After nearly two decades, Dorchester restaurant Ashmont Grill is closing. “We have had a great run, our core team has been together from the start, we’ve all gotten older (especially me), and we are ready for new things,” says chef-owner Chris Douglass. The restaurant’s last day will be sometime around Valentine’s Day.
Ashmont Grill opened in 2005, a trailblazer in the Ashmont section of Dorchester, where Douglass has lived since 1987. “My motivation was that I lived in the community and there was no place for people to go,” he says. The restaurant brought comfort food, cocktails, and a cozy patio with fire pits. “It was the kind of place I felt like people wanted in my neighborhood. When I opened Ashmont Grill, we had a corner on the market. We brought a lot of fresh eyes to Dorchester in terms of dining opportunities. There are a lot more places now.”
Among them is Douglass’s remaining restaurant, Tavolo, serving Italian fare next to the Ashmont T station. It will remain open.
Douglass, who is a core instructor in Boston University’s Certificate Program in the Culinary Arts, was himself a trailblazer when he opened Ashmont Grill. At the time, he ran upscale restaurant Icarus in the South End (it closed in 2009). It was unusual then for a high-end chef to open a more-casual neighborhood spot away from the dining fray. “The story of Ashmont Grill, the new shining star in a gritty part of the city, reads like a made-for-TV movie,” wrote Globe restaurant critic Alison Arnett in her October 2005 review, calling it a “Cinderella story of a restaurant.”
Ashmont Grill became a gathering place for the whole community, with a staffer simply known as “Butterfly” greeting everyone at the door. Also a kindergarten teacher, she is still there. “There are a few of us who have worked at the restaurant since it opened, which is unheard of,” says Tara O’Riordan, general manager of Ashmont Grill and Tavolo. “It’s just been a huge place for people to meet in community, truly a place where everybody knows your name and all are welcome. We had a really diverse customer base that truly represented Dorchester, as well as our staff, and it became a big family. Relationships started there; there were weddings, friendships, countless parties — so many shared experiences.”
You never knew who you’d see tucking into train wreck fries (topped with cheese, bacon, jalapenos, and sour cream) or sitting down for the popular brunch. “Ashmont Grill was really a place I hadn’t had the experience to be part of before, where it was really for everybody: high school kids, governors, mayors, clergy, cops, T bus drivers,” Douglass says. “You name a demographic, their group was represented.”
The wood-grilled dishes — burgers, steaks, pork chops — were always a hit. The sticky toffee pudding had a cult following. There was a reasonably priced wine list with offerings you couldn’t find anywhere else in the neighborhood at that time. “Back in the day, we had orange mojitos. This is how long we’ve been there: Mojitos were actually a thing,” O’Riordan says. “We had things like avocado toast as times changed. You never would have thought you’d get avocado toast on the corner of Talbot Avenue and Dot Ave., but here we are.”
The restaurant opened with more than 30 investors, many community members themselves. The goal now, in addition to helping staff secure employment, is to find a buyer who wants run a similarly neighborhood-oriented restaurant in the space.
“People are always going to go out to eat,” Douglass says. “There is a future for the restaurant business. People are going to have to work on it and figure it out. I’ll leave that to the young lions.”