Temple Downtown | 120 Francis St, Providence | Sun-Thurs, 6:30 am-11 pm; Fri-Sat, 6:30 am-12:30 pm | Major credit cards | Full bar | Sidewalk-level access | 401.919.5050
Who would’ve thought? When plans were made to convert the abandoned shell of the Masonic Temple into the upscale Renaissance Hotel, what chance was there that a restaurant in the basement would be, well, adorably funky?
Temple Downtown is that and more. The Greek revival façade of the 272-room hotel looks as classy as the VMA auditorium next door and the State House that rises on the other side. But the best evidence of Providence’s renaissance is the design of the restaurant, a virtual memorial to the building’s former state.
Graffiti is the link. On doors and walls here and there, taggers were invited to show their colorful, calligraphic stuff, a reminder that it can be vibrant art and not just vandalism. For decades, graffiti artists flocked to the supposedly locked-up building to put their marks on the vast empty space. Construction had begun in 1926 and money ran out only two years later, on the brink of the Great Depression, with just the exterior complete. For almost 80 years, it stood unoccupied.
The restaurant is dimly lit, as befits the aura of mystery remaining from the Masonic rituals once practiced in the basement, the only portion of the interior ever completed. Banks of wide faux candles are suspended in racks above you, since chandeliers would break the mood. In the lounge, they glow from stone wall niches.
The place’s namesake remains in such signature cocktails as the Scottish Rite and Mason’s Jar. (It gets even sillier, and in wincingly bad taste, with a frequent diner point system called the 33rd Degree Program.)
After a long wait at an abandoned hostess station along with other couples who had early reservations — an initiation ordeal? — we were seated at a cozy banquette with a view of the State House, bracketed by rose-colored silk curtains. The floor is large black and white polished marble tiles. Temple has a pretty snazzy ambience.
A breadbasket arrived, filled with delicious multigrain slices and room-temperature balls of butter. The wine list ranges widely in price and provenance, helpfully designated as light-, medium-, and full-bodied. Oddly, the nearly two-dozen wines by the glass are not available by the bottle.
Though the raw bar is pricey (oysters $3), and à la carte dinner entrées can get expensive if you add a side or two, the calamari is just $8, and the market fish and chips only $16. Also, Black Angus beef and Atlantic salmon burgers are $10 each at lunch and come with fries or mixed greens. Being in a hotel, the place is also open for breakfast, at 6:30.
For starters, we passed up the interesting sounding pretzel-encrusted crab cake with baked beans ($13), and chose a white anchovy “flatbread” (read “pizza”) ($11.50). Ex¬quis¬itely tangy, the not-too-salty vinegar-cured an¬chovies were with fontina and mozzarella, with a bit of oregano and a stray clove or two of braised garlic.
We also shared something they call a grilled onion chopper ($7) when we realized it was simply a chopped salad. It too was a taste bud-piquer, with the perfect amount of lemon, rather than vinegar, tarting up the olive oil, pole beans there for crunch, and ricotta salata for an unobtrusive cheese.
Of the 16 main dishes, the most unusual one was the lobster and mussel pie ($21), with the maple-brûléed sea scallops with bacon-leek fondue ($23) close behind. Seven items were seafood, and most of the rest meat, including that Angus burger. The pan-crisped gnocchi with winter vegetables ($17) appealed to Johnnie. It contained chard and the sweet accent of butternut squash in a roasted garlic cream sauce, lightly accented with fresh sage leaves and pumpkin oil. It was a tasty combination.
I couldn’t pass up the surf ’n’ turf on the menu, skirt steak ($23). There were a few fried oysters and many deeply flavorful rock shrimp atop and around an upright spiral of reasonably tender steak, not too thin to remain rare. The horseradish-accented barbecue sauce allowed all the flavor components through. For a side, I had truffled macaroni and cheese ($7) and enjoyed the balance of four artisan cheeses.