We all know Providence as a great dining destination, offering everything from humble burgers and beers to haute cuisine paired with artfully crafted cocktails, with many stops in between. That’s just the idea behind Newport Gourmet Tours’ new Providence Riverwalk Tour: to explore and sample the city’s culinary diversity in a short, easily walkable span.
Husband and wife team Michael and Ann Martini run Newport Gourmet Tours, each with a background uniquely suited to this endeavor. Michael is a veteran chef with a culinary degree from RISD. Over the years he’s worked in some of the best known restaurants around the state, including 3 Steeple Street in Providence, the Boat House in Tiverton and Westerly’s Shelter Harbor Inn. Ann is a former editor at Rhode Island Monthly who now works freelance with chefs and food events around the state and country, and teaches at Johnson and Wales.
The Martinis launched their food tours in Newport in spring of 2010 as a response to both food tours they experienced in New Orleans and New York, and the impressive talent offered at the Newport Mansions Wine and Food Festival. “We thought about the New Orleans tour,” Ann recalls, “and thought something similar might do Newport some good, to try to take away that stigma of ‘touristy food’ and let visitors and locals alike know there are serious talents and resources here.” They started with a Bellevue Avenue excursion, taking guests to some of the city’s finer restaurants and gourmet shops. Last spring they added a second tour, this time working their way up Broadway, a strip full of younger, more eclectic bars and restaurants. The response, from both participating businesses and from tourists, was immediate and overwhelmingly positive.
This fall they took their culinary show on the road, landing along the Providence Riverwalk. “It seemed like a natural progression,” Ann explains. “The breadth and depth of the talent here is astounding.” The format is the same as in Newport: the tour group, capped at 12 participants, meets at the first restaurant for a quick introduction. They’re then taken inside to sample the food, see the kitchen and perhaps chat with the chef. Each tour makes a handful of stops – five in the case of Providence – and lasts about two hours, covering a couple miles of leisurely walking.
My tour began at Harry’s Bar and Burger (121 North Main St.), a small eatery serving small, but thoughtfully crafted sliders, where we sampled – well, what else? – burgers and beers, and got to peek inside the closet-sized kitchen. Then we moved on to Hemenway's (121 South Main St.), where we actually got to tour the kitchen and speak directly with Chef Steven Long before sipping some wine and enjoying an impeccably grilled scallop. This behind-the-scenes feel is one of the tour’s main attractions, allowing guests – many of whom are tourists unfamiliar with the city – to not only sample bites at several restaurants in a short time, but get an insider’s view of the restaurant industry.
The highlight of our tour was Pot Au Feu (44 Custom House St.), where proprietor Bob Burke, one of the city’s most gracious hosts and entertaining raconteurs, gave us a quick lesson in crepes, even insisting that each guest learn to flip a crepe in the pan, often with comical results. (For the record, I nailed it on the first try, thank you very much.) It’s that kind of up-close interaction with industry professionals that makes the tour unique and fun.
“Every week, we’re blown away by how our partners rise to the occasion,” Ann enthuses. “We had a lot of nervous chefs in those first weeks. Now they look forward to those few minutes when they can come out from behind the line and talk turkey – sometimes literally – with people who love food.”
Providence Riverwalk Tours are scheduled every Friday at 2pm. Tickets are $50 per person.