Provincetown Off-Off Season
To the inexperienced and uninitiated, Provincetown in winter resembles a windswept ghost town, cold and unrelenting. And during the worst storms in February that description is, indeed, apropos. For the rest of the winter, life, art and fun abound around fireplaces and bar stools behind closed doors and winterized windows. In peak season, a residential population of about 30,000 plus throngs of tourists have a diverse selection of restaurants, galleries, retail boutiques and activities to fill the long, hot days. Ptown thrives on offering a little something for everyone. Yet even as the population slowly dwindles to approximately 3,500, there’s still a little something for all—locals and tourists alike.
After Labor Day, we finally have the opportunity to rediscover our neighbors down congestion-free Route 6 and they come see us, since Wellfleet (where I live) and Truro experience the same or worse population decline, we sort of become one extended ‘Outer Cape’ town. In September, I try to hit as many restaurants as I can, most of which close by mid-October. After that, only a small handful remain open. Without all the mayhem, Provincetown in winter offers a truly intimate and eclectic dining experience.
A sampling of restaurants provide a variety of food options for any budget—some open just around the weekends and a couple throughout the week. For the quicker snack, Far Land and Angel Foods markets both have delis, to-go foods, soups and baked goods. The Purple Feather dessert café, smack in the middle of Commercial Street, continues offering their gourmet chocolates, hot chocolate to thaw the cheeks, and paninis and soup for lunch. For a special evening out, The Crowne Pointe Historic Inn and Spa features a cozy bistro with an extensive wine list in a charming old sea captain’s mansion. Inside their intimate dining room with just 30 seats, you feel like you’re on the pinnacle of Ptown, high above the streets, with a view of the blustery life below. Chef Amy Howell turns local seafood, organic produce and naturally-raised meats into triumphs. Sneak a peak at their holiday menus and ‘Prix Fixe Thursdays’ at www.crownepointe.com.
If ethnic food is your fancy, Lorraine’s on the West End cooks up hot and spicy Mexican-style cuisine with the best tequila selection on the Cape. If you prefer vodka, venture over to the Restaurant and Café Mews for fabulous martinis, wonderful service, a view of the icy bay and a sampling of New England continental cuisine. Every Monday is open mic night, with local talent singing their winter blues away. Michael Shay’s on the East End, serving ribs and seafood, keeps the burners going breakfast, lunch and dinner and Fanizzi’s by the Sea is a favorite with the locals and another great place to catch a view. Coincidentally or not, the top-rated restaurants on TripAdvisor.com are the year-rounders. Napi’s holding the number one slot, The Mews number two, and Bistro at Crowne Pointe number four. Whether by virtue of getting more traffic over time or having the winter months to hone recipes, style and service, they are Provincetown staples and a second home for many craving comforts through the winter months.
Napi’s: A treasure trove of food, art and history
On Freeman, a crooked little side street between Bradford and Commercial, Napi’s simmers seven days a week for lunch and dinner. Imagine the coldest of days, ice crunching under your boots; cheeks, brows and even nose hairs frozen solid, and you throw open the old wooden door and, woomph, a waft of warm air and simmering spices thaw you to your core. As you walk into the main dining room, the yellow pine walls and bar create an air of antiquity while stained glass windows and myriad miniature fairy lights cast shadows around the room. If it weren’t for the eclectic mix of Provincetown portraiture, carousel horses and whimsical sculptures, you might feel as though you’ve walked into a cavernous cathedral. A closer look reveals one of the most extensive private art collections in Provincetown. For owners, Napi and Helen Van Derek, it is more than just art—it’s a historical treasure trove. The Van Dereks actually started out in the antique business years ago, going to auctions and estate sales, selling bits and pieces in a string of garages on the same little corner where Napi’s now stands.
Napi himself resembles a white capped, bearded sea captain—enigmatic, wise and full of stories. And his wife Helen, an ardent supporter of local causes, beams as she recounts the years they’ve spent getting through it. “We’ve had a marvelous ride,” she says. To this day, they don’t know what came over them in 1967 when they decided to alter their daily routine and open a restaurant. When they went to the bank, however, a start-up loan was not on the menu. But Napi, who is also a builder and craftsmen, was undeterred. He called on his friend Jackson Lambert, who is well known for using discarded and recycled materials for new construction. Yellow pine torn from old Boston factories and other salvaged building materials gradually transformed the former garages into what stands today as Napi’s. The menu seems to have evolved in much the same way—borrowed and recycled recipes of various ethnic origins tailored by local ingredients. Helen, originally a school teacher, favors Middle Eastern cuisine and in the early days that was their focus. As the years went by, they expanded to South American, classic New England and Asian influences. Their inspiration came from traveling and eating at domestic ethnic restaurants with a “let’s give it a try” attitude, and evolved into a vast menu of options for many palettes: Portuguese kale soup, Thai chicken and shrimp, Greek plate appetizer, local cod Brazil, Japanese seaweed salad, scallops Provencal, linguini and clams, lobster bouillabaisse, falafel plate…you get the point. For vegetarians, Napi’s boasts more meatless entrees than most any other restaurant on the Cape. Depending on the time of year, some ingredients come from Helen’s own garden; others are items she has foraged. The sauce on her Duckling Santa Clara has beach plums plucked from the dunes around town. Almost all the seafood comes straight off the pier. Whiting or silver perch (not typically found on other menus) is Napi’s favorite fried fish. The delicate, near boneless fish maintains the ideal consistency; soft but not mushy, it practically melts in your mouth.
The Van Dereks opened their doors in the mid-seventies. It was in 1981 that they decided to go year round, and they have stayed so ever since. Prior to that, Provincetown truly looked desolate in winter. Fifth-generation Portuguese descendant and longtime resident, Maxine Meads recounts, “When I was a kid in the ‘70s and early ‘80s, all the businesses boarded up their windows and locked their doors after Labor Day. Ptown felt like a ghost town as you walked down the streets.” The majority of the winter residents were fishermen and their families. During the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, Provincetown experienced a surge of artists and a “younger, hipper” crowd created a new scene. The extreme summers spilled over into the soft shoulder seasons and eventually into winter. The fallout for working families meant a huge escalation in the cost of living, especially as wildlands and old homesteads turned to condos. According to town’s 2007 economic survey, 55 percent or more homesteads are currently second homes. Many working families left, as did a large percentage of the fishing fleet. The majority of those who maintain Provincetown as their primary residence, manage to escape for months to warmer climes.
The diehards who remain all year are the laborers, the seamen and the self-employed. The poverty rate is high and increasing, many go on unemployment or barely scrape by. For them, restaurants like Napi’s provide jobs and wallet-friendly, hearty meals. Aside from a few menu items and specials, the only difference between Napi’s in summer versus Napi’s in winter is lunch. Towards the end of September, when most restaurants scale back or close, the Van Derek’s open for lunch, giving locals a place to get a warm mid-day meal and adding more shifts for their staff. Although some businesses that stay open manage to cover operational costs, Napi’s, according to the Van Dereks, loses money in the winter. But they keep their doors open for their community and employees who have remained loyal for years. They owe their success to their humble beginnings. Without a mortgage hanging over their heads, they were able to grow and thrive. They have watched as countless other restaurants and businesses tried to make it through the winters and according to Napi, “most only last a season a or two.” Recently, the winter traffic has slowed down a little, partially due to the lack of laborers willing to stay. The town is intensifying its efforts for businesses to stay open, adding more events and incentives.
Victor’s: Giving it a Go
New ‘kid’ on the block Victor Depoalo (he’s lived in town for “only” six years) opened his eponymously named restaurant last spring on the far west end of Bradford Street. Aside from also being named for its owner, Victor’s, which was reviewed by many this summer as “Ptown’s hottest new restaurant,” is quite different from Napi’s. With only one dining room, plus a bar, Victor’s is quite small with an elegant modern décor. The centerpiece of the dining room, a beautiful stone bottom fireplace, gives a flicker of heat, and the chef (who is more than just a food artist) lends his art to the walls. DePoalo brought in top chef, Mike Fennelly, to create a “tapas-style” small plates dinner menu of New American Cuisine. Prior to moving to Ptown, Mike cheffed in Santa Fe, San Francisco and Hawaii, earning such accolades as the Best New Chef Award from Food & Wine Magazine in 1993.
Using as many local and organic ingredients as possible, Mike presents a menu heavy on seafood like Deconstructed Ahi Tuna Napolean, Local Sea Scallop Ceviche and Lobster Spring Rolls. On the meatier side, Braised Short Rib, Herbed Chicken Quesadilla and an Organic Turkey Burger round out the menu options. For libations, the menu offers 7 Sins of Summer, an intriguing short list of caipirinhas and margaritas. DePaolo plans to be open Thursday through Sunday for dinner starting at 5:30 and on Saturday and Sunday for brunch. Their brunch chef, Noreen Bahring, a popular local chef, features a nice mix of breakfast and lunch dishes like Portuguese Sweet Bread French Toast, House-made Graavlax, Beer Battered Oyster Poor Boy and Crispy Coconut Shrimp. I asked Victor, why (given the economy and diminishing winter traffic) he would brave it. His response, “In part I promised the town before I opened that I would try it. We fill an interesting little niche, and if I can just cover my operational costs, then it’s worth it.”
For all communities on the Cape, this winter brings a sense of economic uncertainty. Business is already down considerably this fall for weekend tourism and as residents tighten their belts. Extensive winter travel and ski weekends seem potentially extravagant. Provincetown offers a closer getaway at off-season prices. The town sponsors several events throughout the holidays; enough museums, theatres, boutiques, dance/music clubs and galleries stay open to fill the days and nights. Life at the pier winds down a bit, only the larger dragging vessels and a small handful of lobstermen brave the winds and choppy waters. It may be the only time of year to catch a fisherman with time to talk. Or, if you’re Napi and Helen, it’s the best time of year to visit the seagulls. They collect scraps and bits from their kitchen and everyday the weather permits, go down to visit their feathered friends who often see them coming from quite a distance away.