Mile and a Quarter
Barnsider’s makes a comeback with a menu that’s primarily Mediterranean comfort food, but hints of wanting to be more adventurous.
By Karen Deutsch
photography by Angel Tucker
Mile and a Quarter
334 South Water St., Providence, 331-1500, mileandaquarterri.com. Hours Open Tues.-Sun. for dinner, Sundays for lunch. Reservations recommended. Wheelchair accessible, though you should approach from South Water Street rather than South Main. Street and lot parking. Cuisine Casual American. Capacity About 200 in total. Vibe Undecided, or malleable, depending on the customers. Dark woods and stained glass chandeliers suggest early Americana but the menu hasn’t fully committed. Prices Appetizers $8–$12; entrees $10–$24, desserts $7. Karen’s picks Lamb kefthedes, salads, roast chicken, steak.
Key Fair Good Very Good Excellent Half-star
If there were a Rorschach test pertaining to Mile and a Quarter, nearly every Providence resident would respond, “salad bar,” the most memorable, retro feature of the old Barnsider’s on South Main Street. But, alas. Though the bowls of iceberg, olives and croutons, the wedges of cheese and the cruets of olive oil have been replaced by a bar, no one seems able to let it go.
Except, of course, for Providence restaurateur Andy Mitrellis (Paragon, Andreas, Spats), who reopened the restaurant this year, keeping the name but opting for an atmosphere more sensible than saloon. The space, which begins with a bar area that holds nearly three dozen, borders on huge. The downstairs dining room seats 150 and that's not including the upstairs, though Mitrellis has clearly planned on private parties taking up some of those seats. Brick archways delineate niches and alcoves have velvet curtains ready to be drawn, segregating the affairs from the general public.
Brown is the dominant color though the leather chairs, paneled walls and casually framed posters have an informality about them. To be fair, the bar draws the crowd, given that it's the most intimate spot in a restaurant that lacks the little crevices that make dinner more romantic than perfunctory. The menu, too, is familiar and rarely attempts the unexpected intricacies that draw in larger groups of cocktail drinkers and grazers. There are a few Mediterranean influences — lamb, grilled octopus, kataifi wrapped scallops — but, for the most part, it's a safe collection of dishes that cover dinners from weeknight to celebratory.
The tough part is classifying the cuisine, which is problematic for diners. Truth is, we're creatures of habit who respond to classifications: date night, family dinner, clients, pre-theater. But it’s hard to make sense of the determinedly eclectic customers. On any given night, there are retired couples in the front room, a family in the back basking in the glow of simultaneous cell phone updates, and a group of single thirty-somethings in between, whose conversation grows louder with each passing draft. Even the music is innocuous enough to avoid offending anyone, regardless of disparate cultures or expectations.
(“It sounds like running water with chimes,” said a woman as she drank down a sugar-rimmed lemon drop martini.)
Identity crisis aside, the food is familiar but good. Basic salads are joined by riffs on favorites: margherita pizza is topped with Shy Brothers Cloumage from Westport ($12), calamari is served with fried olives ($10) and lamb meatballs are doused in tomato and warm feta ($11). Paired with a heavy glass of red, this informal dish is unexpectedly hard to resist. The lone throwback to the original Barnsider’s Mile and a Quarter is the hot bread with herb butter, the embodiment of suburban nostalgia that still floods people as they reminisce.
Entrees, however, are split into two branches rather than one clarified vision. One half takes the traditional route: steaks, chicken and seafood, all mature enough to call new American but with components that surprise. Beef, lamb and poultry ($17–$24) arrive with potato puree though seafood has a bit more diversity with the addition of polenta or saffron rice. Audacious isn't the native language here; scallops are paired with cauliflower puree and chili oil ($23), and the plate ends up visually and texturally monochromatic.
Pasta has a retro appeal without seeming dated. Carbonara with pancetta ($15) and a pappardelle with lamb ragu ($17) hit what could have been an old school approach: Sunday dinner at your Italian grandma's — though they don't have much company on a list that hesitates to claim one culture as its own.
Chef Jeff Paquette, who comes from Andreas, has a colloquial culinary side and puts that into practice here with a broad sandwich menu that serves both lunch and dinner. The good news is that the options aren't expensive and in most cases (crab cake [$14] excepted), they're genuinely appealing. Burgers are well made and topped with fried onions and horseradish mayo ($11). Grilled cheese goes modern with a mixture of goat and Gruyere as well as roasted mushrooms ($10). But it's easiest to love the updated BLT with tomato jam and cheese curd ($10). The issue is how to make sense of a table where one person wants a three-course meal and the other opts for a quick bite. It happens, of course, all over Thayer Street but the spaces are more suited for a laissez-faire crowd that’s happy to sit in the dark and isn't paying much attention to food after several martinis or a yard of beer.
It's funny, frankly, that Mitrellis hasn't committed to one side of the plan or the other. Mile and a Quarter could have been a Paragon for an older crowd or a sports bar spread out over several rooms. As it is now, it's undecided. Even the dessert menu plays it as mainstream as possible. Creme brulee, profiteroles and cheesecake ($7) don't dictate a culinary identity, which makes them safe bets. They're simply sweet in a big way. All are good, depending on your proclivity: Cheesecake with flambeed fruit in Grand Marnier has some depth while the cream-puffs, drenched in chocolate, appeal to the candy bar crowd.
None will make it clear, though, what Mile and a Quarter is going for. That's up to the space and an unambiguous vision. When it comes, we might finally get rid of Barnsiders’ past.