October 23, 2014 | Narrative
family-friendly dining in providence
Nick’s, Cook & Brown, and North. These are my three favorite places to dine in Providence, and my enjoyment of their food only seems to improve during Family Weekend when I (like a lot of Brown students) can eat there on my parents’ dime. Now, none of these places are cheap. If I were always paying for myself, I’d only go once or twice per semester. But if your parents want to take you out for a nice, special dinner during Family Weekend, these are the places to be.
Nick’s On Broadway
The inside of Nick’s is red, black, and white, hard-surfaced and devoid of tablecloths. There’s a bar in the front hallway, displaying fruits, bitters, and syrups. In the main room, there is a big, tall counter over which guests can look into an open kitchen. Some nights, you can even see the head chef, Derek Wagner, personally arranging herb sprigs on the plates with a set of tweezers.
After more than three years of visits to Mr. Wagner’s kitchen, I stand in awe of him and his team. He is inventive with his combinations, so flavors always mesh nicely and his team puts care into each dish. Whether they’re flash-frying a single basil leaf to put on your steak or crafting 6 different homemade jams, jellies, pickles, and mustards for their legendary charcuterie plate, they do not skimp on a single component. That’s what you pay for at Nick’s: unbounded attention to each aspect of every meal. Think perfectly tender, flavorful steak atop local mushrooms, grains, and greens, or herb-roasted fluke with the freshest possible vegetables, or a chicken liver pate that is sweet, rich, and nutty.
Now, I’ve mostly been talking about dinner at Nick’s, because that’s my favorite meal to eat there, but Nick’s breakfast service is so fantastic that Esquire has named it one of the best breakfast spots in the whole country. Wednesday through Sunday, 8am-3pm, Nick’s presents a menu that is extensive, amazing, and insanely well-priced. There is nothing on the brunch menu above $10, this all from a chef who’s been nominated for the James Beard Award*. Twice. There is one caveat—they don’t take reservations for breakfast. So, either go early or go on a weekday.
Cook & Brown Public House
Cook & Brown is situated 2 miles, or one short bus ride, north of Brown on Hope Street. The interior is cozy and creative, kind of like it came out of a RISD woodworker’s studio. There’s one medium-sized bar (with a great liquor selection) and enough tables for about forty people.
The menu (like that of Nick’s and North) changes frequently to accommodate the freshest ingredients, but I think that Cook & Brown’s seasonal dishes are the best I’ve ever seen. Whether they’re muddling seasonal fruit in a cocktail, tossing your pasta with slices of winter root veggies, or expertly pairing cold water seafood with cold air greens, Cook & Brown builds dishes that make their ingredients the star. I’ve had so many fantastic meals at Cook & Brown that it’s pointless to recommend a specific dish. So, here are a few tips for ordering at Cook & Brown:
1. At 8:30pm each Sunday, they offer their family-style Sunday supper, where you pay a flat rate for a chef-selected shared meal. If you can replace your American penchant for choice with trust in a good chef, he will reward you with heaping, tasty plates of food.
2. If you like your liquor and you’re legal to imbibe, order a cocktail. If you know what you like and you’re willing to extend some trust to the bartender (believe me, it’s worth doing), ask for the bartender’s choice.
3. Lastly, like Nick’s, Cook & Brown has a brunch that won’t break the bank. Theirs is on the weekend, from 10 ‘til 2, and it deserves the same praise as their dinner.
North is small, and it doesn’t take reservations. It’s in a dark blue building that evokes 19th century New England. It’s dark, decorated with East Asian-style paintings with a nautical theme, so junk boats, whitecaps, and calligraphy adorn the cozy dining room. The food is mostly East Asian-influenced, but the chefs refuse to restrict themselves to any one cuisine. On their menu, you’ll find Southern ham and oysters on the half shell alongside Dan Dan Noodles and homemade kimchi. And it’s not too expensive. The dishes are small, but nothing is above $10.
If good food is one of your chief joys in life, as it is in mine, you really remember a good meal. I remember a Southwestern flank steak served with chimichurri, fry bread, and a potato-corn salad. I remember eating bone marrow with rock salt and crispy bread after a long day.
I remember going to North: I ate raw oysters with homemade Kimchi vinegar; I slurped noodles with roasted squid and lamb; I tasted sweet and sour greens with crispy pork and grains on top. The cooks at North blended flavors with an ingenuity I’ve only ever seen a handful of times before or since.
Now, you might need to wait for a table, and you might be surprised by some of the combinations on the menu. But, you won’t regret (or forget) North.