In the grand scheme of things, 15 years isn’t all that long. In the fickle and often unforgiving restaurant business, however, lasting 15 years – when most new businesses don’t survive two – practically qualifies you as an institution. Such is the case with Parkside. During the ‘90s, it was part of the vanguard of the Providence Renaissance culinary scene, along with contemporaries like Hemenway’s, Capital Grille and Café Nuovo. When our city’s revitalization was still in its early stages, these were the restaurants that changed the perception of Providence as a gastronomic desert dotted by a few oases of really great red sauce. It remains one of the restaurants perhaps most synonymous with WaterFire.
In the decade and a half since, Parkside has been a survivor. First it survived those treacherous first few years that doom so many restaurants. It has survived economic downturns that were the undoing of many a local business. Now it has survived a fire that threatened to destroy its South Main Street home.
A gas leak resulted in a fire on June 30 that quickly tore through the historic former grocery store where the restaurant is housed. Parkside itself was only partially scorched by the blaze – mainly the kitchen – but the subsequent water damage was extensive; the entire facility had to be taken back to the studs and completely renovated. Finally, after four-and-a-half months of repairs, the eatery reopened on November 14 – with a bit of sprucing up for good measure.
Despite the drastic circumstances, Parkside 2.0 is not so dramatic an overhaul. “We didn’t want to interrupt the footprint of it,” notes chef/owner Steve Davenport. “We still wanted it to have the feel of Parkside.” To that end, the basic layout of the restaurant remains the same (indeed, the bar was the only thing to emerge from the fire unscathed), with a few updates. The hardwood floors in the front vestibule have been replaced with tile, the better to withstand the coming winter months. The lights are all new. Banquette seating has been added along the wall opposite the bar, with a plush new booth in the middle.
The change about which Davenport is most excited, however, is the brand new rotisserie, replacing the one that made the restaurant famous. The first of its kind in America from French manufacturer Rotisol, it features the traditional horizontal spits on which to slow roast the chicken that is the restaurant’s staple. But this one also allows items to be hung vertically, opening up the possibilities of baking pies or making soups in the rotisserie.
The menu has also undergone some minor but thoughtful changes, taking full advantage of the new equipment in the kitchen. Davenport is now roasting duck, suckling pig and other meats on the spit. “The pork loin is unbelievable,” he enthuses. “We can’t keep up with the demand for it.”
The restaurant’s absence did not go unnoticed by its loyal clientele. “I was here almost every day,” Davenport says. “Customers were always asking, ‘When are you going to reopen?’” Now that they finally have, what’s the strategy for getting the word out? “We just opened the doors,” he says. “I was overwhelmed. I guess absence does make the heart grow fonder.”
The success of Parkside continues to be based on loyalty – and not just from customers. Despite the hiatus, the restaurant retained all of its staff, and everyone came back. “They’re part of our family – we need them,” Davenport stresses, adding, “I see 15 more years here.”