I knew the basic gist of the Courtland Club before I made my way there on a Friday night, driving through the residential streets of the West Side until I stopped in front of a nondescript building. With my friend Jeremy as my sidekick, we walked right past the club looking for the sign, circled back, and then stared at the number above the door frame: 51. Light came through the windows above. “This must be it,” he said, but the keypad on the door threw us off.
“Do we just … open it?” I asked.
I turned the handle, the door gave way, and this is what we found: Concrete floors, wooden ceiling beams, brick walls, a stained glass window — I felt transported to the 1920s, which was roughly when this place first opened for business as a bakery. The remnants of the two baking ovens are still embedded in the back wall, and I learned that this used to be the home of Crugnale Bakery — for the unknowing, non-Rhode Islander (like myself), this bakery is a staple, producing “party pizza,” Rhode Island’s unique pizza strips.
But the second iteration of this space is where it derives “club” from, dating back to the 1940s when this spot served as an exclusive social club. Jason “Jay” Shechtman, the founder and director of Courtland Club, explained that this place hosted a few social clubs, including “The Old Man’s Club.”
“I’m glad you’re less exclusive,” I said, “because I don’t think I would have been allowed into that one.”
“I don’t think I would have been either!” he joked.
And in fact, “exclusive” is far from the vibe he’s going for, instead welcoming everyone into the (pseudo-locked and unmarked) doors. Out of respect for this club’s history as a club, however, there are still memberships available, offering privileges such as the ability to reserve a table, participate in wine tastings and have first dibs on special events. The elite members can reserve bottles of wine and keep them in storage lockers, small boxes extending deep into the wall, affixed with honeycomb mesh wire and a lock. Our booth was right beside these lockers.
Meanwhile, directly across from us was the kitchen, with an arching window and waist-high door allowing us to peek in at the chef as he worked. There was a bar in the middle along the left wall, marble granite countertops and wooden tables along the periphery, each lit with a candle. In front of the old ovens, beside multiple colors of exposed and aging brick, were dark booths that looked like couches from a distance. A single stained glass window hung in the corner.
Immediately after being seated, we were given hot towels and menus. With only a quick glance at the drinks — a full page of spirits, a page for wine and beer, even a list of sherries and vermouth — my eyes went to the “Fancy Drinks” and “Pick-Me-Ups.” When I told Jay I was considering the Mother Theresa — mezcal, cassis, beet, and rose — he told me it was the most popular drink, so I ordered it. Jeremy went with the Japanese Julep, made with whisky and shiso.
I can confidently say the Mother Theresa is the most beautiful drink I’ve ever seen. The deep red color would have been satisfying enough, but the ice cubes were adorned with small gold stars. I felt like I was drinking the night sky. The traditional smokiness of the mezcal was partially negated in this drink, making it more tequila-like than I normally drink, so I believe people who shy away from mezcal would find this a pleasing hybrid. The Japanese Julep also scored high on presentation, a dark purple shiso leaf meticulously placed atop crushed ice, strong whisky underneath.
For food, we essentially ordered everything on the menu. The list was small but inventive, with Japanese and Portuguese influences. Jay dropped off olives and pistachios and recommended the Clams Courtland, an in-house special. Similar to a RI stuffie, these were little necks prepared in shell with Portuguese sweetbread-crumbs and alheira sausage — a sausage credited with saving Jews’ lives in medieval Portugal. Even Jeremy, with his shellfish skepticism, was on board. They were the perfect inaugural dish.
Intrigued by the Chouriço à Bombeiro — its only description reading, “Fire and mustard” — we found out it literally arrived on fire, a flaming chourico inside a ceramic pig. This may have been Jeremy’s favorite: A third of it was missing by the time I went for a slice. Even as a hesitant meat eater, I couldn’t stop going back for more. The only drawback for me was that the condiment mustard was a little sweet — I would have preferred unadulterated Dijon.
Next came the roasted sweet potato, and because I love sweet potatoes, I overlooked the pickled daikon, ginger and bonito flakes explicitly written in the description. “Surely it’ll blend,” I thought, but it turned out I couldn’t handle the overpowering fish flavor. The sweet potato itself was roasted to perfection, topped with a white creamy sauce, and once I’d casually removed the bonito flakes, I enjoyed the remaining potato.
With a pizza still on the way, it was time for a second round of drinks. I ordered the Sweet Potato Mule (redemption!), with the vodka and ginger of a Moscow mule, but a sweet potato jam in lieu of lime. It arrived in a steel mug, bubbling over like a potion, and it had a finish that made it all too easy to drink. Jeremy’s Celery Sidecar — made with ginger brandy, curaçao, celery and lemon — was cool and refreshing, with the unusual (and surprisingly welcome) taste of celery. I asked Jeremy how he would describe the drink. He said, “Happy.”
Then came our Pizza of the Week, or P.O.W.: tomatoes, mozzarella and breaded eggplant on a thin but not-too-crispy crust. We devoured it. It’s a top contender among Providence pizzas. And if you can imagine, we even ate dessert, a double chocolate cookie with black pepper and cherry, served warm in a cast-iron skillet, topped with crème fraiche ice cream. It was a decadent end to our night.
When we finally stepped out into the night, it was as if we’d stepped back into the 21st century, having lost ourselves in the moment with all those who’ve gone before us. If Mother Theresa can break into the Old Man’s Club, so can you. The invitation is open.
51 Courtland St, PVD; courtlandclub.com