May 29, 2018

LOCATION: Dino’s Grotto, 1914 9th Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Discussing dining with the owner of an Italian-inspired restaurant

Dean Gold’s journey to restaurateur in Washington, DC, is one that starts at a Los Angeles furniture shop, veers off to Chicago for days in right-wing economics and nights selling dope to musicians in jazz clubs, and lands in the nation’s capital where he alternates between his second attempt at making a success of an Italian-inspired dining spot and scalding political opponents on Twitter.

“I’m never at a loss for words,” he tells me, flashing a playful smile that he wears regularly. From the second we meet, I see a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. He’s happy to tell stories about his colorful past, sometimes surprising himself with memories he’s long since buried. It helps explain why the dinner interview we’re about to launch becomes an almost three hour odyssey.

It’s a quiet Tuesday night at Dean’s restaurant, Dino’s Grotto, located in the District’s gentrifying Shaw neighborhood. “This little north end of Shaw has not caught on like the rest,” he says, referencing an explosion of restaurants and bars across the area. Still, he’s operated here since 2014.

We’re sitting at a two-top against one of the exposed brick walls in the simply-decorated venue. A few pieces of framed artwork line the walls, white bulbs line the large bay window looking out onto 9th Street NW, and the dining room is filled with sturdy light brown wooden chairs and tables. It’s a warm, sophisticated ambiance — not too slack, not too formal. “We’re not fine dining,” Dean acknowledges. “We’re that odd somewhere between casual and fine dining.”

Dean’s fashion strikes its own balance between casual and smart; he’s wearing a button down but it features large pictures of fish in blasts of reds and blues and greens. He’s 60, but appears boyish whenever he tells a funny story and smiles, his eyes squinting in delight, framed by a large pair of brown-rimmed glasses. Throughout the meal he’ll occasionally pat sweat from his head, which is crowned with an unkempt shock of gray and white hair, leading to a thick beard.

As he talks, he does so thoughtfully, assuredly, and engagingly. At times he speaks in almost detached bemusement at some of his anecdotes; calm, charismatic, and a great conversationalist. He comes across as the fun uncle, the one with the best stories and a good taste in booze.

Indeed, we cheers cocktails (a variant on a Negroni for him, a Manhattan for me) as we start the interview. I want to learn about the ins and outs of trying to make a restaurant a success, particularly from someone who has been down this road before. Dean used to own the restaurant Dino in DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, which opened in July 2005 and had a good run but shuttered in 2013 when business slowed significantly.

Dean is refreshingly upfront about the pros and cons of life in the restaurant industry, but I have to ask him why try again after shutting the first place.

“After I decided to close Cleveland Park customers approached me with their checkbooks out asking me to open another one, and I was stupid enough to say, ‘Okay, let’s do it again,’” he answers with a sigh, and I can’t quite tell whether it’s genuine, or for comedic effect, or both.

Scouting around for a new venue, he and wife Kay Zimmerman liked the look of the space that Dino’s Grotto now occupies, and that’s how they ended up in Shaw. He confides that business has been up and down in the four years since the restaurant opened. “Last year we’ve had spurts of growth, but the market is just getting so super-saturated,” he says.

Profits have to be divided between keeping the restaurant going and paying back creditors who helped with the launch of the place. It seems stressful. Why persist?

“I’m doing what I like and still hoping for the best,” he says. “We still get people coming here from Dino, part of what we call the Dino family, and they tell me it’s their first time here. In my mind it hasn’t been four years since I’ve seen them, but they’re people I really enjoy.”

And then there’s the newcomers. “This is a more transient neighborhood than Cleveland Park, so we can do some more experimentation with our dishes,” he says.

As our starters arrive, I ask Dean — also the executive chef at Dino’s Grotto — where he got his culinary training. He says when he was six years old he cooked 30 recipes out of Julia Child’s cookbook. And he honed his cooking skills during his college years, making “legendary” Sichuan cuisine feasts for family and friends. When he opened Dino in Cleveland Park, he hired a chef who did “amazing stuff” with the menu, but with complicated recipes. When the chef took an extended leave of absence, that meant Dean had to take charge of cooking the dishes. “All I had was the names of the dishes, so I just took those and created my own recipes. It was quite successful,” he says. Eventually he let the chef go, and that’s how Dean took charge of the kitchen.

The food at Dino’s Grotto is “Italian inspired,” and Dean says it’s based on his many trips to Italy, dining in restaurants populated by locals rather than tourists. He’ll find dishes he loves, then back in DC try to recreate them using ingredients from his host of regional food suppliers. “We’ve had Italians come here and say this is some of the best Italian they’ve ever had, I take that as high praise,” he says. “But I’d hesitate to call it Italian, more an Italian sensibility.”

We’re sharing two dishes per course, and our first appetizer is a plate of ramp (a wild onion), sweet potato and pork belly, drizzled with lemon juice and saba, a syrup that looks and tastes like balsamic vinegar. “Ramps are hip and trendy right now — I’m not, but I want to use them, and every year we do a ramp dish,” Dean says. The first version of the dish involved spice-cured bacon and sauteed ramps, and the dish evolved over the years. The current form with the pork belly and potatoes “is our best version yet, you get the really unexpected juxtaposition of the sweet and savory.”

Our other starter is a more conventional serving of crab balls, essentially miniature crab cakes in a crunchy panko bread crumb casing. “We use fresh lump crab, take our crab cake mix and roll it into balls and deep fry them,” he says, describing the perennial and popular dish.

It seems that Dino’s Grotto has enough left to keep Dean engaged for now; being playful with the menu, greeting customers old and new, indulging his love of Italian-inspired cuisine. Finances and the stress of the job are major negatives, but on a cost-benefit analysis he appears eager to continue. It’s a lifestyle he never imagined growing up thousands of miles away in Los Angeles.

The Gold family tree has deep roots in the City of Angels; Dean’s father was from there, and it’s where his son spent his childhood. His dad owned a furniture shop, and he recalls spending a good chunk of his youth in the store when he wasn’t at school. And high school was a “disaster,” he says with a laugh. Not because he didn’t study, but because it wasn’t challenging. “There was nothing for me academically, so I’d be bored in class, I was an obnoxious brat, always in trouble.”

Still, there were some hints of his future love of food — he was the first boy at his school to do a home economics class. And he excelled at woodwork and in the metal shop, practical skills that made him aspire to an architect until he realized his atrocious handwriting would make that impossible. “I used to do the shop drawings for teachers, but they’d always confuse my 7s for 9s.”

It was in his senior year that when he says he realized “I needed to get my shit together to get into UCLA, which was my goal,” and so the brat took a seat and studious Dean rose in his place.

He achieved his goal of attending the University of California, Los Angeles, and says, “I blossomed as a student, I had a 4.0 GPA for almost my entire career at UCLA, I had one B and one C.”

Dean first studied psychology, and at the time the psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas was a professor the university. He led unique research showing that zapping autistic children with cattle prods could get a response. “It was torture, but effective torture, it pioneered the idea that you could get through to autistic kids, but the ethics were just disgusting,” he says, “Still, it was intriguing.”

During his early studies he met a woman who worked as a psychologist for the state of California, dealing with people from abusive backgrounds. She ran an abnormal psychology course describing case histories, and that’s when Dean started to realize a life in the profession wasn’t for him. So he considered other majors. He’d been excelling in his economics class, and focused on that.

In his second year at UCLA, Dean says he went from his very liberal Jewish background to Republican politics. He was in a small economics class (15 people) and in a comment to the professor opined about critical integration and the evil of oil companies. His professor handed him a book to read about vertical integration from Robert Bork, the arch conservative who would later go on to be President Ronald Reagan’s failed candidate for a Supreme Court seat. “I got seduced,” Dean says with a shake of his head. “I became conservative. Everything seemed to fit so beautifully.”

One of his mentors became an assistant secretary for anti-trust in the federal government under then-President George H.W. Bush, and Dean’s plan was “to ride his coattails into Republican government” — a plan that was set in stone, until Chicago happened.

After graduating UCLA he won a full ride for an economics PhD program at the University of Chicago, a place Dean says he went to get away from his parents. What he found in the new city was jazz, and he fell in love with it. “I wanted to be a jazz bum,” he says with a longing smile that makes me think it’s a daydream he probably still has present day.

So he started working at local jazz clubs at night, making some extra cash from that and also by selling dope to the visiting musicians. “I was libertarian, so drugs were fine because that was something that didn’t harm anyone else,” he says. “But it was very strange; I was a dope-dealing jazzer at night, and a conservative Republican economist during the day.”

He recalls one time that jazz legend Count Basie and his band were performing at the Lighthouse club, where Dean worked underage, and sold them their marijuana. The police raided the club one night, and the owner quickly asked how old Dean was. “Not 21,” the teenager admitted. Panicking, the owner gave Dean a union card and hid him in a side room with the club’s soundboard. “He told me that if the cops came in to show them the card and tell them I was his sound guy.”

Someone did come into the room during the raid, but it wasn’t the police. Count Basie, who Dean says was painfully shy, was looking to get away from the crowds. “Now I’ve met a lot of famous people, but for me Count Basie was at the highest level,” Dean says proudly. They chatted, and that’s when the jazz man realized it was Dean who’d supplied his band the goods. “He said, ‘I want to thank you very highly, and I do mean highly,’” he says, laughing at the memory. “I’m talking about getting high with Count Basie while the cops are outside. My wayward ways paid off big time.”

While Dean was studying in Chicago, he started to rethink his conservative economic world view. In doing some research into financial market regulations, he started to doubt some of his beliefs and had stirrings of his “pre-Bork” ideas. But what really shook his faith in right wing economics was studying a macro economics model that garnered its creator a Nobel prize. “But the model just didn’t make sense to me,” Dean says. “I couldn’t write about it, I just tore it apart — and the 2008 financial crisis showed that the model was crap.”

That wasn’t an attitude the sponsors of his full ride wanted to hear. “Their attitude was we’ve invested in you, you’re our bitch, and you need to do what we say,” he explains, then starts to grin at the punchline he’s preparing. “I told them to fuck off.”

Nowadays he’s a staunch critic of President Donald Trump, and uses the restaurant’s Twitter feed to mix promos for Dino’s Grotto with attacking right-wing politicians. Openly bisexual, he’s a huge proponent of the LGBT community, and in particular the rights of trans people. He says his politics have probably done more harm than good for the restaurant, but it’s who he is.

While Dean’s political evolution away from Republicanism was happening in Chicago, he decided to take a break from school, and started to work for a wine vendor in the city. He’d developed an interest in wine from an early age when he worked at a hot dog place during high school. One of his coworkers was into wine, and that piqued Dean’s interest. When he was old enough to legally buy wines he started to collect them, which he admits was a “costly” hobby. He recalls working for one wine store where he’d get a good discount for wines he bought, and have to cut the place checks on payday because he was taking a greater value in wine than he was paid.

It’s through the wine company that he also met his future wife Kay, who worked there. “One day I was talking with a coworker, telling him I admired her anatomy. He told me not to even think about it, she had a boyfriend. Well, that never stopped me before. I bet the guy $5 I could get a date with her, and I did,” he says, smiling warmly. “Now 37 years after that first date, we’re still together and I joke I have to keep her around because I might get that $5.”

We pause the interview as our waiter delivers two pasta dishes.

First up is a grilled asparagus and ramp risotto, made with vegetable stock, shallot, 24-month old Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, Aleppo pepper, and a hefty dollop of house-made ramp butter. “I learned how to make risotto a Marcella Hazan cookbook,” Dean tells me. “This is a very classic two-part risotto; we cook it halfway, let it cool, then when the order comes in we finish it off with butter, olive oil, shallot and veggie stock then add the asparagus and ramps.”

There’s more crab for the other pasta dish; fresh lump crab and fettuccine pasta with spring onion, cream and a generous amount of black pepper. “This is a dish inspired by a meal me and Kay had at one of our favorite restaurants in Venice, back when I had money. They did a baked gratinée pasta dish with Venetian lagoon crab, it was unbelievable,” he says.Then he points with his fork at the dish in front of us. “So here were have local blue fresh Maryland crab, otherwise it’s a very derivative dish but instead of linguine we use fettuccine and we don’t bake it so it’s more free-standing.”

As we’re eating, Kay comes to say hello, and we chat briefly. She’s as friendly and engaging as her husband. When she leaves the table, Dean continues the story about their relationship, telling me that they got married on October 17th, 1988. They moved to Los Angeles (Dean was adamant about leaving Chicago), and for a while Dean says he “kicked around the wine business.”

One of his clients asked whether Dean had ever thought about the restaurant industry, and it got him thinking of a dream about owning his own place. He was hired at a restaurant putting together a wine list, and made a success of it. From there he cycled through a series of small restaurant gigs, ending up working for someone who he describes as being “psycho.”

Dean wanted to get out of the bad situation, and got a tip from one of his wine salesmen that Mrs. Gooch’s Natural Food Markets (a health store chain bought out by Whole Foods) was looking for a wine buyer. He decided to go for it, enduring four months of “living hell” interviews. He recalls the first interview with his prospective boss, the vice president of purchasing, who asked for Dean’s 10-year plan. “I said I didn’t have one,” he admits. But then he thought about it, and said that in a decade he wanted to own his own restaurant. “And the VP tells me great, we’ll make it happen.”

Ten years and five days later, and after travels for work that led to him eventually relocating to Washington, DC, Dean handed in his notice and opened his first restaurant Dino.

I ask why he’d want to go into a profession that seems highly stressful. He shrugs. “I think it’s still in my Facebook bio: Hates money, hates free time, runs a restaurant.”

We’re enjoying the food when Dean confides in me that keeping the venue profitable in a business with such tight profit margins has sometimes been a struggle in Shaw. “There have been good times and bad times. We’re facing a summer in Shaw without a roof deck or a patio” to entice people, he says, “That’s a bad time. But I still love doing this, it’s a creative outlet.”

Right on cue, our waiter returns with two more dishes to show off Dean’s creativity.

There’s a large round eggplant Parmigiana with house-made tomato sauce, ricotta, herbs, garlic and smoked mozzarella. “This is like those movies ‘as inspired by a true story,’ everywhere you go there’s eggplant Parmigiana, it’s a dish that’s transcended regionalism. One year one of our farmers had a lot of really good eggplant, so I started fooling around with it. It’s become one of our most popular dishes. And it’s vegetarian, and I have a strong commitment to vegetables.”

The other plate is divided equally between a mound of sweet potatoes and cuts of slow roasted pork shoulder from a farm in Maryland. It’s served with garlic, herbs, black pepper and Dean’s own take on salsa verde. “I have this unbelievably good pork vendor and from time to time I make pork shoulder roasts with the skin on, it’s crispy and crunchy — you have to try it,” he says. I do, and enjoy the pork and the eggplant, but it’s too much food to finish either plate.

We’ve been eating for a while and the restaurant is empty save for us and one other table. I’ve been to Dino’s Grotto other nights when it’s been packed. Dean says that’s the ebb and flow of the restaurant industry, in which he’s worked for more than a decade.

Combine the four years that Dino’s Grotto has been open in Shaw, and the eight years Dino operated in Cleveland Park, and there’s a restaurant that (in two locations) has been open for 12 years. “We’re one of DC’s long-running restaurants,” he says, smiling proudly.

Then he shrugs, adding, “No-one talks about us, we’re not very buzzy, and certainly the food press doesn’t know what we’re doing.” Reeling off a list of local food critics and writers, he notes that — to his knowledge — the Washington Post‘s Tom Sietsema has only been in once, while others including the Post‘s Tim Carman and the Washingtonian‘s Ann Limpert had never visited. “These are the people that write about restaurants in DC. Even their little side mentions can make or break a restaurant, and we don’t get those. But I can’t do anything about it. Advertising doesn’t work, and hiring a fancy publicist is beyond my means, I can’t afford that kind of expenditure.”

I’m feeling full from the heaps of food, but Dean insists I try a dessert of vanilla gelato with chopped strawberries, with a little balsamic drizzled on top.

He was introduced to the concept during a trip to Italy while he was working for Whole Foods. A balsamic vendor’s wife told Dean how she had a 140-year old cask of balsamic, and that they had to try it on ice cream. That day all the gelato shops were closed, so they had to make do buying “crappy freezer ice cream,” he tells me. “So we’re pouring this exquisite $100 bottle of balsamic on this terrible ice cream. It was mind-boggling.” But he liked the taste of it so much, he recreated it for Dino’s Grotto, albeit with less expensive balsamic.

As dinner winds to a close, I think back to Dean telling me about his boss at Mrs. Gooch’s asking for a 10-year plan, and wonder what that plan is present day. “Much smaller,” he laughs. “My 10-year plan is to gracefully exit the restaurant business with enough money to fall back and enjoy my life. If I could do it today, I’d just disappear and move to somewhere in the jungle; Thailand or Costa Rica.”

He adds, “But we struggle along, our doors are still open, and hopefully it’ll stay that way.”

In a question and answer piece that ran on Dining With Strangers before this interview, Dean summed up why the pros of running Dino’s Grotto outweigh the cons. One of the best things about his restaurant, he told me, is “When people come in for the first time or the 20th time and they pull you aside and tell you the meal blew them away. And when people choose to have their wedding rehearsal dinners here,” as well as celebrations of the lives of regulars who passed away. “It’s awe inspiring that people have those feelings about our restaurant, that it was that meaningful to them. When people let you into their life like that, that’s really special.”

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