bywater in Warren
Eschewing the Traditional Chef-Driven Restaurant Model, Brian & Katie O’Donnell Chart Their Own Course With Their Neighborhood Eatery
Nearly every time Brian and Katie O’Donnell walked by the building parallel to Warren’s well-traveled Water Street, they’d wax poetic about the restaurant they would have if they owned the space. Both Rhode Island restaurant veterans, Brian, a chef, and Katie, front-of-house staff, the young couple daydreamt about a comfortable, neighborhood eatery with a seasonally-driven menu infused with flavors reflective of their exercised passports. The O’Donnells were so smitten with the space that when it unexpectedly went on the market, they knew it was time to put up, or—you know.
“When it became came available, we thought, ‘Shoot, now we really have to think about this,’” says Brian with a sarcastic smirk. That’s because he and Katie weren’t shy about their “pie in the sky” restaurant musings. Friends and family were all privy to the O’Donnells’ affinity for 54 State St. The two made an offer but fate dealt them a hard blow when they were outbid.
“We made our peace with not having it,” says Katie.
“But then it came back around to us,” adds Brian.
More than a half-century old, the building Brian and Katie had romanticized had issues. Serious, year-long construction issues. “How little we knew…” Katie says with a roll of the eyes. Seasoned pros, Katie continued running the Wooden Midshipman (her whimsical Warren gift shop) by day and tending bar at Persimmon in Bristol by night, while Brian commanded the kitchen at Café Nuovo in Providence as executive chef.
Instead of lamenting their challenges, the O’Donnells used the unexpected waiting game to discuss every aspect of their restaurant. From management style to staffing needs, farmers to fishermen they’d enlist as purveyors, all created a framework to let this small space make a big splash.
“It really worked because we had the time to truly develop it,” says Katie of their unforeseen silver lining. Through it all, they talked about what they always knew would be the restaurant’s cornerstone: the menu.
As the opening drew closer, the two headed to Martha’s Vineyard for a menu-writing retreat. Over a notebook, an undisclosed number of bottles of wine and copious amounts of raw oysters, the couple began menu writing in earnest, although one might argue they’ve been writing it most of their adult lives. Kate is longtime collector of cookbooks with a sentimental palate for the international flavors developed during periods of wanderlust. Brian, who grew up outside of Pittsburgh, the son of Irish immigrants, admits to being shaped by both his upbringing and his roots.
“There’s definitely a Galway influence” on his cooking, he says. The coastal county on Ireland’s west coast from where his parents hail has much in common with Rhode Island it seems. From the time they opened the doors to bywater [sic] in June 2015, you’re likely to find an Irish-inspired smoked trout pâté small plate as a starter. “And we serve my mom’s brown bread,” Brian says proudly.
“We wanted dishes that were meaningful to us, not just stuff that would sell. We had to make it a compelling story. Everything needed some context,” Katie explains. At the same time, she says, they wanted to leave room to let the menu evolve. “Since we are a neighborhood place, we always want to be mixing up the menu."
There will likely always be staples, like the raw bar featuring oysters from local waters. (Note: Monday is $1 oyster night.) The beef tartar has also gained an enviable following but Katie is often lobbying for the kitchen to indulge her taste for the rich flavors she experienced while traveling in places like Istanbul. (Hence, Turkish coffee on the dessert menu.)
“Our food philosophy is growing a lot broader than we first expected,” says Katie. “There’s inspiration from all over."
Though the busy reservation book (for larger parties) and a steady rotation of regulars speaks to a successful freshman year, bywater hasn’t been absolved of your garden variety new business growing pains.
“We didn’t have great connections with the farmers and purveyors [when we started],” Katie concedes. Though regulars at their local farmers’ markets, the two hadn’t considered the larger yields of local fruits, vegetables and proteins would already be spoken for. But they’ve spent the past year building relationships and finding solutions. Four Town Farm is a few miles away and has become a regular supplier. The O’Donnells forged a rapport with Finch Farm in Rehoboth and this year the farmers are growing crops specifically for bywater.
“They handed us a seed catalog and said, ‘Go nuts,’” says Brian. Thinking outside the box, he sources beef from a cooperative of Amish farmers in Pennsylvania. “So I don’t mind giving my support to farmers back home, too,” says Brian.
Other referrals came from the fraternity of Rhode Island’s farm-to-table food champions who are known more for comradery than competition. “Eli Dunn over at Eli’s Kitchen, Rick Allaire at Metacom Kitchen, Champe Speidel at Persimmon, Joe Simone at Simone’s, the guys over at Chomp and now The Statesman …” Brian shakes his head in near disbelief, and it says everything.
In the front of house, there was a learning curve too—for everyone. Katie used to create the bar menu but she learned to empower their capable staff. Now she can step back a bit. “It’s not at all how I expected it to go but when you find the right people …” she says. It gives her time for other tasks, like making homemade ice creams for the menu.
When it comes to clientele, it’s clear why bywater has so many familiar faces.
“Our policy is to never say no,” says Katie. “If we don’t have it or need to make a change, [servers] always lead with ‘Let me see what I can do.’ That also applies to the bar."
“A lot of the first year was learning what our limitations were, but now we know how to work around that,” says Katie. “We have a great team … I think it’s only recently that we’ve really gotten into this groove.” Judging by bywater’s loyal following, that’s an understatement.
54 State St., Warren, RI