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The Dino Story: Bikers, Blues, and Barbecues
History has a funny way of writing itselfof taking on a life of its own. So when folks ask me how we came up with the idea to start a honky-tonk blues barbecue joint in Syracuse, New York and name it Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, all I can say is "evolution."
We hatched the idea for the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in 1983 at the Harley Rendezvous, a massive motorcycle gathering near Albany, New York. They had plenty of everything there except good food. Hanging with my buddies, Dino and Mike, and being the hungry men we always were and the good cooks we fancied ourselves to be, we found the pickin's slim. A few eases of beer later, some rotgut grub in our bellies, and absolutely nothing to lose, we decided to get into the business of feeding bikers. Hell, we were at these gigs anyway, might as well make a few sheckles.
When we sobered up the next day, it still seemed like a good idea to us. We were good cooks, we loved to eat, and most importantly, we believed that bikers deserved a decent plate of food! All fired up, we decided we were going to hit all the biker gigs up and down the East Coast. Throwing in the swap meets, tattoo shows, and club functions, we were sure we had a recipe for success. So who cared if we never had any food service experience?
Armed with this battle plan, we needed a name. It did not take long to come up with Dinosaur Productions. After all, Dino was a partner and a big SOB to boot. That seemed to fit. Then there was a Hank Williams Jr. country song called "Dinosaur" about a guy who revisited hisfavorite honky-tonk only to find, much to his chagrin, that they had turned it into a disco. We could definitely relate. And it was the '80s and we were all riding some prehistoric bikesmine was a '57 Panhead, Dino's was a '55 Flathead, and Mike's was a '67 Triumph. That did it. Calling our new venture Dinosaur Productions just made sense.
We thought we were on the right track. We had a name, we had a plan, but there was a hitch. We had about $1.98 between the three of us. No bank back then was going to invest in this motley crew, so we did what we had to. We improvised. Once we got done sawing a 55-gallon drum in half and borrowing some used restaurant equipment, we were in business. Our first gig was a local swap meet.
We had a simple three-sandwich menu. I manned the flattop and kept the coils of Italian sausage sizzling next to glistening heaps of sliced onions and fresh red and green peppers. Mike and Dino alternated on the charbroiler, where they flipped burgers and grilled Delmonico rib eye steaks (always hand cut). We were picky bastards even back then, making quality our first priority right from the start.
The first step in our business evolution came the next year when in 1984 we changed our name to Dinosaur Concessions. We were living the true gypsy life on the road, traveling from town to town and always looking for the next big gig. Our circuit expanded to include some non-biker functions like state fairs and regional festivals. They weren't as much fun as the biker bashes, but they kept us rolling along. Every show turned out to be a crapshoot. We'd score big on one and lose our ass on the next two. Like the time we ordered 2,000 pounds of chicken for a concert where 10,000 people were expected. Things didn't go as planned, and we were lucky if we sold fifty pounds. Needless to say, we ate a lot of freakin' chicken that winter. We even used chicken as currency to pay off our less-than-thrilled employees and creditors, who suffered through that fiasco with us.
Big changes came in 1985. Dino retired and moved to Arizona to take care of some family business. Meanwhile, Mike and I were working on a secret weapon-our own homemade BBQ sauce to Mather on our popular sandwiches. We were so excited by this that it prompted another name change. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que said it all.
Time went on, and the road seemed to get longer and longer. We were still diggin' it: riding our bikes to places we'd never been, and getting off on the thrill of the unknown. We had some wild timesto say more would be unfit to print in a nice family cookbook like this. Things were good, but during our midnight rides, our conversations kept turning toward owning our own joint. Our fast and loose carney-life was getting more and more regulated. We started thinking that if we had to live by the rules, we'd rather deal with one set versus all the variables we found in every town, county, and state we happened to be serving food in.
By the time 1987 rolled around, we were getting pretty burned out. Life on the road was definitely feeling more like a grind than the adventure it once had been. For the first time in our lives settlin' down sounded appealing. We found the perfect place in the old N & H Tavern in downtown Syracuse, New York. The N & H was a legendary "shot and a beer joint" that served good home cooking and was located under the local motorcycle shop. It was beautiful.
We had to stay on the road, though, in order to fund the remodeling of the restaurant. So we hung in there, a much easier task now that we had our goal in sight. But as fate would have it, something happened that changed our course one more time. We were in Hagerstown, Maryland, when some old southern guy came up and asked us why we called ourselves a Bar-B-Que. Sure, he had enjoyed his Delmonico sandwich with our special BBQ sauce on it, but he said that it wasn't real barbecue. Real barbecue was about slow fires, open and closed pits, and hickory wood. The more this good ol' boy went on, the more intrigued I became.
It hit me that Mike and I were just two guys of Italian descent from Central New York. What the hell did we know about real southern barbecue? That was about to change.
Determined to unlock the mysteries of the kind of barbecue that old coot planted in my head, I got on my bike and headed south. Back then, the books on the subject were few and far between, so I figured first-hand experience would be my best teacher. I ate myself silly with barbecue, starting in Virginia and then riding on down to North Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi. At each stop I'd ask the locals where to get the best barbecue in town. I remember being blown away by the taste of smoke-infused meat. Little by little I asked questions and worked hard to pick up the southern barbecue vibe. It was kind of like penetrating a secret society. My final destination was Memphis. For me it was the Shangri-la of barbecue. By the time I headed back north, I knew what had to be done. True blue barbecue had become my passion. We had to get into slow-smokin' meat in a hickory-wood-fired pit.
Success is an elusive thing. When we finally opened the doors to the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in the fall of 1988, we were expecting the same slam-bang action of the road. But the reality of our new venture was just the opposite. Being the action junkies we were, the slowness of the place took the wind out of our sails. No action, no paycheckswhat the hell was going on? To say times were lean would be an understatement. It was a good thing we were in the restaurant business or we would've starved to death. Looking back, if we hadn't been so hardheaded, we would have closed our doors on a few occasions. But there always seemed to be a glimmer of hope, so we stuck it out.
By 1990 we started turning things around. After the 1,000th person asked for beer with their barbecue, something clicked, and we decided to take another chance by expanding the joint and adding a bar. Of course, this was easier said than done.
To fund this new caper, we brought on old friends Nancy and Larry Luckwaldt as partners and embarked on the next evolutionary phase of the Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Opening the bar turned us from a grab-and-go joint to a full-service restaurant overnight. Suddenly we had to learn this whole full-service, full-bar thing in a hurry. Lucky for us, we were fast learners.
We found that the restaurant biz was a lot like a Broadway show. When the curtain goes up, you better be ready. Our saucy wait staff brings the show to the table. Giving great service, having fun, and mingling with our customers is their mission. If you want your chops busted, they'll bust 'em; if you want to be left alone, they'll respect your space. Every table gets their own unique Dinosaur experience played to their expectations. It's the down-to-earth real life vibe of the joint that our wait staff feeds on with the energy and focus of all good performers.
Speaking of performers, we always played the blues as background music at the restaurant. It's just what we like listening to, and it's a natural companion for our barbecue. I can't remember the exact circumstances behind the decision to get into live music, but one fall Thursday in 1992 we had Dr. Blue, a local blues guitar solo artist with a big booming voice, perform live. Suddenly Thursday night became Live Blues Night. Well, that just felt so good, the next thing you knew, we had live local, regional, and national blues six to seven nights a week.
There have been many great acts that have graced our stage over the years, from the old blues legends like Clarence Gatemouth Brown, Jimmy Rodgers, and James Cotton to our vast array of local blues talent. It was a personal thrill when we first booked the Nighthawks, an act out of D.C. Back in the mid '70s they pretty much turned me on to the blues, and so booking them was a real kick. Honestly, there's not enough room to list all the magical musical moments we've had at the Dinosaur, but it sure does make us feel fortunate to have been a part of the scene.
Lord knows, we've had our fun and we've made our mistakes, but the only constant throughout the years has been our unyielding dedication to serving the freshest, highest quality food we can. I guess that for a self-taught guy like me, learning about food is what drives me onward, and it's the reason why I love this crazy business.
Like I said, we've always been picky about quality. I think that comes from our Italian mothers and grandmothers, who taught us that the best food begins with the freshest and finest raw ingredientsnever fancy, but always good. We strive to treat those ingredients with respect, working to achieve honest, direct flavor in our food. After all, with barbecue, we're dealing with just four essentials: meat, spice, smoke, and sauce. Great barbecue is all about fusing the perfect balance between those four things. No one element should predominate; they all should compliment each other in perfect harmony.
Our menu is firmly rooted in the traditions of southern barbecue. But there are other influences that shape our flavors and give our food its own distinctive character. That's one of the secrets of great barbecuestaying committed to tradition, but finding your own stamp and signature.
Dinosaur patrons are among the finest bathroom graffiti writers in the world. Just give `em a pen and they'll leave their mark. This is not your ordinary B.J. loves C.M. stuff. The walls are filled with philosophy, advice, sex tips, and plenty of humor.
How `bout this fashion advice from the ladies' room: "You'd be surprised how it costs to look this cheap." Or this cheap shot: "What's the difference between men and government bonds? Bonds mature!" Don't worry, the guys get in their licks as well with observations like this: "Love at first sight is just with potential." They also have some advice for the ladies: "If a woman can read the writing on the wall, she's in the wrong restroom."
Every once and a while the walls get so filled up that we have to paint 'em. This way the creativity of our diners can flow once again. We like their contributions so much that we've included some of their best material throughout the book. Just look for the little outhouse and enjoy the wit and wisdomyou'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll think.