08 July 2008

Loui’s Restaurant

Bill, Elise, and the Heir to Louis’ Tradition
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©

If Brown University often acts, as it says, in loco parentis, the rest of College Hill very often takes a protective, nurturing attitude towards students, too, albeit without the Latin erudition. In that sense, then, Loui’s Restaurant on Brook Street is the family fridge. It is full of food, and proudly decorated with snapshots of the kids and samples of their artwork.

Upon our arrival in Providence, Elise Goyette, Cathy Karnow and I found ourselves on Loui’s doorstep. The restaurant was closed, but we were invited to come in and take a look around while the family set up for a party to be thrown that evening. Although the Ms. Pacman machine no longer stands in the corner, it’s still recognizably the same place.

The restaurant has been owned by the same family since it was opened, shortly after World War II (I believe), by two brothers, Louis and Dominic. A sign-maker got the spelling wrong, which is why the name is “Loui’s Restaurant,” but talk to anybody who went to school in the neighborhood for the past umpteen generations, and they will know the place. They will tell you stories that belong in a novel, not in the real world, of Louis’ devotion to students, and his many kindnesses. He rented out an apartment over the restaurant — for a pittance — and so long as he believed in your good intentions and future prospects, he wasn’t too insistent about paying the rent on time. He celebrated the kids’ birthdays and graduations much as an indulgent uncle would. His death, a few years ago, provoked mourning tributes from around the world.

2008? 1978? Who knows?
Photograph by Catherine Karnow©

I didn’t spend that much time there — just enough to get course credit, I used to say, since manifestly eating at Loui’s was a requirement for graduation. In our cholesterol-carefree youth, we gobbled up innumerable veal parmigiana or meatball grinders and french fries so greasy it was almost impossible to hold onto them. “Once you’ve eaten at Loui’s, the food everywhere else seems so dry,” Brian Greenbaum said. Steve Biel called the place “Lovely’s.” Jimmy Swenson was a devotee, too, but he spent most of his time playing Ms. Pacman and did not, as I recall, make any significant utterance on the subject of the food.

On my last morning in Providence, I passed by Loui’s, with the thought that I might recapture the past by taking breakfast there. The place was calmer than I expected, and I got a spot at the counter and ordered an extravagant amount of food, with the justification that I don’t do this every day: eggs and chorizo sausage (a Providence staple) and a blueberry muffin. As I ate, I looked around the room. There are some important changes, starting with the menu: it’s now possible to request, and to receive, an egg-white omelette, and there are vegetarian dishes, too. This is especially striking, because years ago it was rumored that the only menu item at Loui’s that didn’t contain meat was the veal parmigiana; apparently someone is now bold enough to claim that certain dishes are meat-free, and brave enough to face down an irate RISD student who suspects a fly in his soup, or a cow in his sandwich. The place is smoke-free now, too, which occasions a response comparable to that one might make upon entering the Shedd Aquarium and discovering that it is now water-free.

The artwork on the walls is more prominent now, and much of it is of better quality than anything that hung there when I was young. Almost every available inch of wall space is decorated with a drawing, a painting, a poster announcing a rock concert long past, in a club long closed. And everywhere there are snapshots of generations of college kids.

Louis is gone now, and Dominic makes only infrequent visits; the restaurant is now run by a man who is the son of one and nephew of the other, though I’m not sure which. As I paid my check, I ventured a word to him, telling him how much I admired his ability to stay true to the spirit of the place. He looked at me without expression. Clearly, he doesn’t do what he does for the benefit of nostalgic alums; he may not even care at all. But a particular gruffness was always part of Louis’ charm, and that, too, remains unchanged in the restaurant.

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