When opened its doors on November 11, 2008 the recession had just hit and owner Frank Santo nervously watched to see how his new venture would be received.
Three years later the West Newton gastropub is filled seven nights a week and all day on the weekends, and Santo will soon be doubling his restaurant holdings.
“All the doomsayers were talking, in the fall of ’08, about all these restaurants that were going to close,” Santo explains. “And you really didn’t see it. I thought that for guys like me, there’d be lots of opportunities to pick up something cheap and pick up new locations. But it didn’t happen.”
But Santo has finally been able to take advantage of the changing face of the Newton restaurant scene: he has purchased the space next door (most recently occupied by ) and will be opening a take-out burger joint some time in the near future.
Local Burger, as he is currently calling his new place (another potential name is “Butcher Burger”) will serve a custom beef grind (made especially for Santo by Local customer and meat purveyor ), a turkey burger, a veggie burger, a grass-fed burger and a tuna burger. There will be a selection of buns and a wide assortment of toppings.
But while the i’s are dotted and the t’s crossed on the lease for the burger place, Santo is not sitting still. In February of next year, give or take the usual delays with any new undertaking, he will be opening a yet-to-be-named restaurant in Providence, in the evolving Wickenden Street neighborhood.
Santo has also just put the finishing touches on renovations at his original Boston-area restaurant, in Dedham. After 18 years in business, Santo has seen the shift in diners enjoying the “less formal, communal feel” of eating at the bar and has made changes accordingly to his first local establishment.
Not bad for a guy who started his professional life as a biology teacher at Woburn High School in the mid-80s and only went to work in his uncle’s New York City restaurants when he was unexpectedly laid off.
“He had five or six restaurants, all fine dining,” Santo recalls. “He was my mentor, Dr. Joseph Santo. He was an oral surgeon but wasn’t in the operating room very long – he loved the restaurant business. But everyone still called him ‘Doctor.’”
Originally Santo thought that The Local would be “a bar with good food,” but he quickly realized that people were more interested in having a great meal enhanced by a drink or a glass of wine. Food had to be the focus, and he is able to meet that need easily with a menu that is both accessible and creative. Chef Brian Counihan, who has been at The Local since it opened, has a small but sophisticated regular bill of fare augmented by a few nightly specials and seasonal variations. The fall menu “is in the works right now,” Santo shares.
Santo knows that owning a restaurant is a business, and he manages his by knowing what works and what doesn’t.
“I’m not going to do it,” he says with a chuckle, when asked about serving a weekday lunch. “Lunch on the weekends is great, but why would I discount the food at lunchtime? I’ve never been a believer in a lunch menu. But I’ll do a brunch menu in Providence, for sure.”
He also is well aware of the old maxim “the customer is always right,” but like the smart restaurateur that he is Santo takes it up a notch.
“The customer is my boss,” he laughs. “Everyone has a boss and the customer is mine. They tell me what they want, and that’s what I do.”