RI is a cradle of culinary ingenuity and groundbreaking dining. But when did it all start? – The Providence Journal


The roots of the culinary revolution that has brought Providence notoriety go back to the 1970s and ’80s.  

The legendary Leo’s, a downtown restaurant and bar on Chestnut Street, was opened by John Rector in 1974. People still talk about their hummus and chili. But it was also a gathering place for artists and musicians, wrote David Norton Stone in “Lost Restaurants of Providence.” He called it a “conversation bar.”  Others said it was like nothing that came before it.

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Not long after Leo’s opened, a young RISD sculptor named George Germon was helping Dewey Dufresne (who opened Joe’s sandwich shop in 1969) with the design and building of a new restaurant on Mathewson Street, Joe’s Upstairs. Germon would become head chef there in 1975 and work with his future wife and partner, Johanne Killeen.

“Joe’s Upstairs was way ahead of its time; Dewey used incredible ingredients,” Germon, told The Journal in 2000. “At an early age, we learned the importance of quality from Dewey.” 

Joe’s Upstairs closed in 1977 and Dufresne went on to have a successful career in New York City, including working with son Wylie at the heralded wd-50.

Germon and Killeen went on to famously open Al Forno in a cozy niche of a space at 7 Steeple St. in 1980 before moving to South Main Street in 1989. 

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But before Al Forno opened, three other restaurants, all of which opened in 1978, helped transform the dining scene. 

Bluepoint Oyster Bar and Restaurant, at 99 North Main St., was wildly popular and had an 18-year run until the building was to be demolished. Owners Paul Inveen and Maureen Pothier chose not to relocate.

There was Amara’s, where Elizabeth “Amara” Holmes served vegetarian dishes and natural foods in an antique house in Fox Point. The restaurant operated from 1978 to 1987 and its locations included East Providence and Newport. It closed after Holmes became ill. She died a few months later.

Panache, a stylish spot on North Main Street, owned by Donna Ventilato, had a 10-year run. One of the chefs was Jamie Eisenberg, a RISD printmaking grad who said she had to change the menu daily because she had so many of the same diners five nights in a row. 

When she closed the restaurant, Ventilato told the Journal she planned to take a year off to spend with her two-year-old son.

When Panache moved out of 125 North Main St., Angels was opened in 1988 by chef Jaime D’Oliveira, who cooked at Al Forno. 

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The ’80s were noted for the arrival of David Drake and Anthony Micheletti bringing  Adesso California Cafe, a West Coast-style restaurant, to College Hill in 1986. Micheletti had opened Anthony’s, an Italian restaurant, in 1981 on Washington Street in Downtown Providence.

Chef Ralph C. Conte originally opened Raphael’s in North Kingstown but brought his Raphael Bar-Risto to Providence in 1985. With its buzzy bar and bold decor from wife Elisa, the food was clean and architectural. After they closed in 2008, they opened Plum Point Bistro in Saunderstown. 

In 1990 DownCity Diner, the funky, arty restaurant, launched at 151 Weybosset St. Its brunch especially, was the talk of the town under owners Anthony Salemme and Paul Shire. Sold in 2005, the restaurant never recovered after a 2006 kitchen fire that forced a relocation.

Then there is John Elkhay, who’s still running five restaurants in his Chow Fun Food Group including Ten Prime Steak and Sushi, Xaco Taco and three Harry’s Bar and Burger. His now-closed XO Cafe, opened in 1997, brought yet more legend to the North Main Street block that housed those other destination restaurants with menus unlike any other.

But he first came to Providence in 1987 to open In Prov, in the lobby of the Fleet Center.  It was a menu unlike any other with amazing tapas dishes instead of entrees, and 40 wines by the glass. 

He followed up in 1994 with an Asian-inspired and grilled menu in a nightclub-y atmosphere. That was Atomic Grill, with chef Jules Ramos at the helm. The address was 99 Chestnut St., which so fittingly, was where Joe’s had stood so many years before. 

gciampa@providencejournal.com