Loui’s Diner has long been famous among Brown students as a good place to end the night, start the morning or a combination of the two — but now the diner’s pumpkin chocolate chip pancakes, muffins and barbecued chicken-and-cheese ravioli may be recognized across the nation.
An unmistakable landmark on Brook Street for decades, Loui’s Diner was featured on the Food Network show “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives” in an episode that aired on Monday at 10 p.m. The show, which first premiered in 2007, follows its host Guy Fieri as he crosses the country hunting for the best greasy spoon joints — everything from clam shacks to burger bars.
Enthusiastic customers and the diner’s employees squeezed into the crowded restaurant Monday night to watch its five minutes of fame on television and eat
The screening at Loui’s received lots of laughs and cheers throughout the show and thunderous applause at the end.
Fieri described Loui’s as a “family-owned restaurant” that “still serves great food at reasonable prices.”
But Loui’s regulars know the diner as much more than a good place to grab a meal.
“They’re sort of like family to me,” said Frances Carpenter ’84, a Providence resident. “It has a sense of warmth with the people that hasn’t changed.”
Loui’s, a landmark
For many Brown students, it is difficult to imagine Brook Street without Loui’s. The diner first opened 63 years ago under the management of Louis Gianfrancesco, then a 25-year-old Italian immigrant.
Before opening the diner, Louis and his brother ran a market in Eagle Park, R.I., but temporarily left the grocery business to enlist in the U.S. Army as cooks during World War II, said Nina Cullinane, Louis’ granddaughter, who now works in the diner.
Many of the diner’s recipes originated from the brothers’ Army cookbook, although some have been modified over the years, according to Cullinane. “The home fries are what the soldiers in World War II were eating,” she said.
After WWII ended, the Gianfrancesco brothers reopened their market in Eagle Park and built new property at 286 Brook St. The new building held a grocery store on its top floor and a diner in the basement, said Johnny Gianfrancesco, Louis’ son, who now runs the diner with his brother full-time.
The grocery store delivered food directly to Rhode Island residents’ homes, even putting food that needed to be kept cold in the owners’ refrigerators if they were out, Gianfrancesco said.
“It was a different time,” he added.
Loui’s Diner then was very different from the institution Brown students know and love today. Customers used “meal tickets” to purchase a set number of meals in advance, and the menu consisted of more standard diner fare, such as pot roast and meatloaf, Gianfrancesco said.
Eventually, as the diner attracted more and more business, the grocery store closed. Running the diner was no easy task — Louis insisted that the diner’s doors be open from 2 a.m. to 12 p.m., Gianfrancesco said.
The diner, which was known for its friendly atmosphere as well as its odd hours, catered to both Providence residents and local college students who would come to restaurant in need of hearty food after a night on the town.
As Louis aged, the diner’s hours evolved, although they remain distinctive. Loui’s now opens at 5 a.m. and closes promptly at 3 p.m. seven days a week, Gianfrancesco said.
The diner’s odd hours had its benefits, including drawing an alternative crowd. “If you open at 5 a.m., you get the drunk people,” Cullinane said.
“It used to be more fun before when we were open for late nights,” Gianfrancesco said. He’s considered reinstating the diner’s old hours, he said, but he’s too busy managing the family’s various Providence properties.
Louis died in August 1999, leaving the diner in the care of his six children who make sure the diner maintains the same feel its first owner created.
“It was always my grandfather’s passion,” Cullinane said.
Home fries and Hollywood
Last year, Loui’s Diner received a call from “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” Cullinane said. Fieri, who hosts the show, was referred to the restaurant by a former Johnson and Wales University student, she said.
The show, filmed on location July 29, featured Loui’s granola pancakes, turkey dinner and barbecued chicken-and-cheese ravioli, showing in rapid-fire succession the secret ingredients and instructions behind each signature dish.
Each recipe holds surprises — the granola pancakes, for example, include turmeric and rum along with to oats, fruit and honey. In the episode, Fieri called the pancakes “interesting, like everything here is.”
But the barbecued chicken-and-cheese ravioli was clearly one of Fieri’s favorites. “Off the hook,” he said in enjoyment after his
Fieri is not the first celebrity to drop by the diner. John F. Kennedy once sat down for a meal at Loui’s, as have filmmaker Steven Spielberg P’12 and the Beatles’ George Harrison.
“My mom still has a check from JFK, Jr., and she will never part with it,” Cullinane said.
But the regular customers — construction workers, Providence locals and Brown staff and students — are the ones who keep Loui’s in business year after year, Gianfrancesco said.
“We have a very close bond between Loui’s and Brown,” Cullinane agreed.
“The atmosphere is great,” said Josh Garcia ’11, who works at the diner on weekends. The diner is a “hodgepodge of locals, students and professors. It is its own community by itself in a one-room building.”
Although Garcia generally works daytime hours, he said he worked the 5 a.m. shift once on a Thursday morning before going to class. “I was so tired I spilled my coffee and cut myself,” he said.
Still, Garcia said he wouldn’t want to work anywhere else. “It’s my favorite place in the world right now,” he added.
The students who came to Loui’s Diner to watch the show seemed to agree.
“I love Loui’s and I love the TV show,” said RISD student Hannah Tarr.
But Fieri may have said it best: “What a great place, man.”