Thu, 22 Oct 2009 20:34:42By Linda Murphy
Special to The Herald News
Posted Oct 21, 2009 @ 01:15 AM
Over the past several years, the Newport Restaurant Group has reshaped the area’s culinary landscape, and its latest catch, Hemenway’s Seafood Grill and Oyster Bar, adds a missing piece to the group’s offerings in Providence.
“We didn’t plan to keep going with more restaurants after we opened Trio — our focus was absorbing the rapid growth of our restaurants — but Hemenway’s came along and we couldn’t say no,” said Paul O’Reilly, Newport Restaurant Group CEO. “Hemenway’s is a Rhode Island landmark. It’s a high-quality restaurant with a great location.”
The Narragansett, R.I.-based Trio Restaurant, which is not affiliated with the Fall River and Dartmouth restaurants of the same name, opened in 2008 on the heels of a period of rapid growth of the restaurant group that began with an overhaul of Castle Hill. Over the past 10 years, the restaurant group has infused $1.5 million into renovations of the waterfront restaurant The Mooring, purchased two existing restaurants and reopened them under new names and opened two entirely new restaurants: Trio and The Boat House in Tiverton.
“I think we’ve done a great job of creating seven restaurants that have had a positive impact on the Rhode Island restaurant market,” said O’Reilly. “Our focus has been high-quality restaurants with a well-thought-out culinary philosophy.”
The restaurant group’s profile began to take shape in the late 1990s when the employee-owned company, a division of the Newport Harbor Corporation, transformed Castle Hill Inn and Resort from what they described as a sleepy inn into a high-end resort and restaurant.
Dave Souza|Herald News
Chef Casey Riley and Len Panaggio at Castle Hill.
Casey Riley, director of hospitality and culinary operations, said overhauling the former Victorian mansion’s kitchen into a functional restaurant kitchen paved the way for the expansion and growth of the oceanfront resort. “That allowed for us to be able to meet the demand and growth of covers (each person at a table),” said Riley, who began his career with the restaurant group as the executive chef at Castle Hill.
In conjunction with the renovation of Castle Hill, they also started to institute a philosophical view of standards that centered on quality ingredients, cooking techniques and the customer’s overall experience.
“Cooking techniques were first on the list — it doesn’t matter how good the ingredients are if they’re not cooked properly,” said Riley. “We set a premium on quality at each of our restaurants to serve the best quality food for that particular market.”
For the higher-end restaurants like Castle Hill and The Mooring, that means buying top-of-the-catch seafood. “Scallop boats go out for two weeks, and as they catch scallops they get loaded into the bottom of the hold. We pay a premium — more than you’d pay retail — for the top of the catch,” said Riley.
Even in the past year’s unstable economy, Riley said the amount of covers has remained consistent, but he has seen a decrease in total check amounts.
“That tells us that consumers are price shopping,” said Riley. “They’re still going out, but instead of buying a $60 bottle of wine they may be buying a $30 bottle of wine. The good news is that people still want to go out — they’re still willing to pay for the experience.”
As they began to reposition the Ocean Drive inn as a luxury resort, they switched the upscale offerings on its menu from a la carte to prix fixe. “We thought the covers would come down, but curiously that didn’t happen,” said Riley. “The financial benefit is that we now have a set price for each chair.”
Castle Hill’s seasonal, native food-based menu features innovative offerings like foie gras stuffed quail and grilled veal loin served with caramelized apples and lingnonberries.
“Castle Hill is our most progressive restaurant,” said Riley. “The chef, Jonathan Cambra, continues to push the envelope.”
The restaurant group purchased the former Chart House restaurant on Newport’s Bowen’s Wharf in 2000 and reopened it as 22 Bowen’s Wine Bar and Grill, an upscale steak house.
“22 Bowen was a real success for us; we decided to look at other restaurant opportunities,” said O’Reilly.
“In 2005 we decided to open The Boat House.”
22 Bowen’s follows the traditional steak house model: big steak, big food and salad wedges.
“We put our creativity into the appetizers and side dishes,” said Riley.
The restaurant group’s highest-volume restaurant, The Mooring, generated $5.75 million in sales last year, exceeded slightly by 22 Bowen’s, which pulled in $6 million. Castle Hill dining generated $4 million, and the Castle Hill catering division generated another $2.7 million.
Its other Newport-based restaurant, the seasonal Smokehouse Café, a campy, casual rib joint offering smoked meats and specialties like smoked corn chowder, generated $850,000 during the five months it was open last year.
The Boat House Restaurant, overlooking the Sakonnet River, was originally launched as a seasonal restaurant, but after the first successful summer the restaurant group entered into a long-term lease with the owners, who also operate the adjacent upscale condominium complex. They winterized the open, airy Key West style restaurant and began serving year-round to its heavily local-based clientele.
Riley said its local/seasonal menu, while not as progressive as Castle Hill, is “highly creative.”
“James (executive chef James Campagna) is a great chef,” said Riley.
“We have a great local following there.”
In 2006 the restaurateurs invested $1.5 million into a complete overhaul of the The Mooring, which was originally opened by O’Reilly’s father, Tim O’Reilly and a pair of business partners. They updated the traditional seafood restaurant’s menu to a more progressive seafood concept.
“We kept some of the traditional offerings like the seafood pie and baked stuffed lobster, and we updated it with more seasonal, playful items,” said Riley. “We managed to hold on to our long-term customers and add a younger crowd. The demographics are really mixed.”
In 2008 they entered into the burgeoning South County market with a new restaurant, Trio, a Mediterranean eatery with a playful, quirky menu of pastas, seafood and pizza. “It’s our least seasonal menu,” said Riley. “Every chef I know loves to cook Mediterranean.”
They also made their mark in Providence with the purchase of The Gatehouse, which was reopened as the Waterman Grille with an American-style bistro menu.
In addition to its myriad culinary innovations, the restaurant group holds more than 20 dinners paired with wines and beer at its restaurants. Corporate Beverage Director Len Panaggio, who was one of the original owners of The Mooring, said the dinners educate the guests about the products and they offer and provide the opportunity for the public to discuss the menu and pairing with chefs and beverage company reps. “The chefs love them — it gives them a chance to show the public what they’re capable of beyond the regular restaurant menu,” said Panaggio.
Providence restaurateur Ken Cusson, who sold the Gatehouse Restaurant to the Newport Restaurant Group in 2006, was hired that same year as its director of restaurant and catering operations. Cusson, who oversaw the purchase of Hemenway’s this summer, said the Providence restaurant was a great property for them to acquire.
“One of the things that was evident is that they have a huge following,” said Cusson.
Aside from tweaking the food and beverage menu slightly, Cusson said there are no plans to do much else with the long-standing South Main Street restaurant for the moment.
“As we add more varied concepts to the group, we have more to offer as a company; when people come to The Mooring and have a quality meal and experience, that flows into our other restaurants,” said Cusson.
For now, O’Reilly said the restaurant group’s focus will be on ways to continually improve its existing restaurants. “I’m a big believer in creating a culture that continues to explore the art of hospitality: ‘How do we do a better job of providing a great experience for our customers?’” said O’Reilly. “We continually search for ways to provide genuine and authentic hospitality from the moment someone enters our restaurants.”
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