Engine Co. #5, Hook and Ladder #7

also known as Tortilla Flats

A popular restaurant since 1973 in a unique red brick building that was an early horse-drawn apparatus Fire Station

About this Property

#Redevelopment

The home to Tortilla Flats since 1973 started as a neighborhood firehouse in 1892, shortly before fire companies converted to combustion engines. While a firehouse, apparatus exited out of an auxiliary door on the northern corner (now covered over), as well as another arched apparatus exit/entrance on the Olney Street (southern) side.

According to the history write-up, the City sold the firehouse in 1951 to private buyers. It was converted to offices on the second floor, and we are unsure what the first floor was before it was Tortilla Flats. The glass block is very reminiscent of the 1930s and 1940s, so it was likely added early in its life as a commercial structure.

In addition to being a longtime home to The Flats, its second floor has been clubhouse to the Providence Rugby Club since at least 1987.1

Stan Spencer was an owner of The Flats for many years, dating back to at least 1991 (and likely earlier). He was a local restaurantuer who was also part owner of the Providence Bookstore Cafe with Mike Chandley, owner of Cellar Stories at the time.2 At one point, possibly before Mr. Spencer, Robert A. “Skip” Chernov was involved in The Flats, the quote being “…He brought a cable car from San Francisco to Providence to help promote his restaurants and bars, which included a popular North Main Street bar called The Incredible Organ and the Hope Street restaurant Tortilla Flats.”3

Just like you might expect, this building has had and continues to make a colorful history.

#Current Events

Tortilla Flats is open 6 days a week (closed on Monday) and offers a full menu with cocktails, local beers, and a kid’s menu.

#History

Historic And Resources Of The East Side, Architectural Providence, Rhode Island Historical Preservation Commission, 1989

351–359 Hope Street Engine Company #5 and Hook & Ladder — Hoppin, Read & Hoppin, architects: An asymmetrical 2- and 3-story, mansard-roofed brick structure set on a corner lot at the intersection of Olney Street. It has a projecting pavilion with a corbie-step gable on the Obey Street side; a 3-story, cross-gable-roofed block at the end of the Hope Street side; a second-story oriel with a conical turret roof; several segmental-arch door and window openings; and exposed rafter and purlin eaves bracketing. This fire station was closed and sold by the city in 1951 after several new stations were built throughout Providence as part of a comprehensive program to upgrade fire department facilities. Since then it has been used for commercial purposes.


From the College Hill Historic District nomination form, Edward F. Sanderson & Keith N. Morgan, January 1976

351–361 Engine Co. No. 5, Hook and Ladder No. 7, 1892. Hoppin, Read & Hoppin, architects. Queen Anne; 2-1/2 stories; hip with cross gables; brick with various facings below; stepped gable on south with bullseye window in and glass-bricked bay under; cross gable with loading doors and pulley beam at north end; flat overhang around 1st; many entrances. Also 240 Olney Street.

#In the News

Expanded menu lifts Tortilla Flats

by Gail Ciampa
Providence Journal | July 1, 2009

Raise your hand if you’ve driven by Tortilla Flats on Hope Street in Providence and thought, “Why haven’t I ever been there?”

The Mexican restaurant opened in 1973 and has survived many recessions and economic downturns. The date would seem to make it the grand-dad of Rhode Island Mexican restaurants. Though it serves lunch and dinner daily, it seems like one of those neighborhood spots that you don’t visit when you live outside the neighborhood. Or maybe you wrote it off as a college hangout.

But new owners took over 2 1/2 years ago and have embarked on a project to raise the restaurant’s profile. Those owners, Joanne Everett and Mat Vincent, are a couple, and not really new. Everett has worked at Tortilla Flats for 15 years and she met Vincent when she hired him as a server in 2001. He only stayed for a few years (he’s an illustrator), but the pair married and have a young son. They bought the eatery from Stan Spencer, who brought the idea of Tortilla Flat, a novel by John Steinbeck, to Providence.

The restaurant logo, now as in 1973, is a pencil drawing of Steinbeck.

There are also many longtime employees, which gives the place a family atmosphere said Vincent. He handles the books as a second job; Everett is the face of the restaurant.

Everett hired a new chef, Jeff Herring, and expanded the menu. In addition to all the burritos, tamales, quesadillas, tacos, fajitas, chili relleños and Mexican specialties, there are some all-American favorites like cheeseburgers, chicken sandwiches, bison burgers (which taste so much better than beef and have such a lower fat nutrition profile), pulled pork, beef brisket and tilapia. House-made desserts include a cornbread and strawberry shortcake, cinnamon sugar churros, and Flats Fried Ice Cream, vanilla ice cream coated with sweet corn flakes and deep-fried.

Since they purchased the restaurant, Everett and Vincent have done a lot of sprucing up that may be unnoticeable to most visitors, including things like new equipment for air conditioning and computers. And, with Herring in the kitchen, there is a new commitment to fresh food and consistency. Many longtime diners have their favorite dishes, and Everett made a pledge to ensure they were prepared and presented the same each time.

The lunch menu has been expanded and includes dishes like the lovely Cactus Flower, a tortilla basket stuffed with lettuce, tomato, cheese, guacamole, olives and sour cream, topped with grilled steak or chicken breast. There’s a chicken tortilla soup. For an easy lunch twist, there’s a Fajita Wrap (with choice of grilled steak or chicken) folded in a wheat tortilla with sautéed peppers, onions, mushrooms, cheese, sour cream and lettuce. A spicy cucumber salad accompanies many of the lunch dishes and is a bright addition to the meal.

As for cocktails, Mexican beers and a nice selection of microbrews are on the menu.

“We don’t have Budweiser,” said Everett.

A variety of tequilas mean you can order a pitcher of margaritas to suit your style.

There are 80 seats and a bar that is low with regular chairs rather than stools. The feeling is rustic and there are no tablecloths, just substantial wood tables.

Everett said one common misconception of the restaurant, with its proximity to College Hill, is that it serves a lot of students.

“Do we die if they don’t come? No,” said Everett. The East Side neighborhood supports the local spot and a children’s menu serves the families who are regular customers.

The new owners hired Duffy & Shanley, the advertising, marketing and public relations company. Everett said they wanted to redo the menu, help launch new merchandise such as Tortilla Flats logo-design baseball caps, T-shirts and sweatshirts, and freshen up the image of the restaurant. She knew she needed help to do all that and was willing to include the cost in her business plan.

“It took all this, but now the restaurant really feels like it’s ours,” said Everett.

Vincent, who comes from a family that owned restaurants including Marcello’s on Gansett Avenue in Cranston, said for him, “This is exactly what he envisioned when he dreamed of owning a business.”

Ciampa, Gail. “Restaurant Scene - Expanded menu lifts Tortilla Flats.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. Lifebeat/Food, 1 July 2009, pp. E-01. NewsBank: America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/1524244E2A1B4C00. Accessed 6 Oct. 2022.

  1. McNAMARA, KEVIN. “Camaraderie, competition, good times make Providence Rugby Club a big hit.” Providence Journal (RI), CITY ed., sec. CITY LIFE, 10 June 1987, pp. C-04. NewsBank: America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/15252B132BA42A38. Accessed 6 Oct. 2022. 

  2. SICLEN, BILL VAN. “Where bookworms get a bite to eat.” Providence Journal (RI), ALL ed., sec. LIFEBEAT/WEEKEND, 17 May 1991, pp. D-03. NewsBank: America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/1525BA59F55DB670. Accessed 6 Oct. 2022. 

  3. FITZPATRICK, EDWARD. “Robert A. Chernov, 63, promoter, restaurateur, writer, racehorse owner.” Providence Journal (RI), All ed., sec. News, 25 Dec. 2001, pp. B-10. NewsBank: America’s News, infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/news/document-view?p=NewsBank&docref=news/152608F544F977D0. Accessed 6 Oct. 2022.