The world already knows Anne Kearney is a great cook, thanks to the accolades she received when she and husband Tom Sand ran Peristyle in New Orleans. So do the people in Dayton, OH, the site of their new restaurant, Rue Dumaine. It's where Kearney and Sand grew up and are revered as hometown kids who made it big in one of the country's top restaurant towns.
But now we're learning how savvy these two are as restaurateurs. The lesson they're demonstrating here: Even if the chef is a James Beard Award winner (Kearney: Best Chef Southeast 2002) and her husband/co-owner is a wine whiz and operations expert, a restaurant still has to carefully match its menu and prices to its market if it wants to succeed.
Which is why Kearney and Sand positioned the 80-seat bistro they opened last November the way they did. Rue Dumaine doesn't offer any of the New Orleans-style fare Kearney put out at Peristyle, even though it was the top-rated food in New Orleans in the Zagat Guide rankings. Instead, their new “casual fine dining” restaurant offers what the pair describes as “American bistro fare with a French flair.” Peristyle North it's not.
Their pricing scheme fits the town's Midwest sensibilities, too. Only two of the seven entrees break through the $20 price barrier — Chardonnay braised beef short ribs with celeriac remoulade ($21); and pan-seared lamb T-bone chops, Yukon-goat cheese galette and Niçoise olive-preserved lemon relish ($22) — and nightly special prices follow suit. Starters and salads come in at $10 and under, with the exception of the signature Mussels Bourride (PEI mussels steamed in an aioli-enriched saffron-shellfish broth with Provençal vegetables, tomatoes and fresh herbs), served with pommes frites for $13. Kearney sums up her cooking here as “my Americanized version of classic French flavor profiles.”
On the beverage front, wines by the glass available from Sand's carefully chosen list of boutique wines top out at $9. It's exactly the kind of pricing that will bring customers in and keep them coming back in a midscale market like Dayton.
Especially when, sexy French name like “Rue Dumaine” or not, the restaurant is located in a strip mall in suburban Centerville, OH. It sits next to an Arhaus furniture store, just down the street from the Saturn dealer and across the parking lot from Sam's Club. It's a location that has seen four previous restaurant tenants go under.
Why did Kearney and Sand exit New Orleans and return to Dayton?
It's not a happy story. While cooking at Peristyle one night in 2002, Kearney was felled by a brain aneurysm. It felt like “my brain exploded,” she told the Dayton Daily News. A second aneurysm was discovered while the first was being treated and repaired. She returned to work in a few weeks, but a third aneurysm cropped up one year later.
So in 2004, the pair reluctantly sold Peristyle to New Orleans chef Tom Wolfe and took some downtime at the Kearney family farm near Dayton. There they developed a large-scale all-natural garden — Too Small Tomatoes — which now supplies pristine ingredients to their new restaurant.
Kearney and Sand got back into the business last December, but not in the way people expected. A big-ticket hotel or casino gig would have been a logical move for a chef of Kearney's stature, and she had her choice of offers from New York and Las Vegas.
No sale. Instead, the couple stayed close to home and opened something more accessible. Considering the caliber of the people preparing its food and running it, Rue Dumaine has to rank as the greatest bargain in foodservice right now. Zagat described Kearney's food in New Orleans as “ambrosia from the hands of a goddess.” How lucky are the people in Dayton that they're the ones who can eat it now?