At Tavolo Ristorante, customers spur changes

When Chris Douglass opened the doors to Tavolo Ristorante in Dorchester in August 2008, he thought the business model was the perfect fit.

Located on the ground floor of 1918 Dorchester Avenue, the restaurant would offer easy access to the growing number of Ashmont residents looking to live at The Carruth, and also attract other neighborhood traffic, in particular those coming from the Ashmont MBTA station next door.

The new Italian restaurant was ready to serve fast, casual food at affordable prices. But despite the economic downturn and recession, Douglass soon learned that diners were looking for something more.

As a result, the first six months were the start of an evolution for Tavolo, which is still casual, but now with a full-service dining experience and atmosphere, said Douglass, the executive chef and managing partner at the restaurant.

“What I envisioned and set out to do was to make it affordable, fast, and casual, serving pizza, pasta, and paninis,” he said. “But even though it was the start of a recession, people wanted a full-service restaurant. They were willing to spend more for entrees with meat or fish at the center; they were less interested than I thought in the fast, casual nature of it.”

In the early months, the restaurant was not getting the customer volume even though the prices were low, he said. “But we have been learning and making attempts to address our core audience. We are trying to address what their desires and needs are.”

For example, when the restaurant first opened, it had paper napkins and plastic water glasses on the tables. “We were trying to tell people this was casual, fast, and fun,” Douglass said. “The walls had a bright color scheme. We’ve toned down the colors and made it warmer. We changed the menu.”

What was once a “build your own antipasto” is now an antipasto made by the chef. The menu has expanded to include several selections of entrees that included a protein at the center. “We’re doing a lot more specials now with beef, fish, and pork and people are really going for them,” said Douglass.

The menu is modern Italian, with a variety of appetizers, pasta dishes, main courses, pizza, paninis, and desserts. In addition to the regular menu, there are at least five specials every night. All the recipes are made from scratch and the chefs makes the restaurant’s own fresh pasta.

Chef Max Thompson, who studied at the French Culinary Institute, is the head chef in the kitchen where Douglass also cooks one night a week.

But Douglass also splits his time at another restaurant just up the street at 555 Talbot Avenue, The Ashmont Grill, where he is executive chef and owner.

A self-taught chef, Douglass has been cooking for 35 years.
He started out washing dishes in a restaurant and credits renowned chefs Julia Child and Alice Waters for his culinary inspiration. He was hired to cook at Icarus, a South End restaurant, in 1978. And in 1999, he bought the restaurant from its original owners. He owned the business until July of this year when he sold it.

As an Ashmont resident of 22 years, Douglass said identifying a need in the market for a new neighborhood restaurant led to the opening of the Ashmont Grill four years ago, while he was still the owner of Icarus.

“I always had it in the back my mind to open another restaurant and I thought this would be a good market,” he said “There was a lot of pent-up demand and a lot of people wanted a restaurant. I knew it would be somewhat of a home run.”

He joined with a number of neighborhood investors to start the business. The goal was to create a neighborhood restaurant that would have the style of an American bar and grill but with a fine dining influence, he said.

“I wanted to bring some of the fine dining techniques, attention to detail, and service points to a slightly more casual endeavor,” Douglass said of the Ashmont Grill.

The effort has been successful.

About three years into that business plans were being talked about involving further development in the Peabody Square neighborhood. Douglass was involved with the community through the Main Streets organization and was aware about investment and infrastructure improvements on the horizon.

He also knew there would be retail space on the ground floor of The Carruth, which was being developed by Trinity Financial, and there would be space for a restaurant. He started thinking to himself about what he would do with the space if he were to open another place, he said.

The idea for Italian cuisine resulted from a desire to do something different. “The Ashmont Grill had a strong presence already. I wanted to do something different from that,” he said. “I’ve always loved Italian food. It has a universal appeal. I thought there would be a good market for it.” Still, it was somewhat of a struggle, opening Tavolo right before the economy took a turn for the worse last fall.
Douglass has several ideas about why the fast, casual concept didn’t work.

“Maybe it was my reputation with the other restaurants that had an influence and people had different expectations of Tavolo and what it was going to be,” he said. “It was a good concept but maybe if it was in a higher density location it would have worked better.”

Nevertheless, he has been morphing the menu to respond to the market demands and business has been growing.

He also added a special “regional tour of Italy” to the Wednesday night offering about six months ago.

Each week he and Thompson research and prepare the cuisine of a region of Italy and put together three courses specific to that region. The cost is $18 per person.

There are 20 different regions. Each “regional tour” event includes one pasta dish. “We have done every region at least once,” Douglass said. “We are looking now to branch out to a particular city or sub-region.”

The idea, he said, has “made Wednesdays a good day.”

Many regulars attend and the crowd could number anywhere between 15 people or upwards of 40. Dinner starts at 6:30 p.m.

The first Wednesday night tour highlighted Val d’Aosta with a menu of bagna cuda, buckwheat noodles with Fontina, cabbage and potato, and poached fig crema cotta.

In recent weeks Tavolo hired a new floor manager, Kai Gagnon, who has an extensive background in wines, said Douglass.

“We are doing more education with the staff so they can sell the wines more,” Douglass said. “We’re also being more aggressive and particular about selecting the wines we put on the wine list. We want to include some small and interesting producers.”

Douglass is also looking to increase the 120-person restaurant’s function business. Already a half dozen holiday parties are booked. Tavolo also has been developing a crowd of political observers who gather following an election or to watch the returns on television.

Typically the restaurant is only open for dinner, but on Sundays the bar opens at noon and avid football fans may enjoy a special “Tailgate Menu,” which includes Italian-influenced tailgate items such as meatball sliders. For $20, diners can choose from several items and receive two beers or two glasses of house wine.

Diners at Tavolo can expect the new promotions and creative offerings to continue. “It’s a work in progress and it’s not done yet,” Douglass said. “All the things we’ve done to adapt, including a higher level of service, and more intimate environment, have helped to build a client base.”

There are lots of regulars and neighborhood residents in the restaurant, he said. And the business is drawing customers from around the region, with more people coming from South Boston, Milton, Quincy and Jamaica Plain.