Local 121: ‘Tiny, Weird Things’ Remembered

On the eve of the popular Providence bar and restaurant’s closing, I look back on its nightlife through conversations with some of its key figures

[An edited version of this piece ran in the March edition of Motif Magazine and can be found here.]

In late 2007, about six months into Local 121’s existence, Bryan Minto had a seemingly outlandish idea to boost the new restaurant’s late-night sales: Take the fine-dining establishment located in a historic building, throw in some DJs and subwoofers, and turn the space out.

Nearly 10 years later, as Minto revisited his successful experiment on the eve of the restaurant’s March 11 closing, he said that he sees the idea as one that not only boosted Local’s register receipts, but also helped bolster a Downtown that was lacking sufficient music and entertainment options.

At the time, Minto was a manager at the restaurant, which became the first anchor tenant in AS220’s mixed-use Dreyfus project at 121 Washington St. in May of that year. He saw what others did in the new venture: the potential for a highly successful restaurant. But with Local’s business tapering off after the dinner crowd cleared out, he knew it needed a fresh approach to grow.

Drawing inspiration from a favorite haunt of his, the Elephant Room in Cambridge, Minto went to owners Nancy and Josh Miller with a plan: putting DJs in the restaurant’s bar room seven nights a week.

“If there was a nightly happening and the clientele was inclusive, people might be inclined to pop in regularly to see what’s up,” Minto said last week.

In a late-February phone conversation, Nancy Miller said that the concept of younger-skewing entertainment in an establishment such as Local 121 may seem like old hat now, but at that time in the city of Providence, it was virtually unheard of.

“You were either a club or a restaurant, you weren’t both,” she said.

“You were either a club or a restaurant, you weren’t both,” Miller said.

From Wine to .Wavs

It was an unorthodox idea, but the owners were on board. They handed nightlife keys to Minto and allowed him to turn the bar area — known as the Tap Room — into a different kind of destination. Both Minto and the Millers wanted to make certain of one thing, however — that the nightlife and dining were delineated from one another.

The Tap Room during the day. (TripAdvisor)

That switchover from dinner to dancing essentially became a nightly mad dash, forcing Minto and others to remove tables and chairs as quickly as possible and set up DJ equipment, a makeshift sound system, and lighting more suited to grinding than sharing a bottle of wine.

Crowds would begin filing in at 11 p.m. and peak around 1:30 a.m., as DJs would wind their ways through sets that included house and hip-hop, Prince and Michael, and T.I. and Drake. After the kitchen closed, the dining room would become its own sort of congregation area for people who wanted to be at Local but not dance. On most weekends, that room too would reach capacity.

The restaurant, which would go on to win national and local culinary awards, was about as unlikely of a venue for the concept to work in as possible. But, according to Minto, the experiment was in good hands: Expert bartenders like Dave Phayre could transition from knowing a complex dining menu at 7 p.m. to slinging beers as quickly as possible, and the first-hired DJs — which included Morgan Louis, Tim O’Keefe and Aarin Clemons — knew how to both bring in and please a crowd. Plus, the room, with its stained-glass windows and original wood maintained from its first incarnation as the Dreyfus Hotel (built in 1890) somehow lent itself to the raucous atmosphere.

“The old wood in the room was just so good for sound,” Minto said.

Miller said that nightly transformation showed the delicate balancing act Local had to perform — making the profitable nightlife business sing harmoniously with an upscale dining clientele that didn’t order thumping bass off the prix fixe menu.

“It got tricky at times,” Miller said. “We might have lost a few customers, but overall, I thought it worked very, very well.”

The newness of the endeavor helped its success, as well. Minto hatched his plan before the growth of what he called Providence’s “DJ bubble” (“now, it’s like groceries stores have DJs,” he said). He was able to tap into a burgeoning local dance music scene, much of which had been contained to lofts and warehouses to that point. The first round of DJs in late 2007 included personalities such as Micah Salkind and Jackson Morley, who as a team had garnered a reputation locally for throwing parties that could only be described as life-affirming. Aarin Clemons, who DJs under the name Abstract Soul, hosted a popular weekly event called Soulpsychadelicide, which frequently featured Joél Martinez (DJ name: Preston Gently).

Minto also brought on Morgan Louis, a DJ who helped set the tone for the era with his weekly party Pop at the now-defunct Club Energy on Union Street. With a rotating cast of DJs that included Christopher Wade and iThug, Louis hosted a night called Lovelife, which Minto quickly moved to Local’s downstairs Speakeasy to accommodate overflowing crowds.

“I was always jealous of that night,” Clemons said last week.

A scene from the February 2008 edition of Lovelife. (Nickydigital.com)

The lineup was filled out with an eclectic mix of offerings, including Loaded (hosted by Eric Smith, Pete Lima and Kevin Leavitt) and a reggae night thrown by Blade Mon and DC Roots. The scene responded immediately; it wasn’t uncommon to see crowds lined up on Mathewson Street waiting to get in on a weeknight in those early days.

“Our Monday night would crush most people’s Fridays,” Minto said.

“Our Monday night would crush most people’s Fridays,” Minto said.

In spring 2008, Minto retooled the lineup to bring in more varied talent, including Nick DeParis, Knowlton Walsh, Kevin James and Danny Riti, Avery owner and DJ John Richard, and myself, Dox Ellis. Along with DJ Save, I kicked off a monthly party hip-hop party dubbed Tap the Bottle that early on specialized on classic party rap.

With diverse offerings like our nights (Save and I would eventually split and host separate parties at Local), the Brit-pop weekly Loaded, and DJ Nook’s open-format free-for-alls, Minto said that he aimed for an eclectic lineup made up of his friends, creating a a few-frills alternative for people who wanted dance but had no interest in the Jewelry District or Atwells Avenue crowds.

“If you were into hip-hop, you could still go there on a rock night and feel like some of your friends were going to be there,” he said.

Clemons said that vibe was part of Local 121’s early appeal.

“Bryan was always really good about allowing us to explore musically,” Clemons said. “The room to grow was always there.”

Dan Riti, left, and Kevin James playing in the Tap Room in 2011. (Dustin Genereux Photography)

Perhaps the greatest example of that growth came from Zak Drummond, best known at that time as a guitarist in bands such as Verse. He started coming to Local in the early days because, as puts it, he was just “looking to dance.”

Before long, however, he was thrust into action, beginning with an impromptu DJ set at a private event that led to a regular Sunday night at Local.

Naturally, he turned that residency into a monthly mock wedding party — an excuse for people to “get dressed up, drink, and dance with their friends to Beyoncé,” said Drummond, who would eventually adopt the name Born Casual.

“I remember at one of those parties we had a makeshift ceremony and I wound up playing Jeezy’s ‘I Do’ for the first dance. That’s when I really got interested in throwing more parties,” he said. “And Local allowed me to do that.”

Drummond would play a key role in the DJ rotation during Local’s middle years, throwing large-scale parties with his Pizza Boyz collective on the weekends and intimate slow jams nights during the week. Now a Los Angeles resident, he called Local 121 “the hub of everything” for his Downtown experience.

“Once, my mother and sister walked in during a party around the holidays while I was playing Khia,” he said. “I don’t know how else to describe Local.”

Transforming the Speakeasy

Hand Dancer attends a show in the Local 121 Speakeasy in November 2011. (Chris Shores Photography)

By 2011, Local’s DJ operation was essentially running itself. So Minto — a musician who has toured with the Low Anthem and Diamond Rugs, among others — set his sights on another transformation project: turning Local’s downstairs Speakeasy into a venue for local bands.

While the upstairs Tap Room was known for its distinctive, early-20th-century decor and ornate furnishings, the downstairs space was essentially a cold, blank rectangle with a small bar. Local 121 used the space for rentals and other events, dressing it up for wedding rehearsals or political fundraisers and occasionally hosting live shows.

But with the room sitting dormant after 11 p.m. on most weekend nights, Minto saw an opportunity. The 201, an important Downtown venue on Westminster Street, had recently closed, leaving musicians with a dearth of centrally located small stages to play. Minto convinced the Millers to let him book bands on the weekends, making shows in the basement the expectation rather than an exception.

He began scheduling acts from the local scene, with regulars such as the Silks, Smith & Weeden, Party Pigs, Christopher Paul Stelling, Vudu Sister and Tallahassee appearing in the Speakeasy. The space would briefly serve as a post–Tazza Caffe, pre-Dusk home for Ty Jesso’s long-running cross-generational vinyl celebration, Soul Power. During that time, I took part in a few shows in the space, as well, including gigs with Symmetry, Esh, Romen Rok and my longtime group, Poorly Drawn People.

Soon, the Speakeasy was hosting national touring bands. No matter the scope of the show, though, Minto would undertake the same nightly redecorating process, using lamps, rugs and curtains to transform the blank room into a homey venue many were proud to play.

“I would always get so bummed out if a touring band came and they saw this room … before I put up the velvet curtains and the six-inch stage,” he said.

“I would always get so bummed out if a touring band came and they saw this room … before I put up the velvet curtains and the six-inch stage,” Minto said.
Dirty Hank, Sam Radov, and Lily McCall Costner in the Speakeasy. Sam and Lily are former employees; Hank is Hank.

Nancy Miller said that her and Josh were ecstatic about Minto’s work in both the Tap Room and the Speakeasy. The husband-and-wife team started the business with a community-focused ethos — one that included entertainment and extended to its locally sourced menu. Bryan, she said, “embraced that.”

“He created a certain excitement about the place, one that affected all of nightlife in Providence,” she said.

You Don’t Have to Go Home, But …

As the old adage goes, all good things must eventually end. Minto would become part of the collective that revived the Columbus Theatre on Broadway and left Local 121 sometime around 2013. After his departure, the weekend Speakeasy shows largely ended. Upstairs in the Tap Room, the bar’s DJ audience was cannibalized by the scene it helped prop up, as crowds split their attention between Local and newer (and also great) venues such as Salon, Aurora and Dusk.

Lara Pietropaolo, a bartender who worked at Local from its 2007 opening through mid-2015, took over the DJ-booking responsibilities after Minto left and brought in new blood such as Comfort Club, the Music Please and Pauly Danger. She said she’ll remember Local as a place that all age groups could feel comfortable, and one that was “very welcoming” thanks to staffers like Mark Ferrara — better known as Ref, the affable but streetwise newsie-cap-donning doorman who knew how to handle customers from all walks of life.

“He kept us all safe and knew how to handle any person walking through the door,” she said. “It’s hard to do in a room that doesn’t have windows.”

Ref and Aarin Clemons, circa 2009

Pietropaolo, who, for full disclosure, is one of my closest friends, described Local as a home where she made so many connections (and invented a popular drink she named “the Unicorn”). But while nostalgia has crept in since the closing announcement, she said she’s eager to see what next life of the once–Dreyfus Hotel holds. While no official plans have been announced, building owner AS220 is currently in the midst of negotiations with a potential new anchor tenant. Pietropaolo hopes that that whatever ends up at 121 Washington St. will play a similar role in the community.

“The building has reincarnated itself a few times,” she said via phone last week. “I’m curious and excited for the next thing it will be and whose lives it will touch. It will be a whole new group of people. It will have a whole new meaning.”

The idea of “meaning” has dominated my thoughts since I first heard news of Local’s closing. The restaurant opened in a different Providence — a pre-recession, post-construction-boom city that still included places like the Black Repertory Company and Talk of the Town, one where Sound Session dominated an entire weekend in July and the What Cheer? Brigade could burst into your bar blaring Slayer covers.

Local 121 itself was decidedly separate from what was happening across town in Olneyville, but still pulled in a lot of the same crowd because, hey, that’s where your friends were going. I’ve DJ’d there hundreds of times and spent hundreds of other nights there as a patron. It’s a place where I could feel so large — so important — while DJing for a crowd full of sweaty 20-somethings, but then be humbled the next moment by the idea that these were all people who came together for one night to celebrate their bodies, their youth, their love.

I’ve shed tears before for now-shuttered places such as the Living Room, Jerky’s and the original Met Cafe — all legendary Providence venues that feel so fresh to me, but will seem as foreign to younger generations as Club Babyhead is to people my age. But to me, those feelings are self-contained, more about the places themselves than my sense of identity. Today, as I reflect while living 3,000 miles from the place I grew up in, and nearly 10 years removed from the first time I set foot in Local 121, I can’t help but feel that a piece of me is closing with it.

Lara Pietropaolo, myself, and Zak Drummond on Christmas 2013. The stray hand belongs to Esh, who took the photo.

In our conversation, Miller rightfully points out that nightlife was just one aspect of Local 121’s business. An early adopter of the farm-to-table concept, the restaurant was the first-ever recipient of the prestigious Mayor’s Culinary Cup award in 2010. It was a place where first dates happened at the dimly lit bar and Brown University students took their parents on visits. People would watch NCAA basketball games on the bar’s small corner TV and local politicos would gather to celebrate electoral victories (Josh Miller is a state senator representing Providence and Cranston).

But Local 121 had an undeniably youthful energy to it — no small feat for a fine-dining establishment. Miller said some of that can be credited to the nightlife business, but much of it is thanks to the young staff, which includes people that spent most of their 20s and, in some cases, part of their teens working, laughing, and living life within the restaurant’s walls.

“I think that the friendships people forged here will last their whole lives,” Miller said.

“I think that the friendships people forged here will last their whole lives,” Miller said.

At first reluctant to wax nostalgic last week, Minto eventually softened, warmly sharing stories about the early days of Lovelife and the time he used some tricky to convince Marcus Mumford of Mumford & Sons and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes to play an intimate show at Local. He said he set out to create a hangout where he would want to be even when he was off the clock. And his plan worked.

“I got some really cool people doing some tiny, weird things in there,” he said.

Information about Local 121’s final nights can be found here.