We all love the new restaurants, the hot chefs, the glitz and the flash. But there's something to be said for longevity, for those who tough it out in the trenches of the restaurant business for years. In "Dine-Hards," a new series, I chat with those veterans.
"This thing right here - I have only one explanation why we've been here so long," says Dmitri Chimes, sweeping a big hand from the counter to the minuscule dining room of Dmitri's at Third and Catharine Streets on a recent afternoon.
It was January 1990 when Chimes - a musician-turned-chef who bounced around every kitchen in town through the 1980s - took over a restaurant called Jerry's.
Dmitri's was simple, decorated on a budget - tile floors, wooden tables and chairs, an open kitchen fronted by an antique marble counter that was the soda fountain. The Greek menu was mainly seafood - grilled octopus, scallops, calamari, spinach pie, lamb. BYOB. Cash only. No attitude.
And everything is largely the same. (The whole place has a well-worn look, but "I don't want to fix it up too much," Chimes says.) You can eat like a king for under $30 a head.
So as for his secret: "People must perceive it to be good food at a good value," says Chimes, now 63. Even his explanation is simple.
Dmitri's was a neighborhood find for a couple of months, operating largely under the pre-Internet radar, until food writers Elaine Tait and Jim Quinn got ahold of it. Then business exploded. Chimes later opened other restaurants, including two other Dmitri's (one at Fitler Square, which at one point was called Stix, recently closed and a Northern Liberties branch remains open) and a short-lived spot near Washington Square called Pamplona.
Chimes did not come into the business as a kid, though his dad, Tom, a renowned artist, also owned a seafood cafe in Brewerytown.
He was content playing guitar at London in Fairmount, where he really hit it off with the chef, a transvestite named Sara. When then-owner Warren Brown said he was going to open another London on 12th Street (now the site of Pennsylvania 6), Chimes begged for kitchen work. It didn't matter that Chimes had to peel carrots and beard mussels.
He saw a PBS special on Great Chefs of New Orleans that cinched him on the idea of cooking. (A few years later, Chimes says, PBS did a special on the Great Chefs of Philadelphia and the lineup included Georges Perrier, Jack McDavid, Jean-Marie Lacroix "and me. How about that!")
Chimes moved on from London to work at such long-gone spots as Carolina's and Mykonos as well as the still-running South Street Souvlaki. It was there he decided to gamble on opening his own restaurant. "I figured, let's try it. If it doesn't work, we'll go on and do something else."
He served 18 people on the first night, a Tuesday. By the weekend, the count was 60.
So he offers a second explanation for Dmitri's success.
"It was a different enough dining experience to get people out," Chimes says. "There's an informality you can feel, too. Something happens in an informal space like this. We have tables [of people] talking and passing food around. I'm thinking back to the first time I went to Le Bec-Fin, and was I nervous. We're at the other end of that."
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