COVENTRY — As the team at Coventry’s newest restaurant worked Friday on applying finishing touches just ahead of opening day, there was an excitement in the air that was palpable.
“For me, it’s not just an everyday thing,” Executive Chef Rob Pirnie said of opening Black Oak Kitchen & Drinks, which after much anticipation will welcome its first customers tomorrow.
“We’re owners now,” Pirnie continued, “and for me, being a Coventry resident, I feel the pressure of wanting this to be successful for my guys, but also for my respect as a chef and a resident.”
Dressed in his white chef’s coat, having just wrapped up a busy lunch service at Back 40 in North Kingstown, Pirnie spoke passionately about his vision for the new restaurant.
Located on Tiogue Avenue at the former Fat Belly’s location, Black Oak boasts a menu laden with twists on classic comfort foods—dishes that Pirnie described as marrying “tried-and-true” with “funky and cool.”
“We call it American comfort food,” Pirnie said, sitting at a bar table as daylight poured through the wide windows that line the front of the restaurant. “But to me, American comfort food is whatever we really feel like, because Rhode Island’s so diverse, culturally. And I think Coventry will be receptive of it.”
As the latest venture of the group that opened Back 40, details throughout Black Oak’s dining room and on its menu hint at the relationship between the two establishments: a red tile wall behind the bar at Black Oak pays subtle tribute to Back 40; the “Back 40 Burger” gives Coventry a taste of what its sister restaurant has to offer.
“It’s basically a growing family,” Black Oak General Manager Mike Culpo said of the restaurant group, which also owns Lulu’s Allston in Boston. “It’ll be similar in a lot of ways, but I think every restaurant kind of has its own unique twist.”
Justin Dalton-Ameen, a managing partner, said Friday that he expects Black Oak will fit seamlessly with the group’s other restaurants.
“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel, but just trying to make a nice, comfortable spot,” Dalton-Ameen added. “We’re excited. It’s been a long time coming.”
With experience that includes chef gigs at eateries from Providence to South County, Pirnie was ready to spread his culinary wings when he was introduced to Dalton-Ameen and Josh Culpo, who, alongside Olivia Culpo and her father Peter Culpo, opened Back 40 in 2017.
“I was looking for something different, and I was lucky enough to meet Justin and Josh through a couple of restaurant buddies,” recalled Pirnie, who’s worked for over a year now as Back 40’s head chef. “We’re all the same age, 30 to 35, and this is our lives—we have the same passion. It’s a great team.”
With a seating capacity of 250, Black Oak will feature dining options to suit a variety of preferences.
A bunch of high-top tables will provide a place where restaurant-goers can feel the bar’s energy, while another area separated by a partial wall will give diners a seating option away from the bustle. A second dining room will offer an intimate setting for private functions.
As for the restaurant’s decor, that was also selected intentionally to appeal to a range of tastes.
“The space, itself, sort of hits everybody’s personality,” Pirnie said. “It’s not too funky and over the top, but it’s also not a dive bar.”
Along one wall, a row of General Nathanael Greene portraits honors the Revolutionary War hero who once called Coventry home. The gray-shaded images depict the same figure Rhode Islanders know well, but there’s something peculiar about each one. In one image, he’s wearing an eye patch; in another, he dons a baseball cap.
Familiar yet quirky. But then, that’s sort of the vibe the team at Black Oak has striven to create.
Even the restaurant’s name in its own way pays homage to the town of Coventry.
“It kind of ties together what we’re trying to do and the community we’re trying to be a part of,” Culpo said of “Black Oak,” which at once alludes to the Coventry Knotty Oakers, the black and red oak trees that abound locally and the oak barrels in which the bar’s bourbons were aged.
The plan for the bar, meanwhile, is to offer all kinds of creative cocktails and craft beers.
“We’re going to open up with some really cool stuff—Exhibit ‘A,’ Lawson’s, Proclamation,” Culpo said, adding that he looks forward to supporting local breweries.
“That’s what it’s all about,” he continued. “Supporting everyone.”
But while the bar is certainly a strong focal point—with its position right in the center of the restaurant, its shiny brass beer tower and the mismatched black and white floor tiles surrounding it—the business really is “food focused,” Culpo said.
“Fat Belly’s before was very bar-driven,” Pirnie added. “To me, ‘kitchen’ was an important word to work into the name, because we’re definitely a restaurant first, but with a really great cocktail and beer program.”
Working with Farm Fresh RI, Pirnie has written a menu ripe with locally sourced ingredients.
“And we’re opening at such a great time—the harvest is upon us,” Pirnie said, adding that he’s been in touch with Coventry’s Bella Farms, for example, about sourcing tomatoes for the Caprese salad.
In addition to the emphasis on local produce, Culpo also described the menu as having “comfort food, big portions,” and “competitive pricing.”
“I think our price points are super fair for the quality of food that we’re serving,” Pirnie chimed in. “We only have a small freezer, so everything’s fresh.”
For Pirnie, the most exciting feature on the menu is the share plates.
“When I go out to eat with my wife, we like to order three or four different things to feel out the restaurant,” he said. “You can really see the vision of what they’re trying to do by just having four different things.”
And the share plates menu at Black Oak, Pirnie added, is arguably “one of the coolest” he’s ever created.
“We’re trying to think outside the box,” he continued. “So we’ll make, say, a really cool buffalo chicken meatball, try to make it look neat but resemble those same flavor profiles that you would get from other dishes.”
Sous Chef Kenny Lentz, meanwhile, said he’s excited about the Kung Pao Chicken bites and the shrimp potstickers, which he added have already proven a customer favorite at Back 40.
“They were an absolute smash,” said Lentz, who helped Pirnie create the Black Oak menu, featuring variations on a few popular Back 40 items, like the meatloaf, chicken parmesan and fish and chips.
Lentz will act as Pirnie’s “number two” in the kitchen, said Pirnie, who plans to split his time between Black Oak and Back 40. Lentz said he’s excited to be working with an enthusiastic kitchen staff and looks forward to training them.
“Opening a restaurant, it doesn’t happen all the time,” Lentz added. “It’s super exciting to get all new equipment, new staff… we do take a lot of pride in our kitchen.”
With opening day just around the corner, the anticipation in the restaurant could be felt Friday, as Pirnie, Culpo, Dalton-Ameen and Lentz worked on tying up loose ends, surrounded by heaps of napkins and stacks of dining room chairs.
And as Pirnie received a notification on his cellphone that the liquor license had been approved, the vision that was born last year and has been slowly coming to fruition since moved one big step closer to realization.
“We want to be the place you can bring your grandmother to, but also the place where you can come to after work, have a couple drinks with your friends,” Culpo said, adding he’s excited to help the restaurant find its niche in Kent County’s restaurant scene.
“We hope to contribute to what’s already here and to bring more people back to the area,” he continued. “I think that’s important.”
And if the guys can accomplish that, then they should have no problem building the network of regulars they’re so hoping for.
“We really pride ourselves on customer service and giving guests the best experience that they can possibly have, from the moment they walk through the door till they get their check and leave,” Culpo said. “We pride ourselves on being a part of the community.”
Black Oak Kitchen & Drinks, located at 760 Tiogue Ave., Coventry, will officially open its doors Wednesday, and will be open daily from 11 a.m. to midnight on Monday through Thursday, 11.a.m to 1 p.m. on Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to midnight on Sunday.