OSM: Woonsocket
8:28 am
Wed May 4, 2011

One Square Mile: Chan's

Providence, RI – By MEGAN HALL

Where's the best place to listen to the blues? Chicago, Illinois? Memphis, Tennessee? According to the Blues Foundation, it's Woonsocket, Rhode Island. That's the home of Chan's Restaurant, this year's recipient of the foundation's "keeping the blues alive" award - and one of the few places where you can eat eggrolls and listen to Duke Robillard at the same time. As a part of our One Square Mile series on Woonsocket, WRNI's Megan Hall spent a Friday night nibbling crab rangoon and taking in the music.

It's a cold, quiet night out on the streets of Woonsocket, but inside at Chan's restaurant it's a party.

More than 130 people cram into the performance space, sipping on scorpion bowl drinks or finishing up their poo poo platters. A few manage to dance between the dinner tables as waitresses move in and out of the room.

The band tonight is a local act- Killer Kane and the Blue FO's, but over Chan's 34 years as a music venue, musicians from Dizzy Gillespie to Commander Cody have played this stage.

How did a Chinese restaurant in Woonsocket become a nationally recognized Jazz and Blues club? If you ask owner John Chan, it was pretty simple.

"Often times, I like to go see a lot of musicians performing on the weekends," he says. "But unfortunately in the restaurant business we have to work, so instead of me going out, I bring them in here."

It's easy to spot John Cahn at his restaurant. For one thing, he's always here, seating his guests and welcoming the performers. There's also that trademark mustache.

"It's my tribute to Salvador Dali, you know, that little mustache that curls up?" he says. "That's my John Chan mustache."

Chan's been wearing his facial hair this way since the late 70s when parents were in charge of running the restaurant. In those days, he hung out at a place called Joe's Upstairs - a restaurant and music venue across from the Providence Journal.

"So I used to go there and you know, grab a sandwich and listen to the music," he says. "I said hey, maybe this could work at Chan's."

And so Chan invited musicians to play in the dining room of his family's restaurant. As the audience grew, he bought the bank next door and turned it into performance space. Soon Chan's was attracting national acts.

"Musicians, they network, and they say, hey man, I played last night at a real cool Chinese restaurant in Woonsocket,Rhode Island and so the word travel."

Jimmy "two suits" Capone from the band "Bellevue Cadillac" comes here to perform and listen. He says musicians like working here because it feels so intimate.

"Everybody is so up close to you when you play here they're looking right at you," he says. "They're seeing the sweat off your brow. Literally people are two feet away from the edge of the stage. You don't get that anywhere else."

When Capone played here more than ten years ago, Chan's was one of the few lively parts of Woonsocket. "I remember coming in that first night and I said jeez, I've got nothing really to do, I'm here a little early," he says. "Took a walk down Maine Street and it was boarded up. I turned around and went back to Chans!"

Now there are fancy restaurants in the area, other Jazz venues, and a renovated movie theatre.

Heidi Nirk, who lives in Woonsocket and is singing with the band tonight, has no idea if Chan's has improved the city's economy.

"All I know is that when you say you're playing at Chan's, it means something," she says. "It means, that in this city, you're somewhere, you're somebody. It's something to be proud of."

John Chan says Rhode Islanders often forget about Woonsocket. There's still this mentality that the state has nothing to offer north of Providence. But his restaurant is the exception. So much so that he's heard people say they've never been to Woonsocket, but they've been to Chan's.

And maybe that's the best thing Chan's has to offer- beyond the jazz, the blues, and the eggrolls- one way this still struggling mill town can get a little recognition.

More details
Visit Chan's website here

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