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Jo's American Bistro, Newport, R.I. /VisitingNewEngland small business partnership - Local Small Business Stories

Feeling Right at Home at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.

Delicious scratch cuisine and wonderful camaraderie amongst owner, staff and customers yields an instantly lovable, local restaurant experience

Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
From the second floor dining room at Jo's American Bistro.

Article by Eric Hurwitz, @newenglandinfo. Story created on 3/25/2020.

Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I. checks off all the boxes when it comes to an overwhelmingly positive restaurant experience. But as we will find out shortly, Jo's American Bistro -- much like the meaning of life itself -- goes far beyond just fulfilling a list of superlatives.

The laid back, "classy but casual" atmosphere offers an ideal setting to leisurely eat and drink. Scratch cuisine often crafted from local sourcing yields fresh-tasting
creative and traditional American cuisine, seafood, and numerous gluten-free options. The wait staff is about as pleasant and efficient as you'll ever find in a restaurant. There's good value for the money here, also, with ample portions served at reasonable prices. As an added bonus, Jo's American Bistro offers an ideal location near Easton's Beach/the beginning of the Cliff Walk, the Newport mansions and a lively downtown that includes a thriving waterfront and charming cobblestone streets. It's also just a few miles to Fort Adams State Park (home of the Newport Jazz and Folk Festivals) and scenic Ocean Drive...

Ocean Drive in Newport, R.I.
Ocean Drive.

What's more, Jo's American Bistro has received rave reviews from locals and vacationers, as evidenced by Google, TripAdvisor and Yelp -- all averaging 4.5 stars out of five. Additionally, media giants like CNN and, locally, the Providence Journal have sung the praises of Jo's American Bistro. For all the accolades, Jo's American Bistro remains, first and foremost, a place that the locals love -- sort of like a 21st century version of Cheers but with a bow tie. Owner Joann Carlson, 60, is a lifelong Rhode Island resident who clearly has her life and business priorities in place: Treat staff and employees like "you would treat your grandmother,"  she says. Or, as Jo's American Bistro's motto states, "Let our family serve your family dinner."

Joann Carlson, owner of Joann's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Right at home: Joann Carlson, owner of Jo's American Bistro.

Joann is a kind and thoughtful person and has the culinary pedigree to have created such a special restaurant. She grew up in nearby Bristol, R.I., graduated high school there and bypassed college to go right to work in the restaurant industry. Joann worked many years at her aunt and uncle's restaurant, Mack's Clam Shack in Newport, and at her parents' Dry Dock Seafood on Thames St. When her folks closed Dry Dock after 23 years in business, Joann co-owned Percy's Bistro in Newport and then worked at the Newport Harbor Corporation as a manager for its 22 Bowen's Wine Bar and Grille.

Joann loved working for family and others in the culinary field but had a craving, however, to start her own business. In 2012, she found the ideal location on Memorial Blvd. and had the place gutted and then crafted by Kirby Perkins Construction, an award-winning company that has worked on many of the Newport mansions.

Jo's American Bistro, Newport, Rhode Island.
Jo's American Bistro on Memorial Blvd.

On June 13, 2013, Joann followed in the footsteps of her family by opening her own business, Jo's American Bistro. Joann created the restaurant to look like a older but thoroughly updated neighborhood home. The center hall entrance with staircase and quaint, cozy dining rooms upstairs and down, archways, mahogany accents and paintings on the wall by local artists add to that homey feeling.

Dining room at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Dining rooms downtstairs at Jo's American Bistro.

There's even a beautiful patio for outdoor dining in the warmer weather...

Outdoor dining at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, Rhode Island.
Outdoor patio. Photo source: Jo's American Bistro Facebook page.

"We are classy but casual." said Joann. "You can come in here all dressed up or in shorts. " The communal sitting area reveals a prime spot for conversations, either amongst groups that arrive together or as a mix of people that have just met. Locals, vacationers, those from the Naval Station Newport and Salve Regina University students frequent this long high-top table and the rest of the eatery. Here is an unobstructed view of that seating area...

Communal table at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, Rhode Island.
Communal dining table.
and a more lively one as crowds frequent Jo's...

Gathering at the long table at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Gathering at the long table at Jo's in Newport. Photo source: Jo's American Bistro Facebook page.

"Salve kids come here, date night people, those out for a burger," said Joann. "It's a place where you could see a 70-year-old talking with a 16-year old kid. Everyone gets along."

Sitting at the bar can be enjoyed downstairs...

Downstairs bar at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Downstairs bar.

or tucked away upstairs...

Upstairs bar at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Upstairs bar.

A look around the main dining room on a busy Wednesday evening at Jo's reveals a diversity of conversation and a noticeable absence of smartphone and other technologies being used.  On this particular evening, guests talk amongst each other about Wall Street moguls, family, community events, the financial world, travel, the mansions and shopping. The age range seemingly spans from kids around five-years old to a gentleman who had to be pushing 90.

"The nights are so special here," said Joann. "To stand back and see everything in action is something to behold. Our staff makes new friends every night."

In a way, Jo's American Bistro is Joann's home as she spends much of her time there -- up to 60 hours a week. She greets people the way her Italian mom and grandmother did through the timeless elements of cooking and entertaining through "love and passion."

One thing is for certain: The staff at Jo's American Bistro is all in this together. Joann and General Manager Jimmy Herren can often be seen busing tables and serving customers, clearly a sign of leading by example.

Jo's American Bistro General Manager Jimmy Herren serving customers (Newport, R.I.).
Jimmy Herren serves customers. Photo source: Jo's American Bistro Facebook page.

"It's a lot of work but I love being here," said Joann. "I am not exactly an absentee owner. I bus tables. I could do this whole menu if need be. I also like to be hostess."

Executive Chef, Brian Ruffner, a Culinary Institute of America graduate who 
was once invited to participate in two James Beard Foundation dinners while working at the White Hart Restaurant in Salisbury, Md., often takes a break from the kitchen to converse with customers. The staff works hard -- certainly an industry requirement -- but also gets treated well as "whole people," not just employees.

"We're a family restaurant" said Joann. "We take Christmas, New Years Eve, Thanksgiving and Easter off. Family is where they should be. It's a place where staff could say to me, 'It's my son's baseball championship game, can I have the day off?' Yes, of course, it's important to have a life outside the restaurant. Those special times, events -- we can never get those things back. We make things work here for the staff because we have become like family."

Joann added, "Mom said always hire people who are nice. You can always teach them the rest."

Jo's staff includes many employees who have been there for several years. Additionally, Joann's daughter, Stacey, works in the office and Stacey's daughter, Taylor, 16, buses tables.

Joann's significant other, Jamie Lehane, however, was actually fired from Joann's.

"I hired him as a pianist (for live entertainment)," said Joann, with a laugh. "He plays very well but he can't sing! That singing, we couldn't have him continue!"

Jo's American Bistro's house entertainment features the team of Joanne Rodino (she was part of the Broadway production of West Side Story touring throughout Europe) and John Monllos (who played with the Navy Band for many years before retiring). They perform a diversity of musical genres on Fridays from 7-10 p.m. Sunday night jazz features local musicians Mark Gorman and Jack Casey.

The Magnificent Cuisine

Lobster Carbonara from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Lobster Carbonara from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I. Photo, courtesy of J. Scott Marketing & PR.

Chef Ruffner applies classic French and Italian techniques to his American ideas and ingredients that, when served in its completed form, are fully accessible and pleasing to the customers' taste buds. On the other hand, Ruffner is equally comfortable making a good old-fashioned burger!

Jo's American Bistro offerings include dinner, lunch on the weekends, a bar menu (offered every night but half price on Friday and Sunday -- bar and inhouse only), or a Prix Fixe menu offered on Sunday through Wednesday, 5 p.m. to closing time. Additionally, Jo's features an ambitious wine list.

Wine at Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Wine from Jo's. Photo source: Jo's American Bistro Facebook page.

Joann also reports that her restaurant is "heavily committed to making gluten-free items," for those sensitive to this group of proteins, by having "a strong allergy policy in place."  Even the children's' menu has something beyond the basics. As an example, Jo's does not serve chicken tenders but instead a grilled chicken breast.

"We have an eclectic mix of food -- something for every taste," said Joann.

Additionally, Jo's sources locally whenever possible including calamari from nearby Point Judith, R.I., meats from Kinnealey Meats in Milton, Mass., vegetables from Belmont Market in Wakefield, R.I. and much of its seafood from Foley Fish, out of Boston and New Bedford, Mass.

As validation to Joann's lack of pretentiousness, she first cites without hesitation the burgers as a highly recommended dish when asked what to order. It's easy to understand why: The Bistro Burger, as an example, is a mouthwatering half-pound slab of all-natural beef accompanied with sauteed mushrooms, onions and Swiss cheese, served with a mountain of hand-cut fries and house-made pickles.

Cheeseburger from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
The Bistro Burger.

The Bacon Onion Jam Burger also features a half-pound patty but with dijon bacon onion jam, cheddar cheese and housemade special sauce. It is also served with hand-cut fries and a house-made pickle.

  Bacon onion jam burger from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Bacon Onion Jam Burger with fries.
Photo, courtesy of J. Scott Marketing & PR.

Jo's can even make burgers that are completely gluten-free (bun and fries included)...

Gluten free burger from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Gluten-free burger. Photo source: Jo's American Bistro Facebook page.

"We sell more burgers than anything else," said Joann. "The locals love the burgers. We get more locals than anyone."

Jo's American Bistro is not just about burgers, however. They offer an eclectic mix of foods. The Lobster Carbonara (pictured at the top of this section) combines lobster, bacon, peas and Parmesan lobster cream sauce served with spaghetti.

The Dry Dock Fish and Chips is inspired by a family recipe...

Dry Dock Fish and Chips from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Dry Dock Fish and Chips.
Photo, courtesy of J. Scott Marketing & PR.

Jo's traditional New England Lobster Roll offers the freshest local lobster possible and is served with cole slaw, hand-cut fries and a house-made pickle...

Lobster roll from Jo's American Bistro in Newport RI.
Lobster roll. Photo source: Jo's American Bistro Facebook page.

The seared scallops come with sweet potato puree, white ale, honey-poached vegetables, pink peppercorn and chervil.

Seared scallops dish from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Scallops dish. Photo source: Jo's American Bistro Facebook page.

Another popular dish for those who like to splurge a little: the Filet Mignon,  served over cheddar chive mashed potato, green beans and boderlaise sauce.

Filet Mignon from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Filet Mignon.
Photo, courtesy of J. Scott Marketing & PR.

A must-try: the Lobster Bisque that first comes out with lobster chunks in a bowl. A server then pours the bisque over the lobster at your table. It's nice to see this personal touch and transparency -- that is, seeing the amount of lobster before the whole bisque is put together. It's absolutely delicious!

Losbter bisque from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Lobster Bisque.

For dessert, the Peach Bread pudding is a signature treat at Jo's...

Peach bread pudding from Jo's American Bistro in Newport, R.I.
Peach Bread pudding.
Photo, courtesy of J. Scott Marketing & PR.

"Our desserts are made in-house," said Joann. "Brian makes them so well!"


GM Jimmy Herren, owner Joann Carlson and executive chef Brian Ruffner at Joan''s American Bistro in Newport, RI.
Jimmy Herren, Joann and Brian Ruffner. Photo source: Joann's American Bistro web page.

Jo's American Bistro is not only located in the heart of Newport, but also possesses a big heart. You can tell that from the moment walking into Joann's home in the form of a restaurant. The homemade food, conversations flowing, cozy surroundings and owner and staff that seem like family ultimately create this wonderful experience. Unlike some other Newport restaurants that teeter on the side of overpriced tourist traps with high opinions of themselves, Jo's American Bistro comes across more as that humble, genuine friend that is always by your side. And that genuine friend is the pulse of what makes a restaurant with great food even that much greater. And, so much more than a list of superlatives.

"The best part of coming into Jo's is the way people get along," said Joann. "I wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Jo's American Bistro is located at:
24 Memorial Blvd. W., Newport, RI 02840
Tel. 401-847-5506
Web Site:

Facebook page:
Instagram page:
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Next stop in Rhode Island: Jo's American Bistro in Newport -- a classy but casual restaurant specializing in made-from-scratch food. The burgers are amazing here!

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