Over the past 40 years, Providence has become a sort of Cinderella city. A showcase of effective urban revival, it's also a burgeoning culinary hotspot, and the two renaissances have come hand in hand.

Just as Providence's long-forsaken downtown began transforming in the late 1970s, the groundbreaking restaurant Al Forno (577 S. Main St.; tel. 401/273-9760; opened in 1980 in a nearly 200-year-old iron warehouse on the fringes of downtown. Though Johanne Killeen and George Germon's casual-dining menu carried an Italian stamp, featuring wood-fired pizzas and open-grilled meats, it had so much more verve and sophistication than the traditional red-sauce restaurants of Federal Hill's immigrant Italian neighborhood, it touched off a dining revolution in a city spoiling for change.

In the decades since, Providence's dining scene has become one of the most vital in the nation, even as the cityscape has been resurrected. When Al Forno moved in 1990 to more spacious digs in the revived Main Street warehouse district (where there's still a wait for tables, such is Al Forno's popularity), Killeen and Germon helped Bruce Tillinghast open New Rivers (7 Steeple St.; tel. 401/751-0350; in Al Forno's old site, serving a bold and inventive multicultural cuisine in that intimate 40-seat space. The name references the global mix-and-match of Tillinghast's menu, as well as the uncovering of Providence's long-buried rivers in the late 1980s, set off in 1994 by the stunning downtown Riverwalk development. Right on Riverwalk, Café Nuovo (One Citizens Plaza; tel. 401/421-2525; offers white-linen fine dining; chef Tim Kelly turns out exquisitely presented plates of creative fusion cuisine using top-dollar ingredients sourced from all over the globe. It's a particularly elegant place to dine during WaterFire, festive nights (frequently on summer Saturdays) when the winding Providence river glows with bonfires and luminarias gliding along the water on silent black gondolas. And as the downtown renaissance solidified, longtime Federal Hill favorite Gracie's (194 Washington St.; tel. 401/272-7811; moved to a refined industrial-chic setting across from the Trinity Rep Theater, where chef Joe Hafner wows diners with deceptively simple preparations that showcase his market-fresh ingredients; his meticulous tasting menus change daily, reflecting what's in season.

Meanwhile, in the College Hill district close to both Brown University and the Rhode Island School of Design, gentrifying urban pioneers saved block after block of rundown colonial- and Federal-era townhouses from the wrecking ball through the 1980s and 1990s. A set of smart neighborhood bistros soon followed, such as the French-inspired brasserie Red Stripe (465 Angell St.; tel. 401/437-6950;, a cheery wainscoted spot with black-and-white tiled floors and an open kitchen known for its hanger steaks, omelets, oven-roasted tomato soup, and grilled cheese with prosciutto, pear, and basil. At Chez Pascal (960 Hope St.; tel. 401/421-4422;, with walls warmly painted in oranges and reds, Matthew Gennuso reinterprets French classics like cassoulets, confits, and bouillabaisses with local ingredients. On their six-course Tomato Dinner, for example, each course does something different with tomatoes grown on a nearby organic farm.

Yet amid all the trendy rehab, the gutsy spirit of old Providence hangs on in one beloved institution: the Haven Bros. food truck (tel. 401/861-7777), a beat-up aluminum-sided truck that pulls into a parking space in Kennedy Plaza next to City Hall every afternoon between 4pm and 5pm and stays there until well past midnight. There are only six stools at the counter, but the burgers and fries are excellent, and regular customers include a full cross-section of Providence society, from janitors to politicians, reporters to car mechanics, nightclub-hoppers to cops.

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