Young and Hungry

Dean Gold Gets a New Start With Dino’s Grotto in Shaw

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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.

Y_H_Dinos_Malone-1One 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

  • Scott

    Aren't commercial rents set by foot traffic and other customer base measurements? If U Street is so much better for restaurants, then why is the rent in Cleveland Park so much higher? My experience was that Dino's space in CP was cramped, kind of wedged into half of the corner building, whereas the new space looks roomy. Who are the landlords of the old space, Palena, Pulpo, and Lavandou and what do they have to say about it?

  • Henry James

    How in the world can you review a restaurant and not give the address????

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/ Jessica Sidman

    @Henry James The address is in there. Read it again.

  • bar fixture

    Restaurants make most of their money on likka, so, duh, emphasis on the bar is a cheap attempt to make more money if the food isn't up to snuff and doesn't bring in the repeat customers. Shaw has enough booze joints for the frat party addicted crowd, we need more good quality food joints with different price points to keep the young (relatively low income professionals paying astronomically high rents in Shaw for cubby holes) coming back out of their cribs to spend money. They sure can't entertain more than a couple of people in their tiny "cribs."

    "One of the biggest differences between Dino and Dino’s Grotto is the added emphasis on the bar...."

  • Bethany

    I'm young, I live in Cleveland Park, and I go to plenty of late night happy hours and eateries. I didn't go to Dino, Pulpo, Palena, and Lavandou because they were incredibly boring and overpriced and I hated the food. Sorry guys, it's not CP's problem, it's YOURS. Cleveland Park Bar & Grill, Atomic Billiards, Firehook, Uptown Bar, Sorriso, Siam House Thai etc, are all doing just fine. Hopefully we can get a decent restaurant or bar in Dino's old space.

  • Bethany

    Oh, and I forgot to add Medium Rare, which has delicious food and a great atmosphere and is always packed to the gills. But yeah, let's blame your failed, boring, overpriced restaurant on Cleveland Park.

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/youngandhungry/ Jessica Sidman

    @Henry James also this is not a review

  • Bethany

    Whoops, and I forgot St Arnold's, which is literally NEXT DOOR to Dino's old space and is a crowd favorite. Shut up, Dean Gold.

  • John

    @Bethany LOL. St. Arnold's, to me, is the very definition of overpriced. Below average food for $15-$20 a plate. It's the embodiment of what DC dining used to be and is finally struggling to get out from under. But, you found Palena boring. SMH.

  • CJ

    I bet Bethany wonders why she is still alone...

  • Em

    Bethany, I like a $3 happy hour beer as much as the next person, but that list is aggressively mediocre, especially compared to what the rest of the city is eating and drinking these days.

    The center of gravity for DC restaurants has shifted away from your part of town, and most of us think it's a good thing. I don't know why you're so defensive, since it's a win-win for you - the places you like are staying open, the rest of the city's staying away, and since you never ate at Dino's, you won't miss it. Gloating about the closure of places like Palena is in poor taste, in more ways than one.

  • recon::decon

    Sure Cleveland Park isn't 14th Street or H Street, but the people who live in this area of town (which PS is not just a bunch of old people) like it that way. That's not to say we don't want to have a couple of decent/cool/low-key bars and restaurants, and certainly there are plenty of places that are doing just fine. I thought it was fairly short-sited to blame the neighborhood for the lack of business, so I'm glad to see Dean admit there were other issues at hand.

    I think what people forget is that a neighborhood doesn't become "cool" overnight - 14th street/Shaw, re:currently "hip" dc neighborhoods not too long ago were not places anyone would want to be. It takes business to come in and help to reshape the area. It sounds like Dino knew they had a sinking ship in CP but instead of reinventing themselves, they just followed the trend to Shaw. Okay, so the rent in that particular stretch of CP is really expensive (for whatever reason) - plenty of other opportunities nearby.

  • Seymond

    Lets hope Dean stays in business long enough so the folks who gave him tens of thousands of dollars to reopen can get their freebies.

    My bet? He will want to close in 8-10 months because business is going to be so mediocre for him, but he will gut it out for 14-16 months before throwing in the towel.

    Dean's failure had nothing to do with Cleveland Park, and had everything to do with his overpriced mediocrity. The yuppies in Shaw will give him a try for awhile, but they aren't going to continue to patronize him for the same reason none of the old or young money in CP did.

    And while I loved Palena, that wasn't CP's fault either, but as they admitted, new and godawful management.

  • MtP

    I agree that obviously Cleveland Park is "declining" though I don't really think it is as much as people think for some of the reasons Bethany and others have pointed out. My biggest problem with Dino's was that I just didn't like it at all. There are MANY better Italian places to go to, including some that are cheaper.

  • Ootek1

    Wow, there are two real Dean haters on here who apparently went to a totally different Dino than I did. Overpriced food? Where you guys eating, McDonald's? Dino had about 10 different ways to eat a 3-course meal for $35, regular half-priced wine nights and waived corkage fees, free lemoncello, opportunities to mix and match meals as a collection of small plates, a standard app/main course, charcuterie and cheese... or really just whatever you wanted. *And* he had one of the best burgers in town if you just wanted an incredible burger for a fair price.

    I live in Tenley and I miss the hell out of his restaurant. Everything that's left in Cleveland Park outside of Ripple, Ardeo/Bardeo and Vace are the very definition of solidly mediocre.

    My one issue with Dino was that he did almost nothing to make the place feel like his own and distinguish it, from a decor POV, from Yanyu before it. If he'd expanded the bar there, he'd have been better off. But he's totally right in thinking he's going to get a more appreciative and knowledgable crowd in Shaw.

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