More than half a dozen new restaurants have opened in Jamestown in the last 18 months, plus new owners have taken over Village Hearth Bakery & Cafe, an island institution for two decades. “A renaissance,” is how Kevin Gaudreau, a Jamestown native and seasoned restaurateur, describes it.
“When I was a kid, it was a totally blue-collar community,” he said. Gaudreau was cooking in New York City when he and his wife decided they wanted to return to Conanicut Island to start a family. He ran the kitchen at the now closed Trattoria Simpatico for five years. He tried to buy the iconic restaurant more than once, but moved on to other Rhode Island restaurants when a deal never materialized.
“About a year and a half ago, a group of Jamestowners approached me and asked if I wanted to come in as a partner, buy shares in the location, and be the operator,” he explained. “Beech,” a 238-seat restaurant named for the massive 150-year-old American Copper Beech tree that covers much of the outdoor dining space, opened in July of this year. (“Ruth,” as the tree is called, is named after Ruth Bader Ginsburg and is as carefully maintained as the restaurant itself.)
“It was a long time coming,” said Gaudeau, who describes the Jamestown food scene after the 2008 financial crisis as a “food desert.”
“Demographically, the island has changed a bit, obviously. COVID was probably a part of that. We’ve had many of these temporary residents decide to spend their winters here instead of having to go back to New York, Philadelphia or Washington,” Gaudeau said. “Everyone was working from home anyway, so we’ve seen people become more full-time residents this year, and I think that’s what really helped all these local businesses.”
For Romash and Alexander, the pandemic provided an opportunity to test the market while they patiently waited for suitable restaurant space to become available. They started a weekly dinner delivery business in Jamestown during the pandemic that also served as a research project.
“It became an incubator to find out what the people on the island really want and like,” Alexander said. The couple met a local developer who bought a building that had been a family-owned pharmacy on Narragansett Avenue to create “Our Table,” a warm, elevated comfort food restaurant that opened in May. Today, grilled blackened tuna over buttered grits, braised short ribs, and fried chicken and biscuits topped with maple bourbon butter, honey mustard, and a barbecue glaze are just a few of the dishes that they drive bookings mid-week, even at this time of year, on an island with a population of just 5,536 full-time residents.
“We started with a lot of desire to create a local neighborhood; a place for Jamestowners,” Romash explained, though she was excited to see a surge of diners from Newport, East Greenwich and beyond. “We live here, we are part of this community, we are committed to this community, and I love it when I look around the restaurant and know that 90 percent of our seats are taken by our neighbors.”
Evan Smith, a Jamestown resident for more than 25 years (“that makes me a brat,” he said with a laugh) who serves as CEO and president of Discover Newport, the region’s visitors’ bureau, said the Local support is critical to the sustainability of a restaurant here.
“There’s this feeling, and this is more of me speaking as a resident at the moment, you’re saying to yourself, ‘Do I feel like leaving the island tonight?’ Honestly, it’s an island thing,” Smith explains. He points to JB’s on the Water, which opened last summer in what many residents knew as The Bay Voyage. Its new owner, John Brito, opened Wickford on the Water in North Kingstown in 2019, and when he heard about the Jamestown vacancy, and the sight, he jumped.
“I didn’t even know that place existed,” Brito said. “I didn’t know there were views left for restaurants like this in Rhode Island.” Seeing an opportunity to bring a business-casual restaurant with a comfortable, nautical vibe to Narragansett Bay, Brito invested in an extensive renovation.
“We are trying to cover all the bases that fit in the city. That’s all it is; involve the community, be part of it,” said Brito, who is committed to keeping it open seven days a week.
But Smith says tapping into the Wickford restaurant’s existing audience allows JB to connect “on both levels.”
“Both with the islanders and with the people of the west coast; North and south of Kingstown, Narragansett, East Greenwich. They are bringing a whole new audience to Jamestown.”
Jake Rojas had already earned brand recognition and a loyal following when he opened Tallulah’s Taqueria in Jamestown in May 2021. He operated a small seasonal shack just off the shoreline of Dutch Harbor along the West Passage of Conanicut Island in 2013 to 2019, where he served tacos, burritos and burrito bowls. When 35 Narragansett Ave. became available, he jumped at the opportunity to have a physical location. “We thought it would be great to have a restaurant in our hometown,” Rojas said.
The take-out restaurant offers lunch and dinner from Friday to Sunday. Rojas plans to stay open until the second weekend of December, later than last year, and will reopen in March. Rojas’s niche is affordable, consistent, and convenient high-quality sourced food.
“Where people can feed their family for $20 or $30, or you can have [a meal] for yourself for $12 or $15, and it’s kind of hard to do that right now,” Rojas said.
Top quality has also been a priority for Stephanie and Lindsay Haigh, who left high-profile careers in Atlanta to carry on the legacy of Jamestown’s beloved Village Hearth Bakery & Cafe. The couple began their search for a restaurant in Provincetown, Massachusetts, without even considering Rhode Island until Village Hearth was brought to their attention by a real estate agent.
Since it was mid COVID, decisions were made quickly. Soon the two were renovating the neighborhood bakery with an enviable reputation. When the Haighs opened in March 2021, they didn’t know anyone on the island. That changed quickly. “Our second week we were open, [a neighbor] he stuck his head out of the window and said, ‘I live just around the corner. My name is Kim and we’re going to be best friends.’” Indeed, she was right.
“Jamestown welcomed us with open arms,” said Lindsay Haigh. “It couldn’t be a better place or a better fit for us. The community supported us in every way.”
While they have stayed true to the integrity of the Bakery Café, they have also made changes, expanding the breakfast and lunch menu and adding pastries, breads, soups, and some gluten-free vegan dishes. With many of their offerings selling out, it’s clear they’ve made quite an impression.
“I can say that this is where we will live forever,” Stephanie Haigh said. “It is a very special place with very special people.”