On the eve of dbar’s tenth birthday, chef-owner Chris Coombs took a tiny time-out to chat about the secrets to his success. Check out what he had to say about staying open, staying relevant, and staying sane while juggling three restaurants, then plan a trip to Dorchester to raise a glass to a decade of deliciousness.
Ten years for a restaurant is a big feat. What’s the trick?
I think the key to any successful business is understanding your demographic and your clientele, and then consistently exceeding their expectations. And I think that’s been a focal point of dbar over the past ten years: to consistently deliver a better experience than one would expect to get in Dorchester.
You set up shop in Dorchester, which was an underserved neighborhood for the sort of food you’re doing. Do you consider that a pioneering move?
Sure. As a former Dorchester resident of eight years—and my business partner was a Dorchester resident of 12 years—it’s been exciting to see the evolution happen in the neighborhood. Dorchester is a much better place today than it was 10 years ago. I have enormous respect for Chris Douglass who’s done a tremendous amount alongside us to pioneer the culinary forefront in Dorchester. And I think there’s a tremendous amount of dining options in the ethnic community (and particularly in the Vietnamese community).
Where do you see dbar going in the future?
What I’m looking forward to in the next 10 years is other well-known chefs starting to take a chance on an up-and-coming neighborhood. I’ve actually been a little disappointed in the last five years that so many chefs have taken a chance on Somerville and Cambridge, but I’ve yet to see one big-name chef come and attempt to open in Dorchester. Chris Douglass and I would certainly like to have a little more company. It’s a wonderful community—there are a lot of people who’ve moved to Dorchester in the last decade who perhaps have been priced out of some of the downtown neighborhoods in Boston. But they still love to go out to eat, they’re foodies, they’re passionate about having a great experience.
The Boston restaurant scene as a whole—what kind of things are different now as opposed to when you started ten years ago?
I don’t think it’s fair to compare the Boston restaurant scene in 2005 and 2006 to now. I think the focus has shifted entirely. It’s really interesting because of the paradigm shift—when dbar opened, we were still in the heyday of fine dining. When you think about the places that have now gone by, the Icaruses and Radiuses of the world, that have all sort of phased themselves out over the past decade—now what you’re seeing when you look at a typical 2015 opening in Boston or Cambridge or Somerville, conceptually they’re more in tune with what dbar is and has been. In 2005 and 2006, in that time frame, dbar was more of a ‘downscale’ concept. Whereas in this day and age, that’s the exact type of environment that people generally look for in a restaurant. I really think dbar was ahead of its time, which is why we were able to remain strong through the recession, come out on the other side still a leader in the neighborhood, still focused on our original mission instead of having to re-concept or readjust with the times. We’ve been remarkably consistent over the last 10 years with what we set out to do—that’s something Brian Piccini and I are really proud of.
You’ve opened two restaurants since dbar. How do you juggle three restaurants?
It’s all about the team. I have tremendous people who work with me and for me. Without them, none of this would be possible. You know, I have really great and talented and focused chefs and sous chefs and cooks in all three locations. I have tremendous managers who all believe in the vision of Boston Urban Hospitality. What it really comes down to is trusting your team to be the best that they can be at what they do, and giving them the tools and empowering them to succeed. I’m proud to say I’ve worked with my chef de cuisine at dbar for nine and a half years now. He was originally my dishwasher. Now he’s my chef de cuisine. I think keeping people happy is one of the key things to maintaining consistency. As we continue to grow, the team grows with us. We have a lot of really passionate individuals who believe in holding all three restaurants to the highest of standards respective to their concepts.
We’ve heard there might be a fourth place in the works. Is that something you can discuss?
I’m always excited for new business opportunities. I never try to think so closed-minded as to just say ‘oh, a fourth place’—I’m already thinking about four, five and six. It’s just about having the right opportunity, the right place, the right time, the right deal and the right people to execute the vision.