WESTERLY — Dan King stood inside The Café on Canal Street one recent morning, near a framed, black-and-white photograph of Muhammad Ali, which was hung on a large brick wall just underneath a photo of Sardi's — the famed New York City theater-district restaurant — and near photos of Sophia Loren, Lucille Ball, Dean Martin and John Wayne.
The Café, a soon-to-open restaurant connected to the United Theatre, has been attracting quite a bit of attention lately, King said with a chuckle, pointing to the pithy sayings that have been appearing one by one on the outside windows. Sayings like "Costumes welcome," "Stories welcome," "Free coffee for computers" and "Mess around here ... early and late."
King, executive director of the Royce Family Fund, the charitable organization that has contributed millions of dollars to renovation efforts in Westerly, said the sayings on the outside — along with the artwork inside that covers nearly every inch of every wall — give a glimpse into the philosophy behind the restaurant, which is slated to open by early November. That philosophy is one he created and developed along with his in-laws, Chuck and Deborah Royce.
"We knew we wanted to inspire memories and nostalgia," said King, who has run two memorable downtown Westerly eateries of yore, Señor Flacos and the Up River Café, "but we also knew we didn't want to take ourselves too seriously."
Therefore, King said with a smile, "there's sort of a wry wit about everything we do ... a little lampooning going on."
King, who attended the Culinary Institute of America in New York, said they all agreed on the general idea for the restaurant, which occupies the space that once housed The Twisted Vine. They knew they wanted everyone to feel welcome, whether they were popping in for an espresso, meeting a friend for a glass of wine, having a milestone family celebration, a quick salad for lunch or waiting for one of their children to finish a music class next door at the United.
They knew they wanted to create an atmosphere where "locals are treated like stars, and stars are treated like locals." They knew they wanted to pay homage to the Golden Age of Hollywood and the classic American café, and they knew they wanted to offer a menu that combined classic dishes with newly imagined ones that would feature "meticulously sourced ingredients and diligent technique."
"We also wanted to have tie-ins with theater and film," he added, noting the proximity to the recently renovated United Theatre. "And we wanted to inspire conversation ... to have people talk and ask questions."
So, they called upon Hilary Pierce Hatfield, president and lead curator of Art Collector’s Athenaeum, a Philadelphia-area company that provides fine art curatorial services and digital cataloging services for private collectors, to help them create an art collection that would dovetail, complement and highlight their vision.
Hatfield, a founding curator of The Petrucci Collection of African American Art, who curated the collection’s inaugural exhibitions at the African American Museum in Philadelphia and the Schmucker Gallery at Gettysburg College, applauded the Royces for lending pieces from their own art collection for walls of The Café, and King for his "constant guidance."
The project, Hatfield said, "like every Royce Fund project," from Ocean House to the United Theatre, was developed "with a great deal of care and sensitivity."
"I took a museum approach," said Hatfield who decided to focus on works of art from the turn of the 20th century through the 1950s, art that celebrated "the passion, productivity, creativity and culture" in America during a period when this country was teeming with immigrants.
It was an era, she said, when "old-world ideas were tossed into the American melting pot, seasoned with fresh technologies and infused with boundless American drive and imagination."
Works from artists like cartoonist Barbara Shermund, James Yoko, Ludwig Bemelmans of "Madeline" fame, Ervine Metzl, James Montgomery Flagg (who created the World War I recruiting poster “I Want You for the U.S. Army” depicting the fictitious character of Uncle Sam,) Georges Goursat (who was also known as “SEM”), Reginald Marsh and Eduardo Oliva are included in The Café's collection.
"Our artistic ideas as a nation developed from the best of our training and traditions imported from Europe and other parts of the world," Hatfield writes in her "Curator's Note," part of The Café's "A Guide to the Art Collection."
As far as the connection with The United Theatre, she said, the theater "found its first audiences with the live performance of vaudeville," which was quickly followed by "the advent of talking pictures and the Golden Age of Hollywood."
What better way to pay homage to that area than to look at what the most iconic American restaurants of the time were serving theatergoers at the time, restaurants like Brown Derby — home of the original Cobb salad — or Romanoff's or Musso & Frank's.
The restaurants were "clever, quirky, eclectic and classic places that served their 'regulars' right alongside celebrities of stage and screen," Hatfield said, the same sort of vibe The Café hopes to create.
"Chuck really wanted to have a feel of places like Sardi's and Brown Derby and give a sense of what was literally on the plate," she said, noting that many menus from famous restaurants hang in various spots around The Café.
"I hope this restaurant is a joy for the community," Hatfield said, noting that bound copies of "A Guide to the Art Collection" will be available for patrons to peruse.
On the wall above what is called the "Captain's Booth" — a banquette that can accommodate more than 10 guests at a time — King pointed out one of the many Shermund pieces.
Shermund was of the first female cartoonists at The New Yorker, he explained, and was known for her whimsical, cutting and feminist-leaning cartoons.
"We wanted to make sure we highlighted diversity in gender and race," he said, "and make sure to feature the work of women."
More of Shermund's New Yorker cartoons hang on the wall next to the long, wooden bar, King pointed out, near images of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman staring out from a large, framed "Casablanca" movie poster. On the cornflower blue "Art Wall" at the end of the restaurant, near the large open, Balthazar-inspired kitchen, hangs an original James Yoko painting called "Two of a Kind," just above a large piece from SEM, the French caricaturist and satirist who became famous during the Belle Époque period for openly lampooning the looks and lifestyle of the Rothschilds and other elite of French Society.
King stressed that everything about the restaurant — from the art work to the enormous bar with it's 20-foot mirror, to the café's rail, to seating arrangements that run the gamut from cozy nooks for two, to a place to see and be seen; and from a speakeasy-like intimate table hidden by a giant fern, to theater seats by the front window, to the table settings, to the hand-made pottery vases, locally made wooden bowls and cutting boards — is designed to make guests feel comfortable and welcome.
Essentially, King said, "We want people to feel better when they leave here than when they arrived."