In Providence, R.I., I saw more monuments dedicated to Roger Williams than to Stewie Griffin. As it should be: The rogue Puritan minister founded the Rhode Island colony in 1636; Stewie is the animated infant with the plummy accent voiced by “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane, who attended the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD). One established a haven for religious freedom, the other converses with a talking dog named Brian and plots against his mother, Lois. Not the same contribution to society, I know, and yet both man and baby embody the character — and quirks — of Providence.
The Ocean State capital is open-minded and sometimes outrageous. On a recent weekday morning, a three-eyed troll hobnobbed with bus riders at Kennedy Plaza, an ironclad excuse for arriving late to work or a coffee date. The hub of higher learning is also smart and urbane. I could feel my brain cells multiplying while walking around the College Hill campuses of RISD and Brown University. Standing in line for coffee at Brown’s campus center, I started to question the wisdom of choosing that other college town to the north.
Providence is one of the nation’s oldest cities, and I grew accustomed to seeing historical plaques announcing a structure’s birth year and tripping on sidewalks buckling under centuries of soles. But I also heard plenty about the future, including Plant City, a veg-centric food hall set to open this summer, and a new pedestrian bridge that will connect the shores of the Providence River. Unfortunately, after three days on the ground, I never found a Stewie statue. However, I did learn that the Providence Athenaeum has a children’s reading room and allows dogs and talking inside the 188-year-old library. Perhaps someday I will meet a real-life Stewie and Brian among the hallowed stacks. In Providence, that wouldn’t be at all weird.
Where to go
Rub your eyes all you want, but that giant troll bouncing around Kennedy Plaza is not a hallucination. Last month, Big Nazo Lab, a 30-year-old performance troupe populated by fantastical puppets, expanded with a new location inside the Rhode Island Public Transit Authority bus terminal. The Space Transformation Station, which sits adjacent to the ticket window, is an open-door studio and gallery where visitors can watch the creative process and meet the finished product, such as Cornea, who was awaiting repairs for damage caused by rain and grabby children, and the Robo-Monkeys, who appear at electronic dance festivals on stilts. Founder and director Erminio Pinque has also filled a window display facing Washington Street with his menagerie of misfit mutants and dispatches the characters several times a week to mingle with the downtown crowd. “Public spaces should have public art happenings,” Pinque said as Bluebee Troll swooshed its cratered face against the glass pane. In the upcoming year, Pinque plans to establish Space Transformation Stations in three nearby towns, adding more constellations to his Big Nazo universe (bignazo.com; 1-401-831-9652).
Columbus Theatre, one of the city’s top cultural venues, has a colorful history, including a period with several shades of gray. The theater opened in 1926 and was modeled after an 1880s Italian opera house. Nearly a century later, chubby cherubs still float in a domed ceiling and 36 composers stare out from scarlet walls. Over the years, a steady stream of entertainment has marched down the red-carpeted aisles, including vaudeville acts, silent and European art films, opera and, in the 1960s, porno flicks. The theater found its groove in 2012, when a collective of musicians called the Columbus Cooperative took over programming. The Columbus hosts about 10 shows a month on its two stages (800 seats downstairs, 200 upstairs), showcasing national and local bands and comedians who sometimes test out new material on the audience. Insider tip: Mike Birbiglia’s brother lives in Providence, and the funny man mixes business with family visits (columbustheatre.com; 1-401-621-9660).
Roger Williams Park is a people pleaser; its nickname is the People’s Park, after all. The 435-acre green — and sometimes petal pink — space contains the country’s third-oldest zoo, which unveiled a rain forest exhibit in December; a natural-history museum and planetarium; a botanical center; rose and Japanese gardens; and several historical buildings, including the recently restored Betsey Williams Cottage. In 1871, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Roger Williams donated her 102-acre farm to the city for public use. If the weather is too nice for indoor activities, cruise around in one of the swan and pirate boats or walk along footpaths lining ponds rippling with wildlife. On the milelong Bluff-to-Bluff Trail, I shadowed a beaver swimming in Polo Lake until I ditched the rodent for a plastic horse at Carousel Village. (Rides on real ponies are also available.) On Fridays from April through September, more than 15 food trucks gather in the park (rwpconservancy.org; 1-401-680-7219).
The Providence Athenaeum is thick with stories, and not just on the written page. Edgar Allan Poe courted poet Sarah Helen Whitman here. His Lothario move: signing an anonymous poem she admired. H.P. Lovecraft, who lived up the hill, was a common fixture inside the 19th-century Greek Revival building, and his legacy endures in its collection of his stories and letters, as well as the very normal-looking bronze bust of the weird fiction writer. The institution, which predates public libraries, is one of only 16 membership libraries remaining in the country. But you don’t need an Athenaeum card to take a self-guided tour (grab a brochure at the circulation desk); attend an exhibit (“Providence Unveiled: Stories From the Archives” opened this month); catch a special event, such as an author reading or puppet show; or hunker down with a good book (choose from about 180,000 volumes). Visitors sometimes leave behind poems in the desk drawers. One read, “True love will find you in the end.” Considering Poe’s way with the heart, he was probably not its secret scribe (providenceathenaeum.org; 1-401-421-6970).
Where to eat
Lori and Paul Kettelle felt like orphans in the Land of Dunkin’ before the Johnson and Wales University and RISD graduates, respectively, opened PVDonuts three years ago. The married couple’s Fox Point doughnut shop, which can attract upward of 700 people on Saturdays, offers seven varieties including brioche, old-fashioned, filled and vegan, as well as 25 to 30 flavors that change monthly. One of its most popular and audacious creations is a pileup of Thanksgiving fixings — fried chicken, stuffing, mashed potatoes and a gravy drizzle — on a cranberry-glazed brioche doughnut. For Easter and 4/20, the bakers collaborated with a vegan bakery to create a cookie-dough-filled doughnut with a brownie topper. (No animals or plants named Mary Jane were harmed in the baking process.) Several doughnuts have achieved permanent status, such as Cereal Milk (Fruity Pebbles soaked in milk and turned into a glaze) and Coffee Milk, a tribute to the state drink. “Ninety-five percent of the menu is just crazy,” said Paul, before he closed the box lid on a chocolate tahini brownie doughnut, Cadbury crème (marshmallow filling, chocolate glaze), blueberry pie (blueberry jam filling, pie crust topping) and Banoffee (banana crème, toffee) (pvdonuts.com; no phone).
Nicks on Broadway
The menu at Nicks on Broadway resembles a movie played backward: Diners see the credits — to the farmers, growers and producers — before the main attraction. So, by the time you reach the roasted mushroom and oat fritter or the chicken pâté with pickles, hot mustard and chargrilled brioche, you will already be familiar with the RIMushroom Co. and Baffoni’s Poultry Farm. Derek Wagner, who took over the nocturnal joint 18 years ago, caters to folks who might not have the work schedule or appetite to eat three square meals a day. The restaurant therefore serves brunch five days a week, during times (8 a.m.-3 p.m.) that more traditional eaters call breakfast and lunch. Four times a week, Nicks offers dinner a la carte or as a four-course, $70 tasting menu. Most of the food is made or butchered in-house, including the breads, pastas, charcuterie and citrus-flavored salts. The cozy interior, which includes an open kitchen, family-style booths and two bars, encourages conversation with strangers. You might chat up a cook from another restaurant, an employee on her day off or Wagner’s dad, who built the tables and counters supporting his son’s food (nicksonbroadway.com; 1-401-421-0286).
Al Forno is more than an Italian restaurant; it’s a love story between two RISD graduates who fell hard for each other, for Italy and for its cuisine. “We wooed each other with the food we loved in Italy,” Johanne Killeen said of her courtship with her late husband, George Germon. In 1980, the pair opened the award-winning dining destination, focusing on Italian — not Italian American — dishes. The menu evokes a travel journal. For example, the appetizer called clams al forno was inspired by their time in Rome, and the fried calamari pizza is a play on the french-fry-topped pizza they saw in Sicily. The restaurant does take a few detours from tradition. For instance, Germon introduced the idea of grilling the pizzas directly over the wood fire, instead of to the side of the heat source. Every dish is made to order: The pastas are boiled to order, the Caesar salad croutons are grilled to order and the ice cream is hand-churned to order. Because of this personalized service, diners are encouraged to order dessert at the same time as their entree. In the spirit of the owners’ romance, try the fruit tart for two with a big smooch of crème anglaise (alforno.com; 1-401-273-9760).
Where to shop
You don’t need a degree from Johnson and Wales University or a chef’s toque to shop at Stock Culinary Goods, a store with everything for the kitchen but the sink. Owner Jan Faust Dane carries many well-known brands, such as Le Creuset and Mason & Cash, as well as cooking commodities, including whisks, cake pans and cookie cutters in A-to-Z designs. (For L: “lobstah.”) She also clears significant shelf space for local products, such as the cast bronze horseshoe crab bottle openers by Matt Hall, whale-shape cutting boards by Andiamo Woodworking and coffee milk-scented candles from Aster Candle. If all of this food prep is making you hungry, pick up some portable eats, such as Anchor’s almond butter toffee or Jacobsen’s salted chocolate caramels washed down with a Nitro Cart cold-brewed coffee or LuLuna’s flavored kombucha on tap (stockculinarygoods.com; 1-401-521-0101).
Arcade Providence isn’t just any mall; it’s the oldest indoor mall in the country, predating Orange Julius by nearly a century. Built in 1828, the National Historic Landmark has assorted shops and restaurants on the ground floor and lofts on the upper two levels. The arcade focuses on independent retailers with local roots. The Lovecraft Arts and Sciences Council, a nonprofit group specializing in weird fiction, runs a store devoted to Lovecraft and writers inspired by his works. In addition to books and anthologies, the retailer also sells resin figurines and drawings of Cthulhu, plus accessories (tote bags, tarot cards, skulls) suitable for NecronomiCon (held Aug. 20-23 this year). Carmen & Ginger, one of several vintage stores in the mall, focuses on men’s and women’s clothing, toys and housewares from the 1930s through the ’70s. Owner Christine Francis, who could lead a master class on costume jewelry history, carries spectacular pieces by now-defunct Rhode Island jewelry makers, Trifari and Coro. If you thought costume jewelry was cheap, you thought wrong (arcadeprovidence.com; 1-401-454-4568).
Where to stay
The 44 rooms and eight suites at Dean Hotel come furnished with steel bed frames made at the Steel Yard, an industrial arts center in Providence, and elephant-carved nightstands by Will Reeves, an RISD instructor. Antique pieces such as pommel horses and a 17th-century velvet chair from the Netherlands happily coexist with contemporary works (thedeanhotel.com; 1-401-455-3326).
At first glance, Hotel Providence feels like the home of your great-aunt — the one who married well, shopped extravagantly and divorced strategically. The 80 elegant, tasteful rooms contain antiques and local art, and the 16 suites celebrate regional authors (hotelprovidence.com; 1-401-861-8000).