Slipping into storefront space right on Smith St. in Centredale, and part of larger North Providence, Rhode Island, The Centredale Revival Co. aims to set the future standard for this sleepy suburban town — it wants to shake things up.
We wait until mid-afternoon on Friday to call for a reservation. That wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that tomorrow, October 11, 2020, is their grand opening. North Providence mayor Charles Lombardi himself is performing a ribbon cutting ceremony. They are busy. But Jeff Merlino, managing partner, answers the phone when we call, pausing only for a breath before offering a table for two later in the evening. Will that work for us?
It works perfectly.
And it really does, I think, opening the door that night and stepping into my new favorite spot in town.
Jeff warmly greets us, remembering Eric from their earlier call to make the reservation, and apologizes as he explains our table isn’t ready quite yet. That’s fine, we say — makes sense. We stand to the left of the door, in a small alcove between the entrance and a large wooden beam, leading up to the ceiling and state-of-the-art HVAC system. Entering the triangle-shaped venue from an unassuming entrance on Smith St., I am first surprised by how spacious it feels. The gleaming dark wood floorboards lead to circular, cream-colored leather booths in several corners, and the walls are lined by high top tables of various lengths. At the point of the triangle, a potential stage is arranged — there’s no live music now, but you can picture local bands that will undoubtedly line up to play here on future Friday nights.
The bar is the lucky-horseshoe-shaped gem of it all, though. Taking up a considerable portion of the right-hand side of the restaurant, the base of the triangle floorplan, it features tall brass beams leading to the ceiling, with massive plexiglass dividers hanging from discreet, but sturdy, chain links. There are brass footrests and purse hooks surrounding the wooden bar counters, behind which, incredibly busy bartenders are serving specialty craft cocktails and craft beers to the packed lineup of patrons — all of whom appear to be having a good, socially distant time with their groups. A large flat screen television above the bar is one of three around the restaurant, and I smile wider as I realize: nothing’s playing.
Sure enough, each screen offers a bouncing Samsung logo or movie loading menu — “Boys in Brooklyn” waits forever, for someone at the bar to hit play — that no one bothers to complain about. No one cares. The bar, booths and high tops are all full, and not a single person is watching TV. Most don’t even have their phones out. This is not an exaggeration. Phones are seen for quick snaps to add to social media later, before going face down on the table, or stolen away to pockets and purses. The latter is more common, with only a few phones left to be seen — who wants to spoil this ambiance?
And it’s a rather unique ambiance indeed, I note, looking closer at the walls. I read previous reviews that said the owners were looking for a ‘modern speakeasy’ vibe. If that’s true, they’ve hit their mark. Someone’s selected a velvet, dark navy and silver-blue patterned wallpaper with vertical, fleur-de-lis design, complementing the warm woodwork found throughout the place, and offsetting the chandeliers sprinkled about, casting their warm, sparkling glows on smiling patrons below. The largest chandelier hangs above the bar area, a massive, multi-leveled crown to the North Providence jewel that is Centredale Revival Co.
“It’s like sexy French boudoir meets suave, 1800’s western saloon, meets a pandemic,” I say to Eric, laughing at how ridiculous it sounds — but it’s true. There’s a perfect blend of masculine and feminine elements to the interior of the brick-covered structure. An eclectic mix of music, clearly curated to fit the decor, plays in the background. It’s not the live music this place deserves, but it’s what works right now, and I have no complaints. No one should. As if sensing that I even thought the word, Jeff reappears, offering a drink menu and two drinks on the house. I glance at my phone — we’ve only been waiting ten or fifteen minutes. It felt like five. But nevertheless, Jeff reappears, offering another apology from behind his omnipresent handkerchief mask. I absently wonder how he manages to breathe in that thing all day, while zooming from table to bar, bar to kitchen, kitchen to table, table to table, table to phone, phone to door, door to bar, and so on — this guy is everywhere, doing everything, all at once. He’s the real deal.
Jeff quickly checks our IDs before zooming off again, reappearing a few moments later with my craft cocktail, the Harvest Sangria – a promising new special, not yet found in the online drink menu, and Eric’s draft beer, a Whaler’s Rise Pale Ale. My first sip of sangria is delicious, at once crisp and refreshing, sweet - but not overly sweet. Another perfect balance, with a hint of spice underneath. Eric describes his beer as a light and refreshingly-hopped pale ale, a local classic served in a branded mug.
In short order, Jeff walks us to our table and offers two one-sided menus for us to peruse. But we’re too preoccupied to look at those just yet. We’re seated at the first two-top high table, to the left of the front door. Large windows line the walls, looking out to the quaint town center surrounding the restaurant. Right now they’re open, but I imagine it’s going to feel downright cozy in here, come mid-winter, and I begin to see the bigger revival that’s bound to happen any day now.
Clever, custom bouquets adorn each table. I read about these on Facebook. They were another local touch, courtesy of The Floral Reserve in Providence. Eric quickly points out juniper berries, the base ingredient to make gin. Their navy-blue baubles mix well with the wallpaper and contrast nicely with the unusual, earthy flowers chosen to finish the arrangements. The feminine energy here definitely didn’t come from Jeff or Shane, and I look up just in time to catch Shane Piche, the remaining half of the two-man managing partner team here, walking across the hardwood floors to greet his stunning wife, Julienne, at the door. Ah, there it is, I think, there’s the balance. Shane walks her to a waiting table of loved ones, and Jeff zooms by, a quick “Hey Jules” tossed her way in passing. Now it really all makes sense. I smile again, as it’s so obvious now: this place was built on solid family values. This is one of those places where the food is made with love.
This is the town’s future second home on Friday and Saturday nights.
Look closer, and you begin to see safety precautions cleverly put in place, when Jeff Merlino, Shane and Julienne Piche decided to open a restaurant in the middle of a pandemic. Silverware is served in individual packs, with paper napkins and perfectly cleaned utensils. The menus are paper, too. The air is well-circulated. Everything is clean. It was the first thing we noticed, before walking in. I could smell the sanitizer that had recently been used on the main door pulls, and remembered reading that Julienne’s innovative company, Modere, supplies their cleaning products. From my seat, I watch as a patron leaves the bar. He forgets the napkin on his lap, which falls to the floor, forgotten. But only for a moment — Jeff sees it as he zooms by, and a busboy soon stops to grab it, before sanitizing the spot. He did the same to our table before we sat down. Masks aren’t required while seated, but all of the staff, and anyone walking around the restaurant, observe mask wearing rules. It’s a weird new normal but, I guess if we’re comparing this place to a saloon or speakeasy, the masks are a modern twist to the outlaw kerchief. But, unlike those places, this one feels like a safe place to eat.
Which brings us to the food.
The limited menu offers an assortment of appetizers, entrees, side dishes and desserts. Eric comments that it feels like “upscale Italian-American” with classic options, like chicken parmesan with pasta, another in-person menu special, and reasonably priced but delicious dinners, like bourbon steak tips with garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli rabe. We order these. Jeff tempts us with the night’s specials - stuffiesand fish and chips - but we’re curious to check out the chicken and beef tonight. There is potential with the menu, and there’s creativity in the kitchen, which guests are welcome to watch from most spots in the space. An open window, cut into the wall behind the bar, offers a glimpse into the conducted chaos of Centredale Revival Co.’s kitchen. Jeff is the maestro orchestrating it all tonight, and we can’t wait to see what masterpieces await us next. Within fifteen minutes, Jeff is zooming from kitchen to table again and, this time, it’s with our food. I’m psyched to try my dish. Thick pieces of freshly grated parmesan cheese melt into steaming, breaded and fried chicken cutlets, placed atop a bed of penne and drenched in homemade tomato sauce. The pasta is boiled to a perfect al dente, while the sauce offers a balanced astringent and sweet taste. This was inspired by someone who knows what large family dinners on Sunday feel like. Where are they hiding the Italian Nona in their kitchen?
And the chicken is superb. A crispy outer layer gives way to a tender, juicy cut of white meat chicken. It’s not greasy and I rejoice, shuddering to remember similar dishes eaten in nearby restaurants. Centredale is setting the new standard — they’ve certainly revived this particular dish. Eric’s dinner is also a winning combo. After the first bite, he’s surprised the menu doesn’t offer large cut options. “I know this isn’t a steak house,” he says, “but this place deserves big pieces of meat on plates.” It’s tender and, after stealing a bite from Eric, I am a believer in the power of beef again. My chicken dish is excellent, but it’s obvious why the steak tips are one of Centredale’s highest-dollar dinner items.
Eric orders a second Pale Ale and I opt for The Revival Negroni. When it arrives, I take a sip of Centredale’s twist on the Italian cocktail and appreciate the bold, bitter mix of malfy blood orange gin, carponeto antico formula sweet, campari and orange rind. At once earthy and woodsy, the juniper undertones mingle with the citrus notes, and I am delighted by how fittingly the classic, signature drink is named. Shane makes his rounds among the tables, as we finish our dinners and prepare to order dessert. He stops by quickly, sincerely asking if we’re enjoying everything, before heading back to other tables full of loved friends, family, neighbors and curious strangers like us, all enjoying their evenings, too.
For dessert, naturally it’s the apple crisp that wins our vote. When it arrives, Eric barely gives me a minute to take a picture, unable to resist the overwhelming aroma of apple, cinnamon, caramel and vanilla emanating from the charmingly inviting plate. I take one bite and know this dessert will win awards. Caramel is drizzled over creamy vanilla ice cream, scooped atop a crispy, crumbly pie crust that makes my mouth water just writing about it — take one bite, and you need to take all of the bites. We quickly go from “too full for dessert” to shamelessly scraping the last bits of cinnamon goodness into our spoons, before sitting back, defeated. Centredale delivered a knockout — now we’re both full, sleepy and ready for bed.
Jeff stops by with the bill, we pay, and then it’s time to go. Walking to the door, I glance at my phone. It’s just after 9 p.m., so Jeff will continue his pattern of zooming around for another couple of hours. He shows no signs of slowing down. But why would he? He’s in his element. It’s a full house, with all running smoothly, one sleep before the grand opening he’s definitely dreamed about since childhood.
With the main floor cleared of more tables, in the wake of COVID-19 gathering restrictions, an idea occurs: this place would make for an incredible New England wedding and event venue. I bet it would have a 6-month wait list. Though it’s too soon to say with any real certainty when social restrictions will lift to allow for lofty ideas like these to flourish, as I smell the mouth-watering Centredale kitchen scents, and listen to the sounds of talking and laughter drifting from the open windows, I can’t help but be reminded of more normal days — I can’t help but think the revival is happening.
After all, it’s a dream come true.
Happy patrons sit around a packed bar, the night before Centredale Revival Co.'s grand opening.