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In Providence, Big King Brings Sake and Serenity to the Old North Space

Chef-owner James Mark is opening a calm counterpoint to his consistently packed first restaurant

The front bar at Big King
Monica Burton is the deputy editor of

Last year, James Mark moved his essential New England restaurant, North, to bigger digs at the Dean Hotel in downtown Providence, Rhode Island. For months, the formerly bustling West End space sat empty. But this week, chef and restaurateur Mark will debut a new restaurant in that location, one he’s calling “a reaction” to his first acclaimed restaurant.

At Big King, named for his grandmother Big King Lee, Mark will offer a counterpoint to the chaotic energy that made North a perpetually packed Providence destination. North drew diners for its strong flavors and eclectic ingredients, but at Big King, dishes will be subtler, some focusing on single ingredients. “What I really want to do is give people the time and the luxury of time to appreciate things, whether that’s the food in front of them or the optics of the room or the company they’re with,” Mark says. While North takes no reservations, making long waits common, Big King may eventually be reservations only.

Fried chicken thighs on a ceramic plate with garnishes
Chicken thigh with scallion and fermented shishito peppers
Grilled clam rice with shiro miso, spring onion, and pickled asparagus
Grilled clam rice with spring onion and pickled asparagus
A dish at Big King’s raw bar
Fluke and chive blossoms brushed with sake and soy

To transform the old North space into Big King, Mark and partner John Chester redid the room completely. The goal was to simplify, and they removed most of the tables and added a second bar. “The lines are a lot straighter and the space flows a lot differently than it did before,“ Mark says. Big King also seats fewer people: just 21 compared to North’s 27, all but eight of them at the bar.

The simple design provides the backdrop for Big King’s smaller plates showcasing individual ingredients, almost all of which Mark sources from Rhode Island. There are three set menus that build off of each other with three, five, or seven dishes, as well as several a la carte options. Seafood, a main focus, features in dishes like a raw crab salad with curried pistachios and grilled squid with salt-cured green strawberries. Mark uses that same umeboshi-style curing technique in desserts, including a peach blossom ice cream paired with barley and olive oil. Rice dishes, vegetables, and “a few fried things” round out the menu.

a bar with bar stools and shelves with sake
Big King’s newly constructed bar

Big King’s Japanese influence carries through the drinks menu. There won’t be wine — just one light beer, shochu sours, whiskey highballs, and “probably the most expansive sake list in Rhode Island,” according to Mark. He notes on the Big King website that diners who have a problem with the wine-free drinks menu can always go to North.

But at Big King, Mark is seeking a different energy. “Instead of being a fast-paced and frantic kind of thing, [it’s] slower, more methodical,” he says. His approach to service reflects this shift. Cooks will serve the food, and there’s just one employee dedicated exclusively to the front of house. To Mark, the practice makes sense as both a way for cooks to earn more money and a way to create a calmer dining room. When North occupied the same space, a dozen employees would work during some evening services, navigating a tight 27-seat dining room with fast turnover. At Big King, six employees will handle an expected 40 covers per night to start. “It’s a little more efficient labor wise — or hopefully will be,” Mark says.

James Mark stands behind the bar at Big King
James Mark at Big King

Big King opens Thursday, June 7 for dinner four nights a week. Reservations are live now via Tock.

Big King [Official]