777 Elmwood Avenue, Providence
(401) 781-0777
www.elmwooddiner.com

The life of a diner is a precarious one. While there are a lot of people who appreciate them, even in their worst states of disrepair, there are others who have little or no respect for these homely old refugees from the twentieth century. Developers tear them down without remorse, drunk drivers crash into them, and fires (both accidental and not) turn them into scorched shells. Even when graced with owners with the best of intentions, diners often sit forlornly in vacant lots awaiting an infusion of cash or the clearing of red tape.

The Elmwood Diner is an example of a diner that, against all odds, has risen from the ashes of economic hard times, changing public tastes, and its various owners' inexperience, financial difficulties, and/or neglect, over and over again.

Central Diner and original Elmwood Diner incarnations
The Elmwood, constructed in 1947 by the Worcester Lunch Car Company (#806), was a rare specimen that, in order to comply with downtown building codes, was specially designed to be fireproof. It was built for Ralph "Truck" Narducci, who had it installed at 27 West Exchange Street in Providence (site of the present-day Westin Hotel), replacing an earlier eatery known as the Central Diner that had been on that spot since 1932. The new diner took the name of the old, operating as the Central Diner until around 1972.

When the owner of the property decided to build a parking lot around 1953, the diner was moved to its present location on Elmwood Avenue. At the same time Narducci added a cinderblock kitchen addition.

Narducci ran the Central Diner until 1968, when he turned the operating reins over to Christopher Artegian, although he retained ownership. The business disappeared from city directories from 1973 to 1976, but there is a record of Narducci applying for a permit to fit a mansard roof and wood siding to the building in 1975, probably in preparation for selling it. The roof was never added, but the siding was, and in 1977 Edward Degrandere was listed as the operator of the newly rechristened Elmwood Diner.

Some time between 1956 and the 1970s the stainless steel vestibule at the front of the diner was added.

Jim's Diner, Jenn's Elmwood Diner, Ole Elmwood Diner, Louie's Diner
In 1987 and '88 the operator was Phil O'Donnell, and it was under his watch that the cinderblock dining room addition was built. In 1990 it was known as Jim's Diner, but not for long. It was soon purchased and reopened by Jennifer Davis, sister of singer Jeffrey Osborne, who put her experience cooking for six children to work. Saturday was Soul Day at Jenn's Elmwood Diner (as it was then called), with home-fried chicken, cornbread, greens cooked with pork, ribs, potato salad, and chitlins on the menu.

The diner was leased (with an option to buy) by partners Paul Truman and Steve Calabro in May 1995, and rechristened the Ole Elmwood Diner. The men extensively renovated the diner, removing the tan siding that hid its red porcelain-enameled steel sides, fixing windows, scraping away years of accumulated grease, and reinstalling old fixtures found in the basement. But it didn't remain in their hands long. Around 1997 or 1998 it was known as Louie's Diner where, according to a fridge magnet sent to us by Dave from Cranston, you could find "Food so great, you'll scrape your plate."

Roberto's Cafe and La Criolla Restaurant
In 1999 the diner was owned by Robert Lama, who called it Roberto's Cafe. Barbara Radcliffe Rogers and Juliette Rogers, in their guidebook Secret Providence and Newport, said of Roberto's that "Their sound system is amazing. ...they are open after the clubs get out, and people come here to meet their late-night munching needs and wind down with some hot Latin music. I imagine the club sound systems must pale in comparison, since the old arch-topped diner has acoustics I never dreamed of."

At the time of our first visit, in 2002, it had changed hands and names again, and was known as La Criolla Restaurant. The menu was primarily Dominican, but there were a few recognizable diner items, including simple breakfast choices, cheeseburgers, fries, and lemonade. Both the food and service were unimpressive, though, so at the time we could only recommend La Criolla to die-hard fans of diner architecture.

Sometime between 1995 and 2002 the diner was once again encased in wooden siding. Ick.

By 2003 the diner was on the skids again, a victim of the inexperience of, or mismanagement by (possibly both), its owner. A shooting that took place inside at 3:30am on December 30 of that year probably didn't help matters, either. The La Criolla was offered for sale.

Liberty Elm Diner
It had been closed for a few years when local musician Carol DeFeciani (aka Kip McCloud) found it. She had been looking for an Elmwood area property where she could open a cafe, and while she hadn't had a historic diner in mind, she could see the possibilities. She purchased the diner in mid-2006 and thirteen months later, after renovations costing tens of thousands of dollars, Worcester Lunch Car #806 reopened as the Liberty Elm.

DeFeciani and her "sweat equity partner" and diner manager Diane "Tink" Horstmyer had plans for the diner that went far beyond merely offering fried foods for sale. In fact, the Liberty Elm was not your traditional greasy spoon. The menu, helmed by Chef Twilla Glover, consisted of fresh-baked muffins and pastries, pizza, pressed panini sandwiches, quesadillas with homemade salsa, salads made from locally grown greens, and made-to-order fruit smoothies, among other things. The orange juice and lemonade were fresh-squeezed, and the coffee was organic fair-trade from Pawtucket's New Harvest Coffee Roasters. Biodegradable cups and take-out containers, and environmentally friendly cleaning supplies helped keep the business green.

DeFeciani and her employees made the Liberty Elm into a center of community activity and activism. The cinderblock addition at the back of the diner included a dining area with free Wi-Fi that doubled as a neighborhood meeting space and art gallery. Sunday mornings the room was home to the Americana Breakfast Club, a low-key venue for roots musicians to ply their craft. And DeFeciani had hoped to change the face of Elmwood Avenue itself: one percent of profits from the Liberty Elm were to go toward the purchase of American Liberty Elm trees, a specially bred variety that is resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. The trees would be planted along Elmwood Avenue so that the street might someday live up to its name once more.

The Liberty Elm Diner was added to the National Register of Historic Places in January 2010. "This is a gift to Providence," DeFeciani told the Providence Business News in August 2007. "It is part of Providence's history that should be preserved.

Liberty Elm Diner was featured on the Food Network's Diners, Drive-In, and Dives on February 22, 2010. Filming for the episode took place on July 31, 2009.

A few months later, May 6, 2010, Chef Nick Rabar dropped in for a segment of "Nick Rabar: Chef 2 Go."

But the economy was bad and DeFeciani had to make some tough choices (notably, choosing to pay her employees rather than the Tax Man), that landed her business on a list of those threatened with closure for non-payment of sales taxes. Loyal customers rallied to the cause, patronizing the diner, giving donations, and purchasing gift certificates to infuse cash back into the business. By July 2011 the diner was able to pay off its tax debt, one of the few businesses on the delinquent list to be able to do so. Still the bad news continued: a 2011 on-site injury that resulted in non-renewal of the diner's workman's comp policy in January 2013 proved to be the back-breaking straw, and the Liberty Elm closed for good. It was sold at auction in May for $90,000.

Elmwood Diner (rebooted)
The diner changed hands again in January 2014, purchased by local designer Zoe Neves and her husband Paul Smith. Another round of cleaning, painting, renovations, and inspections followed. Among the changes: basement cleaned, sealed, and painted; windows and furnace repaired; installation of several red and beige diner-style banquettes, one in the diner proper, the rest in the rear dining addition; new dishwasher; new range hood with fire suppression; and new outdoor signage. Executive Chef Andrea LaFazia and head waitress Lanecia Edmonds were brought on board to handle back and front of house, respectively. On April 22, 2014, the little red diner, rechristened Elmwood Diner, re-opened for business.

The new menu is similar to that offered in its previous incarnation. That is, a mix of traditional diner foods with a twist—creative, locally sourced, scratch-made—like homemade corned beef hash or sweet potato and Italian sausage hash; eggs and chicken from Baffoni Farms; coffee from New Harvest Coffee Roasters; Fried Chicken and Waffles; burgers made from local, grass-fed beef; an Apple and Honey Tuna Wrap; and something we're always happy to see on a menu, coffee milk. Alicia Albernaz, a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, provides all the fresh-baked pastry—muffins, cookies, pies, cakes, and cinnamon buns!

Update, March 24, 2017: Elmwood Diner posted on Facebook that they would be closing for good on April 2, and that the diner was for sale.

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