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Classic Comfort

Seaplane Diner helps keep diner culture alive in Rhode Island

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The American diner is famous for its egalitarian nature, where laborers sit elbow-to-elbow with CEOs. No place is that more evident than Providence’s Seaplane Diner.

Located on an industrial stretch of Allens Avenue, the Seaplane is a foodie oasis among the rugged landscape. Truckers and National Grid linemen sit beside doctors and nurses from the nearby Rhode Island Hospital. Judges and lawyers make their way from the downtown courthouse. Attorney Mike Bottaro (you’ve seen his ads) is a regular.

The 1950’s eatery is one of only two O’Mahoney diners still in operation in the state (the second is in Newport). Originally in the lot across the street, on the water side of Allens Avenue, it’s name pays homage to the seaplanes that landed in that stretch of Narragansett Bay.
Gregarious owner David Penta, who greets customers with a boisterous hello behind the Formica counter, credits the success of the Seaplane to three things: its food, its prices, and its people.

The menu offers the standard diner comforts like eggs, pancakes, and waffles. But at 11am, the lunch specials roll out. Lobster ravioli, shrimp tortellini Alfredo, and chicken Marsala are served along with burgers, fries, and meatloaf dinners. Fridays feature fresh seafood. Very few items on the menu are priced over $10.

For David, the Seaplane Diner is a second act. He retired from an engineering job with the State and was introduced to the business by his friend Michael Arena. They co-own several eateries, including the West Side Diner, Amanda’s Kitchen, the Lighthouse Restaurant, and the Broadway Diner.

“I like diner hours,” he says, only half joking. They had a go at fine dining in the early aughts with Opia on the East Side. But the late-night hours and the economy took its toll, so their focus returned to the diners. Serving quality food at a low price point helps make the diner “recession proof.”

“People come from all over,” he says. “We’ve had diner groupies who go from state to state visiting vintage diners. I’m sure it’s partly nostalgia that brings them out. But it’s the food and the people that keep them coming back.” For example, no one on his wait staff has worked at the Seaplane for less than 10 years.

“I need my staff,” he says, adding, “I don’t know how to cook!”