For New Yorkers, Rhode Island is often viewed as little more than the place you drive past on the way to Boston. That mirrors the larger American conception of the state, whose status as the nation’s smallest makes it easy to dismiss.
But for foodies in the know, Rhode Island is home to a surprisingly vibrant dining scene. Despite its diminutive size and population (which is less than half that of Brooklyn), Little Rhody features an unusually large number of local specialties that are ubiquitous throughout the state but largely unknown outside it. And Rhode Island is close enough and small enough that you can drive up there, eat your way through a fair portion of the state, and be back home within 24 hours (although it’s such a nice place that you may want to stay a bit longer), making it ideal for a food-centric road trip.
When you arrive in Providence, your first stop should be Olneyville New York System, the definitive spot for sampling Rhode Island’s signature “New York System” hot wieners. The awkward nomenclature, which is also found at venues like Sam’s New York System and Baba’s Original New York System, dates to the early 1900s and originally meant “as good as what you’d get in New York” (Midwestern hot dogs are often called Coney Islands for the same reason). But now the term is synonymous with the Rhode Island frankfurter style, which features short, stubby wieners topped with mustard, raw onions, and a thin ground-beef sauce. Plan on eating at least two or three per sitting, and remember: In Rhode Island, never say “hot dogs”; always say “hot wieners.”
Heading south out of Providence, you may want to grab a sweet treat for the car. You can’t go wrong with fried dough, and Rhode Island has its own special entry in that category: the doughboy, a sizable hunk of deep-fried pizza dough, typically rolled in sugar. Think zeppole, only bigger and heavier. Yes, that’s a compliment. Get them at Iggy’s, a great little seaside shack in Warwick.
As you keep heading south, you’ll soon approach the ocean, so it’ll be a good time to start thinking about seafood — particularly clams, which are a big part of Rhode Island cuisine. You should definitely try clam cakes (which are actually fritters, not cakes, sort of like seafood hush puppies) and stuffies (big quahog shells packed with a stuffing that typically includes ground clams, spicy sausage, breading, celery, and more). Both of those pair nicely with Rhode Island’s form of clam chowder, which features a clear broth — no tomatoes, no cream — that really lets the clam flavor shine through. Exceptional versions, along with a waterfront view, are available at George’s of Galilee in Narragansett.
By this point you may be ready to crash for the night. A good option just a bit east of George’s is the Sea Whale Motel in Middletown. Once you wake up, you’ll want a traditional Rhode Island breakfast. That means johnnycakes — hearty cornmeal pancakes whose origins have been traced back to pre-Columbian Native Americans. A great place to get them is a short drive to the east at the Commons Lunch in Little Compton. As a nice bonus, there’s a beautiful old cemetery across the street, with many of the headstones dating back to the 1700s.
As you peruse Rhode Island menus, you may notice two unusual items listed among the beverages. The first is a “cabinet,” which is Rhode Islandese for a milkshake. Head north to Warren and order one at the Delekta Pharmacy, a classic old-fashioned drug store. And if a milkshake feels too substantial, you can opt for coffee milk, which is like chocolate milk but with coffee syrup instead of chocolate syrup. It’s available at so many Rhode Island eateries that you’ll think it’s the unofficial state drink — but it’s actually the official state drink, as decreed by the state legislature in 1993. Feel like a real Rhode Islander by bellying up to the counter and saying, “Coffee milk, please” at the magnificent Modern Diner in Pawtucket, a 1930s-era beauty that was the first diner ever listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
By this point you’ll have essentially completed a big loop around the state (and will no doubt be quite full). If you want to hold to your 24-hour schedule, you can hop on I-95 and head back home — or you can chuck the timetable and poke around a bit more in Rhode Island, a small place full of big enjoyments.
How to get there
Amtrak runs to Providence, but you’ll want a car to get around the state; take Interstate 95 from New York all the way there.
Where to stay
More to see and do
If you have time between bites, excellent Rhode Island attractions include the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence, and the Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge.
Where to eat
In addition to Olneyville New York System, Iggy’s, and George’s of Galilee, keep an eye out for storefront signs featuring a frost-covered lemon and the word Del’s, marking the availability of the chain’s signature frozen lemonade, halfway between a Slurpee and a really good Italian ice. Also check out Newport Creamery, whose claim to fame is a quart-size milkshake — er, cabinet — called an Awful Awful, short for “awful big, awful good.” Drink three and get the fourth free.