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John Fraser Reveals the Inspiration Behind Dovetail's Major Revamp

John Fraser recently shut down Dovetail, his critically acclaimed fine dining restaurant, for a top to bottom remodeling. The restaurant reopened this week with an entirely new menu and pricing structure. Eater sat down with the chef / owner to talk about the changes.

You made the opening date, which is a rarity in restaurant construction, how did the opening go?

I won a lot of bets on that opening date! We had a plan, we executed it, there is still paint drying, there is still dust flying around, but we opened. We had to relearn everything. The kitchen is completely new, the layout is completely new, the only thing that's the same are the personalities.

Why the remodel?

I started working on this restaurant when I was 30 years old, I am about to be 40. I was either going to lease a sports car or take care of the space. When I was 30 years old, I think I was a pretty good cook back then, but my eye for design and space and flow and guest experience has certainly gotten better. The other piece of this it that I have awesome investors who are willing to follow me down the rabbit hole. I have an incredible staff, many of whom have been here since day one, I have an incredible kitchen. As an owner I owe it to them to give them a fantastic place to work with a great environment.

To the casual diner it should feel completely approachable, the idea is to be nostalgic. I want this to feel like there is nothing serious about this. The room is really the expression of my nostalgia and child-like wonderment. Some of my favorite memories are of the beach and we have sand sculptures, whacky driftwood, I love the idea of playing with the surrealism of what a foraged object can be.

Why the menu change?

I would feel weird if I was holding onto my 30-year-old decisions ten years later: That means I haven’t been growing, I haven't been progressing. Four years ago, on Mondays we had a crazy idea and served a vegetable-forward menu that's been embraced by many and it has informed everything we do. It could have been pork belly, it could have been beef, but it happened to be vegetables for me. I think that we all choose our path and that one made sense. When you start edging up into $40 entrees suddenly it feels like gauging. But the reason it has to be $40 is because there is a system of canapes and bread, there are palate cleansers, and there is pre-dessert. That’s part of the pricing structure of the prix fixe that we also did for a la carte guest, it was built into that pricing. What we found was that 75 percent of people were ordering the prix fixe and those that were ordering a la carte were getting three courses anyway. So we decided to simplify and charge a fair price. It’s a more democratic experience — we expect to do less covers but to provide better service.

What experience do you want to offer at Dovetail 2.0?

This is a place to dine; there are other places to eat. This is hopefully an experience. My goal in this was to make the most casual feeling, most residential feeling, fine dining restaurant in NYC. My goal was to allow the guest to decide what kind of meal they want. One of the things I have always struggled with in fine dining is who’s experience are you going to have? The waiters, the chefs, the person you are dining with? Our goal is to provide the framework for you to decide. Some guests come in here to be with whoever they are with and the food should just add to that; some people are foodies, so it's our job to figure out what they are looking for and let them have that experience.

We aren’t going for some trophy, this is about a chef with 10 more years of experience taking care of the little things that had to be done, but also perhaps growing in to another phase. We have another seven and a half years lease, so we have a ways to go. This is an expression of the way I see fine dining now and I imagine that in five years I’ll probably start gearing up another one of these. Our food style is designed to peel back as much as possible. When I came to NY I tried to cook like a New Yorker and as I have gotten older I have begun to reveal my roots and go back to California cuisine and back to where I came from. There is an expression of that in the way that I cook.


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