Rhode Island’s Most Famous Foods and Restaurants, History and More

by Victor Martelle
Updated:

With so many different influences that date back to Rhode Island’s founding, one can find some tasty, and even weird and unique foods across the state. With heavy influences from its long history of Italian and Irish immigrants, as well as its fishing and farm industry, cuisines and culture have collided to form what this state has become known for. And with the advent of an increase in even more diverse immigration to the state, Rhode Island’s food is constantly evolving and has been often dubbed the place where one can find any type of food.

You can find more reviews of mine around Rhode Island food here.


Coffee Milk / Coffee Cabinets

Autocrat and Eclipse coffee milk syrups at the side of a glass of coffee milk.

Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, masses of italian immigrants arrived on the north eastern shores of the US. With them, they brought their love for sweet coffee, and it quickly mixed with Rhode Islands high dairy production. While it’s not exactly clear, with the popularity of home use refrigeration in the early 1900s, coffee milk and cabinets were invented.

This came around the start of two companies, Autocrat and Eclipse. These two competing companies started to produce coffee syrup in the 1920s and 1930s. However, Autocrat eventually won out and bought Eclipse many decades later. Coffee milk also became so state famous that in 1993, it became RI’s official beverage.

But what is coffee milk and cabinets? While it has coffee in the name, aside from the large amount of sugar in the syrups, it’s kid friendly – it doesn’t contain caffeine! Like your typical chocolate milk, it’s simply made by using a sweet, coffee flavored syrup mixed in with milk. Coffee cabinets are the same thing, except it’s made with ice cream, making it a fancier way of saying a coffee flavored milkshake.


Dough Boys

Small square doughboys on a paper plate with Iggy's paper bag in background.

Doughboys are deep fried dough which are often large, semi-flat and circular, and topped with cinnamon and sugar. They’re often synonymous with Iggy’s, a restaurant located along Oakland Beach known for their doughboys as well clam cakes and chowder. However, one can often find doughboys at carnivals, outdoor events, and even some restaurants.


Seafood: Clam cakes & Chowder, Fried Calamari, Quahogs, Clams, Oysters, and more!

Three clam cakes and a small bowl of white chowder on a folder newspaper on a black serving dish.

It should come across as no surprise that a state with the word “Island” in it and bordering the Atlantic ocean would specialize in fishing and seafood.

Clam cakes and chowder the most well known, and as the name implies, are two dishes often paired together. Clam cakes are doughy hot cakes that are chewy but crispy on the outside, with pieces of clam mixed in. The clam chowder comes in two varieties, red, or more commonly, white. Red is a light tomato based version and white is a very thick, creamy milk based one. You can find this combo at most American or Italian restaurants in the state.

And while you’re at one of these restaurants, you’ll almost always see fried calamari on the appetizer list. These fried squid rings look like onion rings but don’t be deceived or you’ll be in for a tasty, fishy mistake! Calimari is often paired with jalapeno rings and marinara sauce.

Rhode Islanders have come to love their calamari and seafood so much, during the democratic national committees rollcall nominating Joe Biden in the 2020 election, Representative Joseph McNamara announced the State’s voting results while highlighting RI’s fishing industry by making calamari puns. All the while, an assistant held a giant plate of calamari next to him.

But of course, the seafood doesn’t stop there. Rhode Islanders love their clams, oysters, lobster, shrimp, and quahogs (often stuffed). Families will sometimes go on fishing or “quahogging” expeditions to bring back and eat. Speaking of quahogs, did you know the popular comedy show Family Guy is based on Rhode Island? It takes place in a fictional town of Quahog, Rhode Island!


Pizza strips

Clear plastic bags of sealed pizza strips in a basket.

Who doesn’t love uncooked, doughy pizza that has no toppings except red tomato sauce? Wait, you don’t?! Well, Rhode Islanders can’t get enough of it! You can find these cheap pastries sitting out at your local grocery store in plastic bags, or at a bakery and most cookouts. The dough is often thick and chewy, and the only topping you’ll ever find is a thin layer of red sauce and perhaps some light herbs. They’re almost always served at room temperature.

Where they came from exactly is a mystery, but one can guess it was some concoction brought about by the heavy Italian culture.


Gregg’s Death By Chocolate Cake

Gregg's employee holds a Death by Chocolate Cake and poses with Barack Obama at the serving desk.

Gregg’s is an American restaurant that was founded in Warwick during 1972 and has since become one of the most popular restaurants in RI known for their desserts, specifically their death by chocolate cake. You don’t even need to taste it, just looking at this near-black cake shows just how rich and chocolatey it is. The cake is so popular, then president Barack Obama ordered it when he visited the restaurant – he’s still alive after eating it!


Del’s & Mr. Lemons Lemonade

Five fill lemonade cups that say "Dels Fresh Fruit" on it line a steel counter.

Both of these lemonade shops are known for their… lemonade! Dels was brought about by Angelo DeLucia from Italy in the 1940s and has been a famous slush ever since. They’ve since expanded with over 20 locations including shops, ice cream trucks, and carts. You can also find Del’s lemonade packets to make at home in grocery stores and local shops. Lastly, it was nominated to be the State’s beverage but lost to Coffee Milk in 1993!

While not accredited as much as Dels, many local lemonade connoisseurs prefer the more creamy style of Mr. Lemons, a non-monopoly competing shop that has also been around for several decades. Unlike Del’s slushy consistency, Mr. Lemons is much more creamy, like a Slurpee or ICEE you’d find at a theater but even more thick!


Olyneville New York System Wieners

Eight loaded hot dog wieners in buns lined on a persons arm to display.

These weiner have been making a huge impact since the 1930s when Anthony Stavrianakos opened up shop in the Olynveille neighborhood in Providence.

They look like your standard hot dogs but instead of using only beef, it’s also mixed with veal and pork. They’re traditionally topped with mustard, meat sauce, celery and onions, and served with a side of coffee milk. For whatever reason, it’s heavily frowned upon to put ketchup on these wieners.


Newport Creamery’s Awful Awful Shakes

Large red and white serving cup that says "Awful Awful" and another green and white cup in the background that says "Newport Creamery" on a table.

With a name like Awful Awful, you might think twice about taking a sip, but these extra thick milkshakes made with ice milk aren’t as “awful” as they sound. Actually, they’re so tasty, they’ve become famous across the state!

They’re served exclusively by Newport Creamery, a restaurant that opened in the 1940s by Samuel Rector and his family. Since that time, Newport Creamery has expanded to over 10 different locations around little Rhode Island and has even branched out to nearby Massachusetts.


Allies Cake Donut

Allie's Donut owner poses with Governor Gina Raimundo and another older woman in the kitchen, all holding a large tray of colorful donuts.

Want a donut the size of a cake? Opened by Allie Briggs in 1968, Allie’s Donuts has topped the charts as having some of the best donuts in America. But they go even bigger, specializing in cake sized donuts, they’ve become known across the state and a family favorite.


Modern Diner’s Custard French Toast

Outside picture of the Modern Diner restaurant, shows a train car without wheels.

After winning several best diner awards and its custard French toast being featured on the Food Network, the Modern Diner has become recognized not only locally, but nationally as well. It was also the first diner to be named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Indeed, its history is as deep as the walls of the diner themselves as it’s the only diner left being housed in a Sterling Streamliner.

You can checkout my experience there by clicking here!


Bonus: Providence’s Food Locations Detailed

With Rhode Island being fairly diverse compared to other states, it should come as no surprise then that you can find almost any type of food. This is especially true in its capitol, Providence, as well as neighboring towns which house a diverse population due to its heavy immigrant population from around the world. This is further complimented by its world famous universities, culinary school Johnson & Wales, Brown University, and Rhode Island School of Design. Since being globally recognized, students from around the world attend year round, and in light of so, restaurants and shops have opened up to cater to their tastes.

Federal Hill: One can find traditional, albeit expensive, Italian food and pastries on Federal Hill. This strip is so well recognized by the city, even the double yellow marking on the road is instead painted using the colors of the Italian flag. There are also often festivities, events, and even dining on the street!

East Side: The east side of Providence is home to both the Rhode Island School of Design and Brown University which have attracted students from around the world, and restaurants have noticed! The most well known street is Thayer, which is a long strip of restaurants and businesses where one can find goodies from of all different places including Greece, Asia, the Middle East, India, and more. If you’re craving more, you don’t have to look much further either. Nearby, there is Wickenden Street where people can find even more local places, although they are more geared toward the Italian and general American population.

West/South Side: If you’re craving some authentic Latino food, these are your places. Many of these small shops are run by families. It’s also important to note that Spanish is often the primary language in these establishments, so it’s best to go with someone who knows the language or you may be out of luck in some cases.


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