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Brunch on Broadway, with fresh flavors and flair

Outside, crowds have begun to gather in anticipation, and inside, ovens and stoves are nearly warm enough to welcome the hundreds of orders they will field that day. A full staff has spent the past hour cracking eggs and readying potatoes, and the aroma of fresh drip coffee now seeps through the locked doors. It is Saturday morning on Broadway Street, and brunch is about to begin.

Locals will flock to Federal Hill's budding street for the weekend meal, and most will have only two places in mind: Julian's and Nicks on Broadway. Though they're a quick stroll from one another, each offers its own unique twist on the weekend dining experience.

The aesthetic

Julian's is decorated head to toe, with scarcely a crack left untouched. "It's a floor-to-ceiling kind of place," said Julian Forge, its owner and founder. "I just tried to hit every corner."

But the decorations at Julian's begin before one enters the door. Red canvas awnings hang over its entrance and the windows are dotted with flyers advertising poetry readings, art shows and open-mic nights.

Once inside, the walls range from solid bright red to exposed brick, all cluttered with alternative art, and customers are seated around intricately decorated tables. "I wanted there to be lots going on," Forge said.

From the lengthy specials menu that sits at the bar's edge, to the range of wall hangings and scattered trinkets, the restaurant overflows with visual information.

But a sense of balance was equally as important to Forge. A swerving bar forms the division between kitchen and restaurant. "I designed it after a yin yang," he said. "Half kitchen, half restaurant."  

In stark contrast to Julian's complicated aesthetic, Nicks on Broadway welcomes its patrons to a modest facade made of brick and glass. "I was going for an urban, contemporary environment," said Derek Wagner, its owner and operator. "There's no art, the tables are bare, and there are lots of clean, open spaces. I want people to focus on the food."

And much like at Julian's, the food is prepared in plain view of its customers. Only a long, red, granite bar guards the kitchen.

"That's part of the charm," Wagner said. "It makes the whole experience more intimate."

But the interior is truly brought to life with an abundance of red tile, stainless steel and dark wood. Everything from the flow of the space to the white, pristine china that Wagner chose drives home its crisp modern ambiance. "I was conscious of everything, from the silverware to the lighting," he said.

The product of Wagner's careful work is a neat arrangement of shapes and colors, a minimalistic Miro to Julian's busy Pollock.

The brunch

Preparation begins long before the crowds of hungry patrons line up for their weekend fix.

"We don't open until 7 a.m. on Saturday, but there are days and days of preparation that go into our weekends," Wagner said.

At Julian's, it is no different. "It's the same type of deal here," he said.

Hours before their doors open, both kitchens are fully staffed. Chefs and sous-chefs warm the ovens and ready the food, and waiters prepare the tables for the swarms of eager customers that file in each day. "Most of the staff get here before six and start turning everything on and setting everything up," Wagner said.

But once the crowds have begun to shuffle in, preparation becomes an afterthought and the food takes center stage.

At Julian's, the hard menu offers many offshoots of traditional brunch and breakfast plates such as The Desperado, eggs benedict made with avocado and fresh salsa; The Sweet Potato, Broccoli and Swiss Hash, a twist on the American beef-based dish; and The Pesto-fu, a pesto tofu scramble of kale, caramelized onions, oyster mushrooms, shredded carrot and roasted brussels sprouts.

But the menu also includes separate sections for simpler egg dishes and omelets.

"Eggs are where it's at," Forge said of breakfast. "It's where it all begins."

Down the street, Nicks on Broadway offers a similarly eclectic range of choices. On the same page one can find Brioche French Toast, vanilla battered and thick cut with Fitzhugh Family Vermont maple; Tofu and Seasonal Vegetables, sauteed with garlic, herbs and lemon; Grilled Yellow-fin Tuna; and The Special, two eggs any style, home-fried potatoes and toast.

But the hard menus at Julian's and Nicks on Broadway are complemented with extensive specials menus.

"It's the specials that allow our chefs to be creative every day," Forge said.

And perhaps it is the emphasis on creative cuisine that really brings the two restaurants to the forefront of weekend daytime dining.

"I try to make things that are well-respected from a culinary perspective, but also interesting and fresh," Wagner said of his special's menu.

Experimental dishes at Nicks on Broadway have included Pate and Eggs, Oysters and Caviar and Pork Belly. "They are things people don't normally see on a brunch menu," Wagner said. "The food is always a constant source of inspiration."

And both said of their evolving menus that there is still much more to come.

A mutual respect

Fifteen years ago when Julian's first opened, Broadway Street was far from the trendy area it has become. "Half of the houses were still boarded up," Forge said. But that was part of its lure. "I figured, if I fixed the front streets, the back streets would follow."

And seven years later, Nicks on Broadway followed suit, opening just across the street.

But unlike most competing businesses, the two began what has become a highly supportive relationship. "It has always been so important to have Julian's blessing," Wagner said. "After work I used to walk over (to Julian's) and have a beer."

Today, both restaurants have cemented themselves as foundational pieces of the increasingly hip Broadway Street, but neither has relinquished its perpetual goal of improvement.

Forge recently bought a double-decker bus he is in the process of converting into a "Julian's on wheels." "The second floor will be the kitchen, and the first floor will be the restaurant," he said. "I want to be able to hit all the Providence hotspots."

And Wagner is currently finishing an expansion that will include a full bar and a patio.

"I really think me and Derek are the trendsetters in the business," Forge said.

But neither are worried about outgrowing each other's company. Though Nicks on Broadway no longer sits across the street from Julian's, Wagner and Forge are proud of their lasting friendship.

"We'd borrow sugar from each other if we needed to," Wagner said.

The appreciation is mutual. "Yup, that's exactly the type of relationship that we have," Julian responded.




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