Opens inclusive restaurants
Gay restaurateur Brian Piccini has seen his industry from every angle: from in the kitchen, from standing over blueprints, from behind a pile of bills to pay.
But he first saw it from behind a piano.
Piccini used to play the piano inside Top of the Hub, the famed dining room and perennial tourist trap inside the apex of Prudential Tower. But the music stopped after September 11, 2001, when suddenly restaurants housed high atop skyscrapers were no longer booming with business. Piccini lost his job, but while he had been tickling the ivories, the hustle, bustle, and excitement of the hospitality world had been tickling his fancy.
Fast forward over a decade later. Following his success as co-owner of dbar in Dorchester and DeuxAve in Back Bay, Piccini opened his third venture this month in the gay- and foodie-friendly South End neighborhood: Boston Chops, a contemporary steakhouse housed inside the grand Penny Savings Bank on Washington Street.
“I’ve always loved the South End community,” says Piccini. “It’s a really cool and vibrant part of the city. There’s an adventurousness and edgy, forward-thinking vibe there.” And Piccini has had his eye on opening a spot in the South End for a very long time. Over a decade ago, he would eyeball the Penny Savings Bank while walking to a bartending job at Aquitaine. He imagined that one day its impressive architecture would be home to a business of his own.
But culinary empires aren’t born overnight. Piccini first staked his claim in Dorchester, where he also lives. He had been developing real estate, turning Dorchester’s old triple-deckers into modern condos, when he realized the shifting demographics of the traditionally working class neighborhood: an influx of first-time homebuyers, young professionals, and a sizable gay community. All were hungry for a great place to eat and drink, something more refined than the spate of sticky-floored Irish bars that dominated the scene. So in 2005, at just 24 years-old, Piccini opened dbar. It offered martinis, downtown chic décor and, by 2007, high-end contemporary cuisine under executive Chef Coombs (then a 22 year-old kitchen prodigy).
It also offered the neighborhood’s LGBT community a hub around which to revolve. As a businessman, Piccini never made it a mission statement to establish a gay restaurant; early on, in fact, its reputation as one was a stigma that the area’s old-timers eventually overcame. But as a gay man, he endowed it with a sense of inclusiveness – and fostered a network of friends – that made it a popular spot for gay singles, couples, and community organizations hosting special events and fundraisers. “I have friends who were among the pioneers in the ‘80s and ‘90s who came into the South End when it still felt dangerous and rough around the edges,” says Piccini. “When I opened dbar, a lot of them said, ‘This feels like what happened in the South End ten years ago.’” In other words, it was helping to reshape the neighborhood and its local economy.
It also reshaped the visibility of the local gay community: they were here, they were queer – and, you know, no big deal.
“A lot of people were confused when we opened: ‘What is that place, dbar? Is that a gay bar?’” recalls Piccini. “And I had a lot of press inquiries asking, ‘Are you opening something for the gay community?; But why label yourself as something that makes you exclusive to one community? I want to be a restaurant and bar that caters to everyone. Obviously we have a very heavy LGBT following so there was a stigma from the more traditional Dorchester crowd. But over the years everyone has embraced it. It’s amazing to see.”
He expanded in 2010 by opening DeuxAve, a modern French-inspired restaurant, in the Back Bay. As with dbar, he noticed a void in the community – this time, for an upscale neighborhood restaurant – and filled it. He kept his in everything for both restaurants: he designed everything from their interiors to their marketing material. But it wasn’t long before he was ready for the next challenge.
“I don’t like doing things twice,” laughs Piccini. “I like learning how to do them for the first time. I’m a creative person, I’ll have a vision and have to figure out how to make it work from the business side.”
And his next vision returned to the South End. The Penny Savings Bank went dark after the failure of chef Patricia Yeo’s restaurant Banq; Piccini swooped in spent a couple years sprucing things up, and opened Boston Chops in March. It’s his largest venture, literally: a 5100 square foot dining, including an upper mezzanine. Focused on bone-in favorites and a range of underutilized cuts (like tongue, cheek and oxtail), it puts a funky, decidedly South End spin on the traditionally staid vibe of steakhouses. And it has challenged Piccini in new ways. Its historic South End location has offered challenges – logistical hurdles involving space for outdoor trash storage, things like that. And it is the first time Piccini has shared space with homeowners; there are 27 condos directly overhead Boston Chops, which required an extensive build-out and considerations about noise, ventilation, and other construction issues. But Piccini says the support of area organizations like Washington Gateway Main Streets and the Union Park Neighborhood Association have made Chops feel like a welcomed new kid on the block.
And now Piccini is in the position to be courting offers to open new spots. But he says he’s concentrated on establishing Boston Chops as a success before considering his next move. It’s been a long road from Top of the Hub to the top of his industry, and he’s not done climbing yet.
“I’m definitely entrepreneurial,” says Piccini. “And I learned early on that I want to be my own boss.” Mission accomplished. Chop that one off the list.