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Newport Restaurant Group Enjoys Growth Despite Tough Economy

Archive for October, 2009

Newport Restaurant Group Enjoys Growth Despite Tough Economy

October 22nd, 2009 by billfarrell

Thu, 22 Oct 2009 20:34:42By Linda Murphy
Special to The Herald News
Posted Oct 21, 2009 @ 01:15 AM
Newport —

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.”

At The Spring Seasons Inn, your exclusive Rhode Island adventure awaits and so do these wonderful restaurants.

Big plans at Vernon Court Possible Aquisition of Iconic Mural could spur addition at National Museum of American Illustration

October 14th, 2009 by billfarrell

Wed, 14 Oct 2009 21:56:01By Ted Hayes

udy and Laurence Cutler in their Tiffany mural room at the National Museum of American Illustration at Vernon Court.

Judy and Laurence Cutler in their Tiffany mural room at the National Museum of American Illustration at Vernon Court.

NEWPORT — Nine years after they opened their doors to the public, the founders of the National Museum of American Illustration may soon take possession of one of the master works of American mural art — a 160-foot long, 12-foot tall mural depicting the evolution of the telephone that until recently hung in the former Boston headquarters of telephone giant Verizon.

And if museum founders Judy and Laurence Cutler are successful in their quest to bring the piece to Vernon Court, they hope to build a new wing on the mansion to accommodate it.

“We’re very excited,” said Mr. Cutler. “We’re absolutely the right place for it.”

But to get the piece — “Telephone Men and Women at Work,” a 1951 mural by Dean Cornwell, they’ll have to fend off challenges also filed by the Museum of Fine Art in Boston and another Miami museum. All three have asked Verizon officials for the painting since company officials sold the building last year and earlier this year removed it from the lobby where it had hung for more than half a century. Verizon officials have been mum on who will win out.

Detail from Dean Cornwell's "Telephone Men and Women at Work." The mural is 160 feet long.
“Telephone Men and Women at Work,” a 1951 mural by Dean Cornwell

The Cutlers will also have to rise above criticism from those in the art world, who have protested the painting’s possible move out of Boston, the historic home of the telephone.

The painting

Mr. Cornwell, one of America’s best loved muralists and illustrators, created the piece for New England Telephone and Telegraph, the forerunner of Verizon, between 1947 and 1951. Referred to as the “Dean of American Illustration” by Norman Rockwell, he was primarily an illustrator who sold works to the popular magazines and periodicals of the day while also creating murals for private companies, courthouses, libraries and other institutions. He loved the large format pieces, said Mr. Cutler, because “they would last and give him a life beyond death.” Newport’s museum already has about 15 other, smaller Cornwell works.

The imposing telephone piece, which Mr. Cornwell painted in the attic of Grand Central Station in New York City, depicts 197 people performing telephone-related functions throughout the device’s history. Painted in rich tones and hues, it depicts male and female telephone operators — they replaced the men after it was determined their voices were more soothing — wire workers, Alexander Graham Bell and more than 190 other people.

The mural hung inside the Verizon offices for decades until Verizon sold the property to another firm last year and reached an agreement to remove the mural. Mr. Cutler heard about its uncertain fate quite by accident, from a friend who lives in Cambridge, Mass.

“My roommate from grad school walked in to see the mural. A security guard told him they were being taken off and they were looking for a museum to take them. A lightbulb goes off in his head, and he called me.”

Mr. Cutler called Verizon officials a short time later, who told them other institutions were interested in the piece. Nevertheless, Verizon officials invited him to travel to Boston to watch the canvas mural being removed; the canvas had been secured to the walls with a lead-based adhesive and took some time to remove.

After traveling to Verizon, the Cutlers met with company officials, were asked to give their appraisal of the piece, and are currently waiting to hear whether they’ll win it. The painting is in storage.

New wing?
Sip N Dip

Though their Newport museum houses two other large murals — one by Tiffany and another by Maxfield Parrish — the Cornwell piece, if obtained, would necessitate an entirely new wing as it’s too large to fit properly in any existing spaces.

The Cutlers said they always wanted to build an addition onto Vernon Court’s south facade, but until the mural became a possibility “we thought it would be done by someone else, after we were gone,” said Mr. Cutler, a trained architect.

After studying the painting’s dimensions, though, he realized its acquisition could be the perfect impetus for building now. He started sketching.

“I did some measurements and if we got (the painting) it would exactly fit” in a space they’d already identified as the perfect spot for a new main entrance, Mr. Cutler said.

The plan — Mr. Cutler has already talked to city officials about it and has determined that the plan would need a new round of zoning approval — is to build a 60-foot long, 40-foot wide addition on Vernon Court’s south side. The addition would butt up to a brick walkway that would serve as the new main entrance for museum visitors. Inside the addition, museum staff could house a gift shop, restrooms, a reception desk and possibly a coat room. Outside, parking areas could be reconfigured, with parking added behind Vernon Court walls where tennis courts are now housed.

“You want to get people oriented as soon as you get them in the museum,” he said. “This would do it. The ideal would be to also have the museum shop there.”

The mural was designed to be housed in an oval room, and Mr. Cutler said he would round off the interior corners to accommodate it.

“This would fit very nicely,” he said.


Since word leaked out in Boston art circles that Newport and Miami were under consideration for the mural, there has been more than a little online scuttlebutt over its possible move to the City By The Sea. Much of it has come from Boston-based art lovers and historians, many of whom want the painting to stay in Boston.

Susan Park, president of the Boston Preservation Alliance, was one of many in Boston to state opposition to the move. In an interview with the Boston Herald, she said, “It has no reason to be in Newport. Bell made the first telephone call in the South End, not Newport.”

But from the Cutlers’ perspective, Newport has an edge. Their museum celebrates muralists and illustrators like Cornwell, has an impressive collection, and they have a real plan for how to use it. As for keeping it in Boston?

“I understand their feelings, but I think the most important thing is that it stay in New England,” said Mr. Cutler.

Explore the treasures of Newport and beyond from our exquisite bed and breakfast Newport RI lodging hideaway. The National Museum of Illustration is about a mile from our Inn. At The Spring Seasons Inn, your exclusive Rhode Island adventure awaits.

Philanthropist Astor’s will headed for court challenge

October 14th, 2009 by billfarrell

Wed, 14 Oct 2009 21:34:18By Thomas J. Morgan
Journal Staff Writer

Philanthropist Brooke Astor shown in a 1998 photo.

Philip C. Marshall, the grandson of the late Brooke Astor, a New York philanthropist who spent her early years in Newport, said Tuesday that now that his father has been convicted in the Brooke Astor will case, he expects the will to be contested by various charities.

Marshall, who touched off the chain of events that led to the conviction of his father, Anthony D. Marshall, said he has no quarrel with the New York jury verdict last week that found his father guilty of taking advantage of his grandmother’s dementia to enrich himself at her expense.

“I know the jurors really took this seriously, as they should,” said Marshall, who teaches historic preservation at Roger Williams University in Bristol, and who spoke from Nashville, where he is attending a professional conference. “I agree with the jury in terms of the guilty verdict.” He said he also expects the case will draw national attention to the issue of elder abuse.

Marshall said that now that the criminal trial has ended, it is likely that a civil court battle involving various parties who stand to benefit — or not — from the inheritance will resume. He said that although he personally will benefit from the will, he does not want any of the money that his grandmother intended to go to charity, a lifelong crusade of Astor.

Astor gave millions to libraries, museums and other New York institutions, according to the Associated Press. Her motto was, “Money is like manure — it should be spread around.”

When Astor died, her estate was estimated at $180 million, although its current value is probably much less, Marshall said.

Anthony D. Marshall, Astor’s son, faces up to 25 years in prison when he is sentenced in December. The jury on Thursday found him guilty of first-degree larceny for looting the estate of $1 million while he was managing his mother’s finances. Francis X. Morrissey, a codefendant and estate planner, was convicted of forgery.

At issue were amendments to Astor’s will. Astor, who died two years ago at the age of 105, was not competent at that time to authorize such a change, which granted Anthony Marshall additional control of the estate, the prosecution contended.

Philip Marshall in July 2006 touched off the chain of events leading to his father’s conviction when he filed civil court papers that accused his father, Astor’s guardian, of neglect. He complained that the elder Marshall had allowed Astor to sleep in soiled clothing on a dirty couch and to live on a diet of oatmeal and peas, among other offenses.

According to a settlement announced in October 2006, Anthony Marshall was replaced as Astor’s guardian by the JPMorgan Chase bank and Annette de la Renta, wife of Oscar de la Renta, the fashion designer.

“The battle is now going to continue in several arenas,” Philip Marshall said, “because the will is being contested.” He said that in his civil court filing he submitted a 1997 will, contending that this is the document that should stand. He said the 2004 will, which was a focal point of his father’s prosecution, came too late in his grandmother’s life for her to properly comprehend what she was doing.

“The whole probate case got put on hold earlier this year” while the criminal case proceeded. “Now, it will start up again,” he said.

Involved are charities named in the will.

While the value of the estate was estimated at $180 million at Astor’s death in 2007, that figure has probably been reduced considerably by the financial landslide that has plagued the world since then, Marshall said. “I don’t want that money,” he said. “My grandmother always wanted that money to go to charity, to New Yorkers.”

Widowed in the 1950s, Astor married Vincent Astor, oldest son of John Jacob Astor IV, who went down with the Titanic. The family fortune came from the original John Jacob Astor, a 19th-century fur trader and New York real estate investor.

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