Cover Story

East Greenwich's Delicious Dining Scene

Thanks to exciting new restaurants and longtime favorites, this all-American Main Street has emerged as the state's newest foodie destination

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“We moved here for the school system… and the quality of life.” That’s what dozens upon dozens of East Greenwich homeowners have said to me for Life/Style home features in this magazine for more than a decade. Many of these couples moved to this town from other parts of the state, but outsiders from New York and Texas to Ireland have also quickly learned of its enviable reputation. Today, East Greenwich is more than just favorable statistics. There’s a palpable energy in this West Bay waterfront town which has quickly emerged as the food destination in South County – just look at the line out the door on any given Sunday at Dante’s – while a charming arts and culture scene and welcoming mom-and-pop shops make East Greenwich the best it has ever been.

Wine & Dine
In true Rockwellian form, the heartbeat of the hopping East Greenwich scene is Main Street. “When we moved here 10 years ago, Main Street was a little more sleepy,” says local resident Amy Moore, who today serves as the Main Street Coordinator at the East Greenwich Chamber of Commerce. “Yes, there was a core to it… diners that have been there forever, basic restaurants, some retail stores, but nothing like it is today. We used to go to Providence or Newport for dinner and now, we never leave East Greenwich.”

John Sepulveda got to know the nooks and crannies of Main Street when he’d stroll the area to kill time while his daughter took karate lessons at a local studio. Along with his business partner Mitchell Waterman, Sepulveda was looking to open a new restaurant and it didn’t take long for the two to pinpoint exactly where it should be.

“I always got a great vibe from the business owners, the residents, the people here,” he says. “The quality of the restaurants coming here were superior compared to other parts of the state. East Greenwich has really become a food destination more than just a restaurant destination.” Sepulveda says he didn’t want their restaurant anywhere else but Main Street, so he and Waterman “built Feast’s concept around what was already doing well here.” Feast Sandwich Company opened late last year and has won over the hearts – and palates – of locals and visitors alike, starting with a 20-item menu rooted in comfort foods with a modern twist. “We’ve gotten an amazing reception – it’s almost overwhelming,” Sepulveda says.

But it’s also well earned. Local brews are available, the casual restaurant has a reputation for excellent service, including accommodating dietary restrictions as much as possible, and it operates well into the night. “We were here constantly when we opened – we never left,” Sepulveda laughs. “But we aggregated that data from the first few months,” concluding that they could operate most successfully by maintaining 11am to 11pm hours and even later on the nights when the Greenwich Odeum has shows.

Jason Kindness, a native of Newport and founder of The Kind Spirits craft cocktail consulting, had earned a stellar reputation around his hometown for turning out savory, creative cocktails at a number of popular restaurants and bars in the City by the Sea. But the master mixologist was intrigued when he met Marshall Muir and his wife Nadya, part owners of Kai on East Greenwich’s Main Street, which opened in January; he saw that something extraordinary was happening at the restaurant and he wanted in. Kindness is now one of a handful of owners. 

“I feel like it’s an area, a vibe, that’s picking up,” says Kindness. “People are interested in getting good quality food and cocktails at a place that’s forward thinking without having to go to Providence or Newport.” He’s also noticed Rhode Islanders from near and far patronizing Kai as well as its surrounding bars and restaurants. “We see people from Providence, Newport, South Kingstown, a lot of people from Warwick and South County – it’s a melting pot that’s really starting to take shape.”

Kindness credits a few motivating factors for the flourishing foodie scene. First, he says, East Greenwich’s location, with easy access to many of the most populous parts of the state, makes it an attractive locale. Second, his fellow business owners are “pro-community,” he says, with a shared “rising tide floats all boats” philosophy, supporting and often co-promoting one another. And finally, each and every restaurant, bar, bistro and shop offers a unique experience. Kai, for example, was intentionally designed to be both chic and welcoming, says Kindness, marrying a New York City metropolitan feel with a “beachy” twist, with bench-style seating to invite co-mingling. “People can interact with each other but other patrons as well,” Kindness points out. “People intermingle. That’s something you don’t see in a lot of places.”

One of Kai’s nearby neighbors, Besos Kitchen & Cocktails, a chic, upscale restaurant serving locally sourced New American fare and craft cocktails, will be marking its sixth anniversary in October. Owner Kristin Dellagrotta used to feel like the new kid on the block, but she’s witnessed numerous new businesses emerge since opening her doors. “It just keeps getting better and better,” she says. “I feel it’s ‘the more the merrier’ here because it makes us a restaurant destination. We all know each other and we all have different visions for our places.”

Dellagrotta grew up in East Greenwich and is raising her own family here. But she says the town is more than just families now, pointing to the hot new construction trend of “cool lofts” and apartments that is increasingly luring singles, couples and millennials to town. All demographics, she adds, are enjoying the mom-and-pop shops, galleries and cultural centers like the Odeum, which have truly improved the experience the town offers for locals and guests alike. “We definitely pull from all over; a lot of people from out of town – New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts; but our staple customers Monday through Wednesday are locals and regulars.”

Despite all the hotspots, East Greenwich’s most well-known restaurant may be Jigger’s, a no-frills, all-American, historic boxcar diner. The business dates back to 1917 and the shiny, slim boxcar you see today, built by the Worcester Dining Car Company, rolled off a flatbed truck and onto its current foundation in 1950. As the story goes, Main Street was closed off for the occasion and a band trumpeted the new restaurant’s arrival. Jigger’s serves up home-style dishes you’d expect to find in a traditional “greasy spoon”: corned beef hash, classic bacon cheeseburgers and authentic Rhode Island johnnycakes made from stone-ground cornmeal straight from Kenyon Grist Mill in nearby West Kingston. But the owners are also cognizant of East Greenwich’s growing and diverse dining scene and have added more contemporary dining choices – spinach and quinoa potato latkes, eggs Benedict served with sweet potato and black bean hash – and a gluten-conscious menu to accommodate guests with dietary restrictions.

This time of year, East Greenwich’s waterfront restaurant scene is an entity all its own. Zack Chelo, manager of BLU On The Water, has paid close attention to the growth happening in the town’s business district since the restaurant opened five years ago, observing that the customer base has exponentially expanded. “We’ve been busier with each season. However, there’s more competition than ever and that’s not because these businesses are failing; the clientele is there to support them and as a result, they’re thriving.” Initially Chelo saw mostly local clientele; now “we draw guests from all over the region,” partly, he says, because “East Greenwich has become more of a destination than it had been in years past” due to its dining diversity, friendly staffs and undeniable charm. “It’s finally on the map as a premier Rhode Island destination. It offers the unique, hometown feel of Main Street and also a waterfront scene like few cities can offer.”

Joe Zito, an East Greenwich resident best known throughout Southern New England as the eponymous “TV Maitre d’” of a television program highlighting the dining rooms and kitchens of the area’s best restaurants, has watched the restaurant boom unfold on Main Street, the waterfront and beyond. “I think it’s almost an embarrassment of culinary riches,” he says, pointing to Siena, T’s Restaurant, Meritage, Richard’s Pub and 1149 – “and we’re not even into the town proper yet!” – as well as Red Stripe, Besos, La Masseria, Rocco’s Bistro, Kon’s Asian Bistro, Rasa, Dante’s Kitchen, Jigger’s, Greenwich Oyster Bar, the Grille on Main, Johnny Granata’s Restaurant & Bar and Franki & John From Italy. “The waterfront of course has Finn’s Harborside, Nautika and Blu – all of this is within a mile and a half square – and I probably forgot a few!” 

Though Zito revels in the restaurant scene, which he praises for its outstanding cuisine led by talented chefs, he does have concerns about the sustainability of the growing number of restaurants and wonders if the area is at maximum capacity. “If they keep opening restaurants, it will be survival of the fittest,” he says, especially if the population decreases or stays level. All are competing around dinner service, the lifeblood of the East Greenwich dining scene. “Gone are the days of three-martini lunches,” Zito points out. “But these restaurateurs, they are certainly putting their best foot forward.” 

Arts & Culture
Since 1926, the Greenwich Odeum has been considered Rhode Island’s Main Street theatre. Originally the Greenwich Theater, it was built when vaudeville acts dominated the entertainment industry but was one of the first theatres to show motion pictures, which eventually became its sole focus. The Greenwich Odeum was shuttered in 1990, reestablished in 1994, then extensively renovated in 2013: this renovation and a change in oversight has helped the theatre thrive, and today it plays a critical role in East Greenwich’s bustling business climate.

“You don’t have a lot of walkable communities like this,” says Dan Speca, president of the Odeum. While the theatre is benefiting from increased interest and foot traffic in East Greenwich, Speca says, the benefit goes both ways: “When we have a sold-out show on a Friday or Saturday night, we see places booming.” There’s a cooperative spirit, says Speca, that’s helping the town thrive. Recently, he called The Grille on Main to make a dinner reservation before a night out at the theatre; the hostess made sure to ask if his party planned on attending that night’s Odeum show “to make sure you get out on time.” That community cooperation, Speca says, is an example of what sets East Greenwich apart. “It shows that the restaurants here want to accommodate people accordingly. We’re all in this together. The more we succeed, the more you succeed.”

Main Street Coordinator Amy Moore says that the area’s success has been, not a stroke of luck, but the result of a concerted effort, hard work and dedication on behalf of the business community. “We have a meeting once a month with the merchants and through that, we talk about what’s working, what’s not, we make strategic plans, and talk about events they may want to do,” says Moore. “The merchants really connect and want to cross-market each other, and everyone is doing well. Restaurants are doing the best, no question about that.” Monthly Main Street Strolls focus on festive themes, showcasing local artists, musicians and performers. Moore reports that nearly all of the restaurants are at capacity and many have a waitlist on Stroll evenings, while shopkeepers extend their business hours and stay open late for strollers. 

“This is a place people are really starting to come to appreciate,” says Moore. “I think when you look at America and how many main streets are actually left, there aren’t many. This is a gem – a quintessential American Main Street.”