by by Gillian Brassil

illustration by by Laura Armstrong


I'm an avid reader of Esquire--but let's not get into that--so I sighed with disappointment when I saw that their March issue had a listing of the 59 best breakfast places in America. Because every time Esquire does one of these lists, the restaurants are always in New York or LA, or they're the obligatory shout-outs to small-town America: "Hey, Willmette, Illinois: your pancakes rock!" Providence, or my old homestead Nashville, never made the cut.

But lo! Twinkling at me from the middle of the list: "NICKS ON BROADWAY, PROVIDENCE." Delighted that a delicious meal was merely a 40-minute walk away, I immediately resolved to go. From their name's intentionally-omitted apostrophe and Esquire's glowing review of their homefries, I expected a homey diner and waitresses with hyphenated names; with this in mind I gathered up four friends in my "Let's get brunch!" basket and headed out on a Sunday morning.
On the walk over, my native-New-Yorker friend Gabe worried aloud about the soundness of our decision to go to Sunday brunch at noon without a reservation.
"Shut up, Gabe," I said. "This is Providence, not New York. People can get tables here."
Unfortunately, our arrival at Nicks saw cloudy skies as it literally started to rain on us. "No worries!" I chirruped, until we were told that the wait would be an hour. We put our name down and trudged dejectedly back down Broadway, trying to figure out how to kill the time and distract ourselves from hunger. We decided on Seven Stars Bakery for coffee, which we'd passed on the way to Nicks only a few blocks before. At the end of the hour, temporarily sated with tea and pastries, we headed back to Nicks, only to be told that our name had just been called and our table taken. We decided to wait in-restaurant this time, though, to foil any other table-snatchers' plans.
Nicks seems designed to taunt people while they wait, as the small standing area is immediately adjacent to the open kitchen: flames and potatoes and eggs and orange juice. I whimpered as I watched pesto toast being prepared, and it suddenly occurred to me that Nicks was far from the seedy truckers' haven I had envisioned. Instead, the tiny restaurant--it seats maybe twenty--was chic, well-lit and populated by middle-aged intellectuals just yearning for French toast.
Once seated and done with remarking on how reasonably-priced everything was, we commenced eagerly to ordering: tofu scrambles, black bean and egg skillets, a frittata. And a side of the crucial component: the homefries that brought me there in the first place.
I'll be honest. My frittata was not spectacular, and my friends' food seemed to be in the same boat. We were left with a peculiar paradox: our meals weren't necessarily worth an hour's wait, but after an hour, any food feels intensely satisfying and delicious. But then came the homefries, restoring my faith in Nicks and Esquire, and assuring me I'd make the trek again: a plate of sweet potatoes and regular potatoes with the skin still on, peppered and salted, cooked until they were crisp on the outside, soft and hot on the inside. The masterstroke of sweet potatoes is what did it, really, because they took the dish from "Just like Mom's!" to a reminder of why we pay to eat out: perfectly cooked comfort food with a wink and a twist. That alone is worth getting off the Hill for.

On a Saturday recently, the Man I Know I Am Going To Marry came down from Boston for brunch with me. He is a vegan, so Julian's, with its hearty selection of vegan entrees, was the obvious choice. I was aware of the place not because of my extensive hipster cachet, but because I'd passed it on my Nicks escapade. So, I was armed only with the knowledge that multiple online reviews said it reminded them of the Pacific Northwest.
When we walked into the place, it was crowded and loud and dark, more rock club than restaurant. "If you like light, Julian's is not the place for you," I muttered, my old-lady tendencies showing their stripes. However, despite the place's obvious love affair with Seattle--I expected even the babies in booster seats to have tattoos--I quickly fell for it anyway, as we were seated immediately and handed menus that made me swoon. Tell me I can put bleu cheese in my tofu scramble, and my heart is yours. I even liked that some menu items were pluralized with Zs; "If these eggs are saucy enough to call EGGZ, how could they not be incredible?" I reasoned.
The thing about Julian's is that sometimes you'll have to yell to be heard over the music--Kings of Leon in our case--and you might get seated at a table with a lamp that's reminiscent of an interrogation room. But the waitresses are friendly without being chatty, and the coffee is rich and comes in thick, heavy mugs. And the food is just right: my avocado, bleu cheese and tomato tofu scramble was served with thick baguette toast and a healthy heaping of classic-style homefries; my vegan co-conspirator delighted in his seitan and soy-cheese wrap. We were full, and we were happy, and it was kind of nice that the place was so overwhelming, that we could talk about the whales inlaid on our wooden table or the chalkboard menu ("Saint Jamez Benedict--VERY DELICIOUS!") when our conversation lulled. It was nice that sometimes we had to pantomime at each other, that we were forced to notice the shape of each other's hands.

The mile-or-so walk between campus and Olga's takes you under I-195, under the Point Street Bridge and into the Jewelry District; suffice it to say that the vistas are hardly breathtaking. As we passed under a bridge, my sister Ariel noted dolefully, "There aren't even any pigeons. There are always pigeons." Ever the gracious tour guide, I provided her with helpful background: "Rhode Island's unemployment rate is the second-highest of any state!"
My shameful bias against ugly parts of town flared up as I quickly developed a wariness of Olga's: how could a quaint bakery exist amid such urban desolation? Every minute, I anxiously anticipated a change of scenery into a land of hip young parents and vegetarians, but no: I ended up spotting the restaurant's sign behind a gas station. Olga's Cup and Saucer is nestled among three or four other restaurants--which I weakly referred to as "Restaurant Row!" in an effort to make it seem more attractive to Ariel--in an area that is, as far as I can tell, mostly industrial.
Nonetheless, the restaurant itself showed no sign of the barren streets outside. It seemed to model itself as a place to talk: no music, plenty of light, and service so slow that there was simply nothing else to do but chat. There was nary a solitary sitter in the place; instead, there were lots of families with small children and a surprisingly high proportion of gay couples in their thirties. As Plato once said, "Who doesn't enjoy a toad in the hole?"
The Olga's brunch menu keeps it classic with omelettes, poached eggs, crepes, corn beef hash. Ariel and I opted for French toast and a basic breakfast platter: toast, homefries, and two eggs any style--I asked for scrambled but was given eggs that can only be described as "flat." As a veritable homefry expert at this point, I am sorry to report that their potato/sweet potato combo was nowhere near as good as Nick's; the skin was sometimes so tough that the pieces were hard to chew. The French toast, though, was incredible: huge fluffy pieces with banana compote that tasted like bananas foster. Though the wait for our drinks and food didn't take too long, the incredible inattention during every other part of the meal had me wondering if our waiter was napping in the kitchen. I was dying of thirst--dying, I tell you!--but even my numerous meaningful looks at the waiter and then toward my water glass did nothing. Even worse, he took a full twenty minutes after our plates had been cleared to bring out our checks. I hate to say it, but the food didn't make up for the abysmal service and the dismal walk over. This toad does not plan to frequent that hole again.