.” 1239 Ocean Road, Narragansett

 

The Black Pearl • Est. 1967

Is there anything more Ocean State than a restaurant being named for a yacht? That’s just what Barclay Harding Warburton III did when he founded this City by the Sea gem. No matter if you choose to dine inside at the cozy, tavern-like Commodore’s Room or outside at the always-lively Waterside Patio and Raw Bar, there’s one dish – or cup or bowl, actually – that you must try and that’s the world famous chowder. Black Pearl Clam Chowder is the restaurant’s version of New England-style and each hot serving is creamy and full of tender clams, but a big part of its allure is the inclusion of dill. National publications including Forbes, Vogue, and Travel & Leisure have all saluted the soup’s charms. A condensed version is available for purchase in 15- and 51-ounce cans so that you can get “your Pearl fix” from anywhere. Pro-tip: If you’re buying it in the can, also pick up some Westminster Bakers oyster crackers. 30 Bannister’s Wharf, Newport

 

Caserta Pizzeria • Est. 1953

When most people talk about grabbing a slice on Federal Hill, the name Caserta’s slips right off the tongue and rightly so: The casual spot has been around for nearly 70 years and like many on this list of Rhody’s culinary old-timers, they’ve kept their menu simple and unchanged. Looking for mozzarella with fennel on a garden herb gluten-free crust? Forget about it! But you will find standard toppings like anchovies, pepperoni, olives, and mushrooms, with one sauce selection – and that’s tomato. Pies aside, Caserta bills itself as the Originator of the Wimpy Skippy, a spinach pie stuffed with black olives, cheese, and pepperoni, which has garnered attention from national outlets like USA Today. There’s also the Pepper Pig, where sweet Italian sausage, green bell peppers, tomato sauce, and grated Romano cheese are rolled in dough, and the similar Pig in a Blanket, which skips the peppers. Even if you dine in, get a pizza to-go for the classic red and white cardboard box – it’s chef’s kiss – delizioso! 121 Spruce Street, Providence

 

Chelo’s Hometown Bar & Grille • Est. 1955

Going out for dinner with a group can be a challenge due to everything from logistics to picky eaters, but for decades locals have turned to Chelo’s Hometown Bar & Grille (bonus points for ample parking lots and family-friendly service). Chelo’s maintains a standard menu of appetizers, entrees, and desserts, and introduces an additional full menu each season, including fun cocktails (Molten Cocoa Mudslide!). Consistency is key and all food is prepared daily in their Warwick commissary and then delivered to each of their eight locations. Owner/operator Zach Chelo shares that the restaurant was started by four brothers, his grandfather among them, all now retired “other than Benny, who can still be found repairing equipment from store to store at age 99.” Chelo believes that the business owes its longevity to its fish and chips, clam cakes and chowder, famous burgers, and staff. “We owe most of our success as a company to our loyal employees that have helped make Chelo’s the integral part of the community it is today.” Multiple locations

 

Coast Guard House • Est. 1946

When it comes to experiencing the history, scenery, and flavors of the Ocean State, the Coast Guard House delivers. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the original structure was built in 1888 by what is now the US Coast Guard; its architects were McKim, Mead & White who also designed the State House. In 1946 it was converted into a seasonal restaurant and 30 years later opened year-round. In 2012 a hurricane destroyed the dining room and kitchen; closed for nearly two years, it reopened with “a total rejuvenation, courtesy of Superstorm Sandy.” Whether patrons dine outside or in, the views of the Narragansett shoreline are postcard-perfect. In addition to delicious surf and turf, the CGH menu has uniquely regional offerings like a spinach salad with locally harvested mushrooms or stuffies mixed with chorizo; there’s also the summer return of the popular lobster corn tamale. An extensive wine and beer list and house-made desserts complete the scene. 40 Ocean Road, Narragansett

 

Gregg’s Restaurants & TavernsEst. 1972

“Obama Commits ‘Sin,’ Orders ‘Death by Chocolate’ From the Devil” was the headline from ABC News on Halloween 2014. On a visit to Rhode Island, President Barack Obama and then-Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gina Raimondo were making the rounds and stopped by the Providence location of the local chain for a slice of the famed cake, served up by Gregg’s employee Amanda Schroeder, donning sparkling devil horns. If you haven’t yet had a slice, buckle up: Death by Chocolate Cake is six layers of moist chocolate cake, sandwiched between rich chocolate frosting, and covered with chocolate morsels. It is one of many scrumptious offerings on the Gregg’s dessert menu, which includes Hasbro Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake, where a portion of the purchase price goes to Hasbro Children’s Hospital. The restaurant, with locations in East Providence, North Kingstown, and Warwick, has a long history of giving back to the community and was among the founding members of the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. Keeping current, there’s even an app to order apps and more.  Multiple locations

 

George’s of Galilee • Est. 1948

Any Rhode Islander worth their weight in clam shells must make a trek to the fishing port of Galilee for a bowl of George’s Rhode Island Clam Chowder. “Our recipe goes back to 1660 when my ancestor, Thomas Durfee, arrived in Portsmouth from Essex, England,” says Kevin Durfee, president. The clear-broth chowder has all the same ingredients as the white but sans milk or cream, fillers or thickeners. However, “for you ‘thick’ chowder lovers” you can still find New England-style on the menu, along with crazy-fresh boat-to-plate and farm-to-table offerings. Durfee believes their success is the result of continuing to evolve. “From our genesis as a traditional clam shack to the current landscape where we provide fine dining, bar atmosphere, and fresh catch seafood, our clientele trusts us to stay true to our roots while also introducing them to new favorites.” With its own beach and summertime tiki bar, beautiful views of Block Island Sound at every turn, Nana’s Gelato & Candy Shop, six dining rooms on two floors, plus a  take-out window, and even a gift shop for souvenirs, any visit to Little Rhody’s largest waterfront seafood restaurant feels like a one-day vacation. 250 Sand Hill Cove Road, Port of Galilee

 

Newport Creamery • Est. 1940

There’s an Awful Awful for most every stage of life: The Junior, for those just ramping up their taste buds (vanilla, strawberry… you get the drift), the (OG) Awful Awful with a more mature flavor profile (mint, mocha), the Outrageous (choc o’nutter, Oreo!), and then coming back down is the Reduced Fat. Billed as a “drinkable treat” the ultra-thick shake is made with syrups and ice milk. “Our most popular menu item is the signature Awful Awful, which has been a part of Newport Creamery’s heritage almost from the beginning of the company,” says Jonathan Janikies, vice president of operations at the Jan Companies. Janikies’ family purchased Newport Creamery in 2001 out of bankruptcy, rescuing the beloved concoction along with sweet red pepper relish, peppermint stick ice cream, and other house specialties. “Our success is built on serving a quality product at a very reasonable price for people from infants to senior citizens,” says Janikies. In its heyday, the Creamery had 33 locations; you can still visit the original/flagship in Middletown for “good mood food” at the sign of the golden cow. Multiple locations

 

Twin Oaks • Est. 1933

There’s something nostalgic about sitting at a booth or table at Twin Oaks; it feels like someplace your grandparents – or a member of the Rat Pack – would take you out for a nice dinner. The 650-seat venue with unobstructed views of Spectacle Pond and of course oak trees is the kind of restaurant where you can start a meal with warm Italian bread for the table, some Point Judith calamari, or clams casino (which, by the way, originated in Rhode Island), before launching into a salad with house dressing or a generous plate of Eggplant Parmesan. “Aside from some classic entrees, the potency of an Oak’s martini delivers!” says Barbi Jo DiMaria, 92 PRO-FM host and enthusiastic patron. Opened by the DeAngelus family, it operated as a speakeasy during Prohibition, which only adds to its mystique. Gene Blair, who has held many roles and currently works evenings as a server, recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as an employee. A photo of Blair proudly holding a placemat quickly blew up on social media: a fitting image for a business rooted in tradition but staying current. Says Executive Chef Ryan Mancini, “After 85 years, we want to stay up with the times but we can’t get rid of the items that brought us here.” 100 Sabra Street, Cranston

 

Wright’s Farm Restaurant • Est. 1954

For all of you city slickers, Wright’s Farm Restaurant in Burrillville was founded on a chicken farm and expanded into a 1,400-seat venue by Frank and Joyce Galleshaw, not to be confused with Wright’s Dairy Farm & Bakery in North Smithfield. One is known for serving family-style dinners of baked chicken or sirloin steak with fresh-baked rolls, salad topped with their own dressing, pasta with their own marinara, and homemade French fries, while the other is a dairy farm renowned for fresh milk and strawberry shortcake. If you’re unfamiliar with family-style dining, it’s where food is brought to the table in large platters with guests serving themselves and passing along dishes to the next person, as you would at a large meal at home. During COVID, this model had to change to take-out but recently Wright’s was happily able to resume dine-in: It’s by reservation only and limited by current state mandates (seating at one table is limited to two households per table with a maximum of eight people per table) but we’ll take it.  84 Inman Road, Burrillville

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