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Update 9/3: Dino’s Grotto will have its last regular service on Sept. 15. There will be closing parties on Sept. 16 and 17.
It’s true. Dino’s Grotto will close in Shaw no later than September, according to its gregarious proprietor, chef, and sommelier Dean Gold. He’s working with the building’s landlord to bring in a new operator, who will likely change the concept.
PoPville published a letter last week from a concerned Dino’s regular who said the restaurant was “having trouble competing with big name chefs and restaurants.” But there’s more to Gold’s decision to move on.
“I’m retiring,” Gold says. “I’ve had a heart attack. I’m diabetic. I have been able to maintain relatively good health up to about three years ago when the numbers started creeping in the wrong direction. Nine months ago my doctor said to me, ‘Do you want to live a full, long life or what? The amount of stress you’re under isn’t right.’ It took us a while to come terms with that.” He also notes that his wife and business partner, Kay Zimmerman, has secured new employment and isn’t available to help out at the restaurant as often.
“We want to enjoy ourselves,” Gold continues. “If I end up getting a job selling wine at a wine shop or hanging out behind a wine bar at someone’s wine pub, I’ll be happier. I’ll be doing something I unabashedly love without the bad parts of owning Dino and Dino’s Grotto. I’m not the world’s greatest businessman.”
After working for Whole Foods in such roles as vice president of purchasing, Gold kicked off his career atDino in Cleveland Park, which operated from 2005 through 2013. Shortly before closing, Gold told City Paper, sales were slipping and the closure coincided with “the opening of all the 14th Street places, the shutdown, the sequester.”
Gold started over in Shaw with Dino’s Grotto in 2014. The restaurant with a sun-yellow dining room and basement bar has focused on serving comforting Italian dishes like duck bolognese lasagne, cacio e pepe, and grilled eggplant parmigiana made with locally sourced ingredients. Gold amassed a wine list featuring mostly Italian, sometimes eclectic bottles.
He believes his restaurants were among the first to offer eight-ounce carafes of wine and says he was an early adopter of the local food movement. “People appreciated us supporting the local economy,” Gold says. “Lots of people saw me at the farmers market with my little red cart or little green cart carrying vegetables around.”
It’s rare to sit for a meal and not see Gold working the floor of the dining room. “For 14 years, I’ve worked every day straight,” he says, later hedging that he took the occasional day off.
City Paper sat down with Gold to ask him what he’ll miss, what’s changed about dining in D.C., and how he’ll wind things down.
City Paper: How has D.C.’s restaurant scene changed since Dino’s Grotto opened in 2014?Dean Gold: There are restaurateurs who are opening up multiple restaurants with a lot of money involved, some of them have closed multiple restaurants with a lot of money involved over this period of time. People talk about empire building and the out-of-town restaurants. When you have multiple restaurants, especially a large number of restaurants, you have a different relationship with the bank than the one I have. If someone who has seven restaurants has a restaurant in a given neighborhood struggling for a given season they can weather it much easier. That said, you don’t get into the restaurant business and run a restaurant for 14 years unless you have a lot of focus and drive. You have to be stupid to open a restaurant. I’m happy to wear my stupid crown.
CP: You’ve never been shy about weighing in on social issues and politics. Did that end up hurting or helping business?DG: I don’t know. I’ve been told by several of my past bartenders that I have no filter. I’d say that’s sort of true. It’s had positive and negative effects. In this time of the democratic primaries, it’s time to choose folks. I don’t have kids. In my expected lifetime, things will get worse if we don’t do anything.
CP: What’s one thing that keeps you up at night as far as where the D.C. restaurant industry is headed? What would you like to see change?DG: When a busser can’t live any closer than the end of the green line—we’re on our way to that point. All of your serving staff has to be in Gaithersburg or Springfield to find a place to live. That’s going to make D.C. a very different place. I don’t think people are thinking about it.
CP: How have diners and their habits changed?DG: Beer has become more and more important. Cocktails obviously are much much more important. We’ve had a commitment to non-alcoholic beverages. We make stuff in house. People appreciated that. If I had to do Dino’s Grotto over again, the thing I would do differently—I didn’t look at dining as entertainment, as a show. People like that and want more of that. I knew I should have paid attention to that. People want multiple things. Roof decks are an example. People who normally on a regular basis eat at restaurants that use local food go to roof decks that buy food from Sysco because they want the roof deck. It’s their choice. I’m not knocking anybody for that. It’s something I never adapted to.
CP: Will there be any special festivities or specials leading up to the closure? DG: We still have a lot of really good wines. We’re going to do some wine nights where you come in and pay a flat price and we’re just going to open bottles. We’ll do some duck dinners. People loved our duck dinners. Unfortunately we’re closing before the Jewish holidays. We had an overwhelming response to Passover this year. That was our last.
The best part is we’re going to go out in the best season. We’re getting incredible tomatoes this year. This is the best season for tomatoes in three years or four years. And we’re just about ready to get heirlooms. The red field tomatoes are absolutely incredible. We just got our first corn. Squash blossoms are gorgeous this year. We’re just into eggplant and peppers. If you close in February, it’s a lot less fun.
CP: What will you miss the most? DG: People celebrating 12 anniversaries in a row. Seeing kids drink wine who at one time were barely out of ‘sippy’ cups. The kids who, when they first came in whining and crying that there’s no chicken tenders or pizza, they’re now coming in and drinking legally on special dates.
The first night we opened, there was a couple that came in and [the woman] was well overdue to deliver. I’m famous for making spicy dishes and having women deliver the next day. She was one of them. Now her kid is 14.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Dino’s Grotto, 1914 9th St. NW; (202) 686-2966; dinosgrotto.com