Only in Olneyville, vintage treasures and treats

Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 7, 2012
This article is part of the series On the Rhode


Over the river and through the woods – at a lengthy three miles from campus, Providence’s Olneyville neighborhood might seem like a reach even for Brown students eager to explore.

At first glance, the district might seem sketchy. Dilapidated houses line residential streets as you approach from Atwells Avenue. 

But the ardent explorer is certainly rewarded for taking a closer look. Olneyville is home to the Atlantic Furniture Company and the Big Top Flea Market, the Yellow Peril Gallery and wieners from the legendary Olneyville N.Y. System, among other Latin American-inspired restaurants and bakeries. Nestled between Atwells Avenue and Route 6, the traditionally Hispanic neighborhood also houses a small park and playground.

The neighborhood may have seen better times, but the people there are still eager to share their stories over a glass of coffee milk and a loaf of sweet bread.


Wieners “all the way”

Small cafes and cheap restaurants abound, perfect for students in a rush and on a tight budget.

Despite the misleading name, Olneyville N.Y. System wieners boast a preparation unique to Rhode Island ­- a “locally grown favorite,” according to owner Gregory Stevens. The most popular dish, a wiener “all the way,” is topped with mustard, meat sauce with a “secret spice,” onion and celery salt. Another local tradition is coffee milk – cold milk sweetened with coffee syrup.

Inside the restaurant, you are assaulted by the smell of hot dogs, hamburgers and French fries. A counter, packed with chatty customers, lines one wall. Above the grill on the far side, prices for each offering are listed – wieners come in at just under $2. Stevens works the cash register. A man comes in, demanding “25 all the way,” not an uncommon order – customers regularly ask for up to 40 or 50 wieners.

“Wait till it gets busy!” Stevens jokes amid all the bustle. N.Y. System is open until 2 a.m., and its peak hours are late on Friday and Saturday nights.

Patrons come from diverse backgrounds – locals, friends Stevens has amassed over the years and tourists. Some tourists drive up to two hours to experience these legendary wieners, Stevens said. Despite the “rough” neighborhood, Stevens said his business is as lively as ever. The greatest challenge, he said, was to keep the N.Y. System true to its history – the business has been in his family for 65 years.


Latin American delights

“Everything is good!” said the native Guatemalan owner of Guatepan Bakery. Located across the street from the massive flea market, the tiny shop sells sweet bread and pastries according to traditional Guatemalan recipes. But “business is not good,” he said.

This seems to be a trend in Olneyville – the community is certainly suffering, as seen in its worn down buildings and empty sidewalks. But it is still possible to find a few gems amid the residential areas and abandoned structures.

When you enter Cuban Revolution Restaurant and Bar, you are greeted by nine screens showing a silent documentary about Fidel Castro. The 1950s-style music exudes an aura of vintage Cuba, and an empty stage hints at the possibility of live music. The bar, which extends the full length of the restaurant, offers over 30 varieties of imported, domestic and draft beers.

The menu, adorned with bold green, orange and yellow text and images of Castro, has an array of selections fit for meat lovers and vegetarians alike. Fountain drinks come at a steep $3 but the food itself is both affordable and delicious.


Vintage treats and modern art

Food is not Olneyville’s only offering for college visitors. The Big Top Flea Market is located in a massive brick furniture warehouse on Manton Avenue. The majority of its vendors sell knock-off sunglasses, shoes and bags.

With a bit of exploring, you can find some treasures. In a far corner of the flea market is a tiny stall selling beta fish and bamboo. And what might seem to be a pile of junk can actually contain vintage treats – mirrors, tiny tables or vases, the perfect additions to dorm decorations. There is an incense stall with flame-free, plug-in diffusers, so Brown students do not have to fear the wrath of dorm checks.

If you need a break from treasure-hunting, there is a snack bar complete with fresh fruit, coffee and empanadas, which according to Gil Lopez, a friend of the owner, are the most popular choice. 

Yellow Peril Gallery, which features modern and experimental art, is located within the Plant, an old mill complex turned into a community of artists, designers and academics. On an average day, the small gallery welcomes between six and 12 visitors, often wanderers from nearby Cuban Revolution. 

The last show opening hosted 100 people Feb. 3, and Curator Robert Stack and Director Van Souvannasane said the next show scheduled for March 15 might have up to 500 guests.

The last exhibition at Yellow Peril, Todd Jones’ Stereo Balance, ended March 3. Next up is an exhibition on the Occupy movement, featuring multiple artists. It will be an innovative, dynamic and  technology-oriented exhibit, Souvannasane said.

The work showcases “artists exploring different mediums,” he said.

In the summer, the scenic courtyard at the Plant comes alive, Stack said. He said they hope to use it in the future for outdoor exhibitions.

Olneyville features an eclectic array of locally owned food, shops and art. It might be a long hike over, but the walk through downtown Providence and across Federal Hill is both charming and excellent exercise. Away from the monotony of College Hill, Olneyville provides a welcome change of pace.

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