CRANSTON, R.I. -- At half past noon on a raw Saturday in January, the giant parking lot at Twin Oaks is already packed.
Inside the sprawling restaurant, extended families gather in booths and around large round tables -- grandparents, children, young couples with infants -- as hugs, handshakes, and other warm greetings are exchanged. Scurrying in the background, armies of bow-tied waiters in black-and-white uniforms ferry towering plates of eggplant parmesan, baked scrod, meat loaf, and sirloin steaks to waiting customers.
A 50-ish man in a cable-knit cardigan approaches the table next to ours with a smile.
"How ya doin', Ma?" he says as he leans over and plunks a kiss on the cheek of a white-haired woman. She beams, clearly delighted to see him. "I love your sweater," she says, reaching up to touch one of the buttons. "Where'd you get it?" "Mary made it," he answers. She nods approvingly. "It's beautiful."
Behind us, two middle-age women sip from martini glasses piled high with ice. A tall, dark-haired waiter -- he introduces himself as Derek -- arrives. "You have gorgeous eyes, honey," one of them says to him. "Thank you," he replies modestly, hands clasped behind his back as he waits to take their orders.
For more than 70 years, similar scenes have been repeated here, again and again, at what is one of Rhode Island's most memory-laden restaurants.
Twin Oaks was born near the end of Prohibition as a speakeasy where Rhode Islanders could covertly congregate for an alcoholic drink. In his downstairs cellar, William DeAngelus quietly operated the bar. Upstairs, his wife, Eva, sold turkey and meatball sandwiches made in her home kitchen. From those clandestine beginnings in 1933, the business grew into a full-fledged eatery with 60 seats. It was named for the split-trunked oak trees that shaded the restaurant's grounds.
Today, "the Oaks," as it's known to locals, is an Ocean State institution. With six dining rooms, three bars, two kitchens, 180 employees (including some, like general manager Frank Caduto, who have worked there for decades), the restaurant claims to be the largest independent operation in the state. Each year, it serves roughly a half-million meals and rings up about $11 million in sales. It also sells its own line of marinara and meat sauces.
The restaurant, a low brick building tucked incongruously in a modest residential neighborhood, long ago outgrew its original quarters. The home that first housed the restaurant still exists, though; it's now surrounded by the restaurant's parking lot and used for storage. The Oaks also survived a devastating fire that started in the kitchen on Valentine's Day 1980 and ultimately destroyed the whole building. Determined to rebuild, the DeAngelus family opened a temporary restaurant to keep its staff employed while the damaged structure was rebuilt.
After Bill and Eva DeAngelus passed away, their son, Bill Jr., continued to run the business. When he died in 1999, his children, Susan and Billy, took over. As befits a restaurant whose ownership spans three generations, Twin Oaks remains a history-steeped place. By tradition, the restaurant has only waiters, identically uniformed in black pants, black shoes, white shirts, and bow ties. Some of the dining rooms are dimly lighted with faux leather booths. The lobby is filled with DeAngelus family photos and old menus that preserve for posterity the days when "beans and frankforts" cost 30 cents and a sardine sandwich was 75 cents.
Today, besides steaks, seafood, chicken, burgers, and Italian dinners, the Oaks serves foods not often seen on American menus these days: escargot, imported marinated herring, snail salad, baked ham with raisin sauce, a one-pound chateaubriand. "Tidbits" include anchovies on lettuce, celery, provolone and crackers, and extra Roquefort cheese. Sandwiches can be ordered on a heel of Italian bread for an additional 50 cents, and a Friday lunch special is quahog pie.
Beef being big business here, a chart on the menu helps customers determine how they want their meat cooked. Extra-rare, for example, is described as purple with a cold center. "Not responsible," reads a disclaimer on the menu, "for meats ordered well-done."
Serving generous portions at reasonable prices and attracting a clientele that spans the generations, the Oaks has thrived for nearly three-quarters of a century.
"The grandfather thought you should give the people a good product at a good price, and that's how we've done it," said Caduto, the general manager, who started at Twin Oaks in 1964 as a bartender.
"It's amazing how a restaurant of this magnitude is on a side street in Cranston," he added. "You know that old saying, 'Location, location, location'? That saying doesn't seem to apply here."
Sacha Pfeiffer can be reached at email@example.com.