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Rhode Island: Basics for Beginners

Welcome to Rhode Island! The nation’s Ocean State offers a plethora of quirks for visitors, students, and residents. With the school year starting off, an influx of new students are moving into their dorms and will soon crowd the city’s hottest locations. If you are one of these new students, a first-time visitor, or have just moved to our small but richly nuanced state, the following is a brief guide to help you adjust to the local culture.

Beaches

RI is the Ocean State and for good reason. There are beaches everywhere, but it’s going to be too cold most of the time to swim. But beach areas have restaurants known for their seafood. Hurry before they start closing up for the season! Also, making friends with someone who has a boat will also help you enjoy the sea and see the land from another perspective. Finding a “friend with a boat” is an RI tradition almost as important as “Knowing a guy,” and dates back at least to the HMS Gaspee (a particularly RI tale we don’t have space to get into here. But google that one: You’ll find a whole month of local celebrations around May, in the spirit of, “Hey, remember that time we got really drunk and set that boat on fire?”)

Newport

Newport is home to the Folk Fest, Jazz Fest, and many other events. It’s a “long drive” by Rhode Island standards since it’s around 45 minutes from Providence but it provides great restaurants, waterfront walks, and more. Located on Aquidneck Island which is the largest of Rhode Island’s many islands. Yes, Rhode Island is more than one island. We have a lot of bridges!

Thayer Street, Providence

What used to be a trendy or cool strip with the latest in subculture fashions and off-beat restaurants has been turned into Brown University’s Food Court. Like many things in Rhode Island, you will hear locals lament for what it once was.

Beverages AKA Say “Yes” when someone offers it to you!

I admit that this got me when I moved here, so I feel it’s important to share so the same confusion doesn’t set onto you. A “cabinet” is a milkshake. It’s called a cabinet because all of the ingredients come from the cabinet. Duh! Yes, I felt stupid as well. It’s similar to a milkshake but not quite an Awful Awful. An Awful Awful is a frozen beverage from Newport Creamery and is similar to the more well-known (outside RI) Friendly’s Fribble. It’s not as thick as a milkshake because they use an icy milk technique but it’s considered to be “Awful Big and Awful Good.” But wait, Rhode Island has more! Frozen lemonade is a big hit. There’s Del’s and Mr. Lemon and like any competitors, there are die-hard fans on both sides. 

If the aforementioned beverages aren’t enough, there is coffee milk. It’s not coffee, it’s milk with coffee syrup – usually Autocrat. Similar to chocolate milk, this local treasure exposes children to the addictive coffee bean early in life which is probably why RI runs on [Insert Favorite Coffee Location Here]. Order your coffee milk at a diner or breakfast location to give it a try.

Hot Wieners

If it’s 1 am and your friend says “Let’s go get some system.” They are inviting you to eat hot dogs or “wieners” with them. These hot dogs are smaller than the ones at the store. They actually fit in the buns. Then on top, they add a meat sauce with meat, celery salt, mustard, and onions – from what I can tell. Similar to White Castle’s “murder” burgers, I feel as though if you didn’t grow up eating such foods, your stomach may not have built up a tolerance and the results could be destructive. Tread carefully, but try it if you’re into it. Note, these go great with coffee milk.

Party Pizza

You’ve had pizza, you’ve seen Sicilian square pizza, but have you tried Party Pizza? Also known as Italian Bakery Pizza or RI Pizza, this cheeseless cold pizza is doughy with impeccably fresh and delicious tomato sauce. Think of it more like a casual bruschetta. It’s a staple at most RI parties (if they’re good) because it’s not hot and easy to grab. Locals will argue which bakery makes the best but now you should investigate for yourself.

Everyone Knows Everyone

While Rhode Island’s population increased 7 out of the 11 years between 2010 and 2021, according to the Census Bureau, it’s still a small state. That means BE CAREFUL. You never know who is related to who or if your last {insert favorite dating app here} date will end up being someone important in your future. The pool is small, kids. Don’t piss anyone off — or pee in the pool, so to speak.

Local Icons

No matter where you are in Rhode Island, you’re bound to run into something unique. Here are a few of the big ones. If you see a pyramid named Apex – you are in Pawtucket (Pronounced: Pa-tucket, not PAW-tucket.) Pawtucket also boasts a giant Potatoehead couple thanks to Hasbro and the historical Slater Mill, the birthplace of the first water-powered textile mill in America. From I-95, you might see a Big Blue Bug. His name is Nibbles Woodaway. The “pineapple” welcomes you to Federal Hill but it’s actually a pine cone or La Pigna. If someone asks you for directions to any of these, but you’re not yet sure where things are, just tell them to turn right at the Dunkin. There’s always a Dunkin, so you can’t go wrong with this approach. 

Regional Chains

We all miss Bennigan’s but fortunately, RI has its own Americana chains which you can enjoy. Take the time to visit a Chelo’s, a Gregg’s, and a 99 Restaurant and see which you prefer. They are all family friendly or good for groups. They aren’t open 24 hours like diners in New York but that’s why we have IHOP.

Politics

If you register to vote in Rhode Island, you should be aware that you vote in September for the primaries prior to the November election. With Rhode Island being overwhelmingly Democratic, quite often there aren’t any Republicans even running, so the primaries are where the real electoral decisions are made. RI used to abide by the advice, “Vote early and often,” but nowadays it’s just, “Vote early.” Use your voice, vote, and get involved locally to support your community.

It used to be…

RI has been growing and changing especially since legendary (for good or ill) former mayor Buddy Cianci revitalized Downtown Providence. Everything used to be something else and often this is how locals will refer to it. Thankfully we have GPS to help us navigate, especially since all of Interstate 95’s exits are changing to match their mile markers. I’ve never learned how to successfully stop an old person from telling me directions verbally and including a turn, “Where [something] used to be,” so best luck and try not to get confused when you encounter the nostalgia of a former Almacs or the ghost of a former Benny’s. RIP Benny’s.

Whether you’re here to visit or to stay, we hope these pearls of wisdom will help clear up any confusion that might otherwise result from exposure to these inscrutable RI cultural eccentricities.

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