The secret to Dinosaur Bar-b-que's success
A landmark of adaptive reuse resides on Rochester’s riverfront
On a sweltering summer day, we walk past bikers in blue jeans and t-shirts by their shiny Harley-Davidsons parked in the courtyard lot near the entrance. It was the first time I visited Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, overlooking the Genesee River in downtown Rochester. The look and feel of the place was enough to pique my curiosity about the restaurant’s origins and its Southern-style barbequed meats.
The rough look to the building is intentional, according to founder, John Stage, who says barbeque is tough, even rough, and requires “smoke, spice, and patience” to create the perfect result. “Patience,” Stage says, because “a good brisket takes fourteen hours to cook to perfection; pork, at least twelve.
We sit in one of the high-backed booths that line one side of the main dining room alongside a wall of vintage tin signs advertising everything from beer, motor oil, pork, and whiskey to a Texas radio station. Signs for Lone Star Beer and Old Topper are high overhead.
On the far wall, a collection of beat-up license plates from states I’ve yet to visit form a colorful assemblage of colors and numbers. Posters and prints of notables from the pop and political culture of the ’60s and ’70s are sprinkled here and there: An image of Marilyn Monroe hangs prominently above a central serving station and there’s a reproduction of Nixon shaking Elvis’s hand—throwbacks to decades ago—a cultural time capsule from yet another turbulent time in our collective history.
A yellow railroad crossing sign up near the ceiling of the main dining room reminds us that we’re in a turn-of-the-century rail station. The bar, off by itself in a second dining room, is a mix of neon and grit. The smell of beer and the smoky scent of barbeque hang in the air. A long, high table near the bar, with wagon wheel light above, is packed with patrons—it’s lunch time.
Views of the Genesee from our window, in what was once the Lehigh Valley Railroad Station, are some of the best in downtown Rochester.
The atmosphere and wait staff—many of the servers and some of the bartenders, pierced, tattooed, and in denim—are colorful. Rubbing elbows with people from all walks of life is natural here.
Stage, who founded the first Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in an old tavern on Willow Street in Syracuse, believes that barbeque is the great equalizer. “Dinosaur is a place where people from all socio-economic groups can come to enjoy American classics: barbequed ribs, brisket, steak, and chicken in a casual, relaxed atmosphere.”
Born in New York City, Stage and his two partners opened the first barbeque restaurant in 1988 in Syracuse after trying out their concept, named “Dinosaur Concession,” on the road. They pulled a fifty-five-gallon iron-drum smoker behind their Harley-Davidsons, setting up at meetups up and down the East Coast to earn a little extra cash. Stage admits it was literally a “trial by fire” those first years.
His love for cooking started early. Stage grew up with an Italian mother who was always in the kitchen and who loved to cook. His interest in Southern barbeque developed after a couple of guys on the road told him that sauce on meat wasn’t real barbeque. To gather firsthand knowledge about the “smoke, spice, and fire of Southern cooking,” he hopped on his bike and rode down to Memphis.
Stage grew tired of life on the road after a few years. He took ownership of the downstairs of what was then Andy’s Motorcycle Shop in Syracuse to open his first restaurant. Ten years later, he expanded his enterprise, which he called “Dinosaur Bar-B-Que” for no particular reason, to Rochester.
“The name had nothing to do with the restaurant other than the fact that Dino was the name of one of my partners,” says Stage, who went on to open eight more Dinosaur Bar-B-Ques, all in reclaimed, repurposed city buildings in the Northeast.
In Newark, New Jersey, he established a Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in an old boxing club; in Brooklyn, a former tool and die shop; in Stamford, Connecticut, a Yale Lock Company factory.
In each case, Stage attempted to retain historic elements of each building, clues to its former use. He also looked for buildings that reflected the communities they were in. Some other locations included a meat packing plant and an old farm.
“At our Brooklyn location, we used wood from the Coney Island boardwalk—torn off during Hurricane Sandy—to give the restaurant a sense of place.” Stage has even set up shop in Harlem across the street from the Cotton Club. He recruited staff from his Syracuse location to bring some of the original feeling of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que to Harlem.
The former rail station where Rochester’s Dinosaur operates was designed by F. D. Hyde and reflects the massive architecture of the Victorian era. Hyde’s design incorporates two-tone brick, copper gutters and flashing, and what was originally a red tile roof, all references to French Renaissance architecture. Though it is a jewel in the landscape of downtown Rochester, local government considered tearing the station down.
Built as an asymmetrical Norman Chateau tower, it was the station for one of six railroads running through Rochester around the turn of the last century. The building sits on wide iron girders that extend over the Genesee River situated above the Johnson and Seymour millrace. The girders are supported by massive forty-foot limestone piers.
It’s just one of two remaining railroad depots in Rochester, according to Cynthia Howk, architectural research coordinator at the Landmark Society of Western New York. The millrace that can be seen from the windows of the restaurant is also historic. It marks the first era of economic development in Rochester, when wheat was ground to flour using water power. The mills are gone, but the millrace, a narrow man-made channel in the river, remains.
The station discontinued operations in 1955. Other than a brief stint as a bus station, it remained vacant for three decades until Rochester developer Max Farash bought it for a dollar in 1982. Graffiti covered the walls when Farash acquired the property. Broken glass littered its floors. There were holes in the floorboards so large that the river could be seen rushing below. A portion of the roof had collapsed.
Farash spent two years restoring the building. From 1991 to 1994 the location opened as a (sometimes) café and nightclub, Carpe Diem. Stage his and partners purchased the property in 1998 and opened Dinosaur Bar-B-Que.
“The Lehigh Valley Rail Station is a successful example of adaptive reuse; challenging because the building sits on two beams which made it truly a technical and engineering feat,” Howk says. “The successful rehab of the building by Max Farash was one more phase of the long discovery of our riverfront: a centerpiece on the east side of the river. Dinosaur Bar-B-Que has succeeded on the site and has been a business and financial cornerstone in that part of the city.”
Always in the kitchen and still obsessed and inspired by a perfect brisket—that, according to Stage, is mahogany in color when it comes out of the oven and can be cut through with the slightest touch—he remains a hands-on founder and promoter of the chain.
Though a major percentage of ownership of the restaurant chain was purchased by a firm headed by billionaire George Soros in 2008, Stage is still front-and-center and part owner.
With lots of celebrity stories, hosting so many stars that he’s lost count, Stage says recent stand-outs include William Shatner, who stopped into the Syracuse location for a meal in April; Tom Brady, who drove to Rochester after a snowstorm in Buffalo; and Chris Rock, who was spotted at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que in Harlem.
Dinosaur’s barbequed meats have won numerous awards, including a recent mention in Forbes magazine’s 2018 Best BBQ Round-Up and voted best barbeque by Democrat and Chronicle readers in 2017.
Stage admits there are no recipes, just guidelines, when it comes to barbeque.
He describes good barbeque as meat with a “smoky essence, great rub, and big beef flavor. It’s all about the meat. The sauce is really a condiment.”
In addition to serving authentic barbeque like West Texas rib-eye, St. Louis ribs, and Cuban pulled pork, Stage developed a creative selection of side dishes over the years that pair well with barbequed meats. The mainstays, cole slaw and fries, are still on the menu. However, patrons can also select sides like tomato-cucumber salad, Cajun corn, and collard greens.
Stage and chefs have also gotten creative with small plates: poutine, catfish strips or Creole deviled eggs as a starter or as the meal itself.
One of the tricks to creating good barbeque, according to Stage, is “...staying committed to tradition but finding your own stamp and signature. Everybody thinks barbeque is a Southern thing. We can make some pretty good barbeque up north too. It’s really about smoking meats and understanding the barbeque.”
Another secret ingredient, he says, “is enjoying what you do.” And by the look of it, Stage is still doing just that.
Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.