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Finding the Perfect Burger, Brew at The Abbey in Providence, Rhode Island

The Abbey in Providence, Rhode Island.

The Abbey in Providence, R.I.

Story and photos, unless otherwise noted, by Eric Hurwitz. Article created on 12/12/17.

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Burger joints have been popping up all over the place as of late, but often served with sides of attitude, entitlement, trendiness and high prices.

On the other hand, there's The Abbey in Providence, R.I., that got burgers and the neighborhood restaurant and bar concept right the first time. The Abbey opened in 2001, quickly gaining a legendary local reputation for serving exactly what the customer wanted -- that is, juicy, substantial mouthwatering burgers cooked exactly to specification and ice cold beer at low prices within an unpretentious, cozy neighborhood setting. Very little has changed since then, thus sticking to the adage, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."

At first sight, The Abbey looks like many other local bars with its small, plain-looking facade. Once inside, however, a totally different story evolves with a surprisingly spacious, family-friendly dining area, an attractive long bar, 30 burger options (many you will find no where else), an extensive comfort foods menu and an astonishing 100 beers from around the world. Jennifer Ricci, general manager of The Abbey, likes to keep things simple at the restaurant by displaying drink and food advertisements on the wall, while also showcasing a thoughtfully-designed menu that makes it easy to navigate the many choices of burgers, as well as recommendations for the perfect beer pairings.

The bar at The Abbey in Providence, R.I.
Dining and bar area at The Abbey.

How to create a burger at The Abbey in Providence, R.I.
Menu shows how to best order a burger and brew.

"We never are frozen," said Ricci, of the burgers. "We have literally tasted a 1,000 different blends and have gone to great lengths to get the flavor done right. We have a real gas grill for the perfect markings and taste."

The breads for the burgers are well-bred, too (sorry for the bad pun), brought in locally from Calise Bakery in Lincoln, R.I. The Abbey also partners with the Wisconsin Cheese Board where third and fourth generation cheese makers create what is regarded as some of the best tasting cheeses in the country. The fresh, full-bodied taste of the cheeses clearly go beyond the norm and wonderfully complement the incredible, mouthwatering flavor of the burgers.

Even with the clearly-written sections of the menu to assist with burger selections, it's hard to know what to order as virtually everything seems like a "must-try" selection. For starters, The Lumberjack stands as a top choice for those with big appetites. This colossal burger with two patties comes with Wisconsin Swiss and cheddar cheeses, pickles, yellow mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise, sliced white onions and iceberg lettuce on three thick slices of grilled Texas toast.

The Lumberjack Burger From The Abbey in Providence, R.I.
The humongous Lumberjack burger from The Abbey. Photo source:

Another favorite: the Couch Potato, a 10 oz. seasoned burger with
Wisconsin bleu cheese, thick cut potato chips, BBQ pulled pork, sauteed onions and garlic mayonnaise on a grilled sourdough bun. One of Ricci's personal favorites is The Highwayman, a 10 oz. patty with Wisconsin brick and cheddar cheeses, fried ham and egg, onion rings and barbecue sauce on two halves of a grilled knot bun. Many love The Honky Tonk with Wisconsin brick cheese, barbecue sauce, pulled pork and fried onion rings on a grilled sesame bun. A side of perfectly-formed sweet potato fries makes a great dish even better!

The Honky Tonk burger from The Abbey in Providence, R.I. with Wisconsin brick cheese, pulled port, BBQ sauce, fried onion rings on a grilled sesame bun.
The Honky Tonk burger from the Abbey.

"The burgers are huge and cooked exactly to specification," said Ricci. "Employees go through lots of training to get it right. Also, we don't use a press unless requested. It's important to leave the flavor in. All the juice is there."

Located in a solid working class section of Providence near Providence College, The Abbey not only brings in regulars from Providence College and local neighborhoods, but all of Rhode Island and many towns and cities in Massachusetts -- even as far away as Boston (an hour away). For a small restaurant, it is astounding that an average of 900 customers arrive every week with approximately 600 burgers created in that time span. Forty percent of those customers come in from Providence College.

Providence College staff and students meet at The Abbey in Providence, R.I.
Providence College alumni and faculty meet at The Abbey. Photo credit: Jennifer Ricci.

If not in the mood for burgers, the rest of the menu will more than suffice with its impressive offerings of appetizers, soups and salads, sandwiches, flatbread pizzas and other entrees. The Meatloafer features a huge block of homemade meatloaf, Wisconsin American cheese, and house-made ketchup on a bulkie roll. The Porky Pig Grilled Cheese has pulled pork, tater tots, and cheddar and jack cheeses on Texas toast.  The Tender and We Mean Tender, Tip Sandwich features house marinated steak tips, sauteed mushrooms, onions and melted provolone cheese on a warm, baked hoagie roll. The Cajun Fish Sammie offers fried Cajun white fish, lettuce, tomato, and spicy mayo with tangy red cabbage cole slaw. One of the current lunch specials: The Billy-Bob that combines pulled pork rib meat and barbecue sauce on a hoagie roll.

Hearty soups include New England clam chowder, baked onion, and baked chili, while tempting appetizers like homemade potato chips, loaded nachos, fried dough and the marinated and skewered honey cured bacon are hard for many customers to resist despite the huge main course servings on the way.

While the mouthwatering burgers often take center stage, the beer selection proves to be no slouch, either. The Abbey is named, after all, in honor of Abbeys (Christian monasteries). Short history lesson: Many Abbeys relied, partially, on Trappist Monks to create beers in order to survive monetarily. The first Trappist beer was actually created in 1152 A.D.! While clearly no Trappist Monk beer production sightings exist at The Abbey, Ricci and staff bring an almost spiritual beer experience to the bar and restaurant through knowledge, recommendations and a keen eye for the latest quality brews.

Perhaps something the Trappist Monks of yesteryear might have found simultaneously amusing and ambitious: The Abbey in Providence promises not to serve the same "crap on tap." Check here for the extensive beer selection at The Abbey.

"We were the only place in (Rhode Island) that had 92 beers, but now we are over 100," said Ricci. "We have everything from the unique to old standbys like Narragansett."

Much of The Abbey's success can be traced to passionate and dedicated long-time owners, management and staff. Jay and Michelle Hoff have served as the owners from the beginning. Ricci, a Providence native, has assumed daily operation responsibilities over the past five years as general manager. With a family background in the restaurant industry, Ricci knows every job responsibility (including the ability and talent to cook). Kevin Grant is a master chef with extensive restaurant experience including the highly-regarded Tavern From Tower Square in Plainville, Mass., while chef Mark Brito once worked at the Rhode Island-based Chello's Hometown Bar and Grille. Grant has worked at The Abbey for 12 years, Brito six.

"I know the front and back of the house," said Ricci, of The Abbey. "We are a small group of employees that have all been together for a long time and together have a great time making The Abbey a special place. We also have a great relationship with Providence College. We are like one big family."

"I love my job here," said Grant. "I think what makes The Abbey so good is the quality of the employees. We will never put a burger out until it is done right. Another great thing is once a month, we try different burger trends with our specials."

As the list of burger joints grow seemingly by the month, the irony is that it makes the choice easier to frequent more places like The Abbey. While some of the newer burger places do a fine job, none that I have tried even come close to the burger quality of The Abbey. What's equally important is the sense of neighborhood and the chance to get to know the staff -- very important elements in a world that increasingly seems to be more impersonal. So many high profile burger places have high turnover employee rates and a distant, contrived vibe that almost feels more like show than substance.  The Abbey remains true to form -- that is, genuine, neighborly and with time-tested proof of consistently great burgers. That combination is the greatest recipe any restaurant could ever give its customers!

The Abbey is located at 686 Admiral St. in Providence, RI. Tel. 401-351-4346.  Web site: Facebook fan page: The Abbey is open for lunch and dinner, year-round.

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