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It’s opening night at Dino’s Grotto, and already the 20- and 30-somethings are dominating the dinner crowd. Owner Dean Gold, dressed in one of his typically colorful patterned shirts, floats around the canary-walled dining room and checks in on a group of six millennials with cocktails and a bunch of plates clustered on the table.
“Is that Dino?” one of the guys at the table asks the server as soon as Gold walks away.
“Dean,” corrects the server.
The table lets out a collectively giddy Ooooh! “We’re in the presence of greatness,” one of them remarks.
But as much as everyone seems to remember Gold’s previous restaurant, Dino, as a popular place, the Cleveland Park eatery struggled to bring in crowds in the year or so leading up to its February closure. It wasn’t alone: Neighborhood restaurants Palena, 20-year old French restaurant Lavandou, and short-lived Pulpo have all closed within the last six months. Now that he’s left, though, Gold doesn’t think foot traffic in Cleveland Park was the only drawback: He confides that Dino was never quite the restaurant he wanted it to be. In its early years, Gold wasn’t in the kitchen. After cycling through a number of chefs in quick succession, he installed himself as top toque, despite his lack of culinary training. “Hired chefs have an agenda; they want their own restaurant. Nothing personal, but they don’t treat things the way the owner does…They don’t share the vision,” he explains. But even once he took control of the kitchen, Gold says the neighborhood had certain expectations and certain favorite dishes, so he couldn’t completely change things up. Dino’s Grotto is his chance for a fresh start.
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About every two years for the past five, Gold says, he experienced slow spells in Cleveland Park. “We’d get into a hole and we’d really try to work our way out of it, and have been able to. But we didn’t seem to be getting off the treadmill,” he says. The restaurant really took a hit after last Mother’s Day. “Business just overnight fell off 30 percent. We just said, ‘This is silly. We’re just working for the landlord. We’re not creating the future for ourselves.’”
Part of the problem, Gold believes, is that Cleveland Park just isn’t a destination—dining or otherwise—anymore. “What’s there to do? Go see Snakes on a Plane at the Uptown?” he asks. “They don’t have good movies there anymore. It’s a dead theater except for that one week during Christmas when Harry Potter is out.” And dining-wise, that’s not where the new hot restaurants are heading. Strolling down 14th Street NW is far cooler than hopping on the Red Line.
Plus, the rents are relatively high: Gold says he was paying about 75 percent more in Cleveland Park than what he pays now in Shaw. “You can’t make money with Cleveland Park rent and Cleveland Park density,” Gold says.
When news of Dino’s pending closure got out, some regular customers approached him and his wife and partner Kay Zimmerman about helping them open another place. Gold knew it was time to look somewhere new. He considered Adams Morgan, H Street NE, and Capitol Hill, before ultimately landing at 1914 9th St. NW in Shaw—less than a block south of U Street.
In contrast to his old hood, Gold rattles off the destinations nearby: 9:30 Club, Right Proper Brewing Company, Eat the Rich, Velvet Lounge, the Howard Theatre. “There’s so much happening.” The density excites Gold: “In the next two years, within four blocks of this space, they’re adding over a thousand units. And it’s all going to be younger.”
That last point is an important one. Gold’s move to a new neighborhood with an updated concept, and away from a less dense area with older residents, encapsulates the recent direction of D.C.’s restaurant scene toward fancy cocktail menus, late-night eats, and grazeable plates—all aimed at a younger consumer.
One of the biggest differences between Dino and Dino’s Grotto is the added emphasis on the bar. Not just on the menu, but physically. In Cleveland Park, the bar had only eight seats. The new spot devotes the entire downstairs—14 stools plus 10 seats at the communal table—to the bar, as well as a wine bar upstairs with an additional 10 seats. Having a bar “scene” has become crucial to many restaurants’ business model. And it seems every new spot loves to brag about how long its bar is or how many seats it has. Beyond that, Dino’s Grotto now touts all the hip aspects of a cocktail “program,” including barrel-aged cocktails and housemade shrubs created by Beverage Director Fabian Malone and “Cocktail Craftsman” John Dynan. Gold even plans to introduce a reserved cocktail tasting at the bar where three drinks will be paired with snacks and guests can purchase tickets in advance.
Dino’s Grotto has also rolled out a late-night happy hour menu—something Gold certainly never had in Cleveland Park, where there were no late-night crowds. “We have two to four people after 8:30 in Cleveland Park,” he says, “so it was just ridiculous.”
While he’s not necessarily sitting around pondering about how to lure in millennials, Gold does want to broaden his restaurant’s appeal. “What we’re doing is just reflective of the way people dine,” he says. “And I think the dining public has skewed younger as D.C. has skewed younger.”
But while he’s still trying to cater to what the neighborhood wants, albeit in a new neighborhood that wants different things, Gold says the move is also giving him the opportunity to do it his way. The dishes, he points out, are much more rustic, inspired by the way he eats during his travels to Italy, as opposed to some of the more “fancied up” dishes he was serving in previous years.
Dino’s Grotto is not a “small plates restaurant,” Gold says, but you will find more small plates in the form of “cicchetti” (snacks), antipasti, cheese, and charcuterie, and fewer entrees and pastas. Gold complains that many restaurant’s versions of small plates are really just half-entrees. His snacks will be more in the true Italian form: “Small plates is a anchovy and if it’s Venice, it’s got onions on it, and if it’s in Rome, it’s fried with cornmeal and served with a wedge of lemon. And that’s all it is. So we’re trying to have small plates that are more in that vein.”
Of course, Gold can’t totally escape the ghost of Dino. Upon closing, Gold says he was bombarded with emails and tweets asking him if certain items would remain on the menu. He’s agreed to keep some. In fact, the menu has a section called “Dino Regulars,” where you can find old favorites like trotter tots, duck schmaltz matzo ball soup, and wild boar pappardelle.
Ultimately, he’s not really trying to escape, either. There are plenty of things about Dino he wants to bring with him, especially the feel of the place. “We feel like what we did best in Cleveland Park was be a neighborhood restaurant. We had a lot of loyal customers,” he says. “You get that thing where people are running into each other and talking to each other and there’s interaction and mingling amongst the tables. And so we were looking for something like that.”
Will the changes work? Will he be able to bring old and new clients—or rather, old and young ones—together? Gold says he’s waiting to see.
“I worked for a very bad boss one time who imparted one bit of wisdom,” he says. “That is: You can try to figure out what people want and hope you’re right, or do what you want and hope that people like it. So this restaurant is very much ‘do what I want and hope that people like it.’”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery