One Saturday night this past August, the streets of downtown Providence, Rhode Island, were unusually quiet. With very little indoor dining happening in the city, and with no summer events or nightlife at all due to pandemic restrictions, there was nothing to draw people downtown. But even with very little foot traffic, there was still a line out the door at Haven Brothers Diner.
After all, it has been drawing customers in for nearly 130 years.
What started in 1893 as a mobile food cart feeding second- and third-shift factory workers in the city has now become America’s longest-running food truck and a rite of passage for anyone who has been out and about in Providence and in need of a late-night burger and fries.
“Once it hits 7 p.m. everything closes down, but that’s where we come in,” says Saverio Giusti Jr., who runs the diner with his father, Saverio Sr. “There really aren’t many places open past 10 p.m.” That’s been especially true this year, but Haven Bros. has remained busy in its spot downtown on a side street next to City Hall and in the shadow of Providence’s famous Superman Building.
The truck is now in its third iteration: a 1949 diner car that has a walk-up counter inside, and stools. Before the pandemic, you could sit inside and watch the action at the grill. It’s been in the hands of the Giusti family since 1986, and even in the middle of a pandemic that has shut down almost everything we love to do, the truck has been out every night.
“We’ve always been known as a nightspot, and even now, people don’t want to be stuck at home all night long, so they go out and they come to us,” Saverio Jr. says. Even during the worst of the pandemic closures, “we were open until 3 a.m. every night, no matter what. That’s our thing, to be consistent. People know we’re going to be there, whether it’s bad weather or a holiday, we’re always there. That’s the key to what people love about us.”
The menu itself is fairly basic: burgers, hot dogs, club sandwiches, chicken tenders, fries, all the things you want at 3 a.m. after the bars close. To wash it all down, there’s coffee milk (Rhode Island’s official state beverage, like chocolate milk only better) and dozens of flavors of milkshakes. The creativity really comes in how big or how overloaded those burgers and dogs can get.
The Murder Burger is Haven Brothers’ most famous creation, in part because it’s a really good burger, and in part because it’s had its 15 minutes of fame when Food Network’s Man vs. Food featured the diner in 2011. Host Adam Richman visited Haven Brothers for a Triple Murder Burger, a three-patty burger topped with bacon, mushrooms, onions, and a fried egg. Richman described it as “a burger good enough to kill for…. It’s not so much a burger as it is an experience.”
The inside of the diner is covered with photos of other celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Kiefer Sutherland, and cast members from The Sopranos and Stranger Things, who have all paid a visit when they’ve been in Providence. And once the diner traveled to Manhattan for an appearance on The Today Show. Then-hosts Meredith Vieira and Matt Lauer had both worked at a Providence news station earlier in their careers and had asked their favorite late-night spot to make an appearance on the show.
Haven Brothers has become such a Rhode Island institution that it’s been the subject of a documentary, The Original Food Truck: Haven Brothers, Legacy of the American Diner, which covers the diner’s battle to retain its spot next to City Hall during a modernization effort by the city. It won an award at the Rhode Island International Film Festival, where it made its debut.
“I probably get five to ten stories a day of customers saying they used to come here back in the day,” Saverio Jr. says. He also gets a lot of customers who tell him they used to eat there back in college and are coming back for the first time in 20 or 30 years. “At first it got repetitive. You kind of take it for granted, you know? But then this pandemic hit, and I just missed all the old stories. These are the people who kept the business going.”