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Young couple reflect on move, refurbishing Cape Cod eatery

December 31, 2018

DENNIS, Mass. (AP) — At first glance, Adam and Erica Dunn’s story seems to be one of a young couple swimming against the stream of families fleeing Cape Cod in search of better career opportunities.

Last January, the Dunns moved to Dennis from Brooklyn, New York, with plans to purchase The Red Pheasant, a cozy, upscale restaurant that had been run by the same owners for about 40 years. On June 1, the Dunns opened The Pheasant — their retake on the longstanding establishment — and about a month later welcomed their first child during the craze of the busy Fourth of July weekend.

Looking back on their first year in town, the Dunns, who were seeking to escape the rush of the city, don’t see their arrival on Cape Cod as bucking a trend. Instead, they say they’re part of an emerging pattern.

“I feel like there is a little bit of a wave of people who are finding opportunity out here,” Adam Dunn said, explaining that the couple has fallen into a community of young families who, like themselves, have recently purchased established businesses that went up for sale.

“A lot of these businesses were started by baby boomers who are now 70, 70-plus, and they don’t want to run them anymore,” Adam Dunn said. “I know there’s a tremendous number of restaurants that are closing and turning hands.”

In reimagining The Pheasant, the Dunns did their best to honor the restaurant’s Cape Cod roots while making some updates they hope will appeal to a variety of palates.

A renovation of the restaurant’s interior features fresh white paint, a brightened-up bar area and a new banquette that runs the length of the garden room, where light pours in from a long wall of windows; but the Dunns made a point to keep the wide pine floorboards, beamed ceilings and working fireplace that give the 250-year-old building its rustic New England charm.

“We love the bones of the restaurant,” Adam Dunn said. “We tried to keep it clean. We felt there is so much character in all the details of the floor and the wood, and we don’t want to distract from that.”

That simplicity carries over to The Pheasant’s menu, which is smaller than its predecessor’s, but features ingredients sourced from local farms like Not-Enough-Acres and Cape Abilities, also in Dennis. All the fish and shellfish comes from the waters around Cape Cod and New England — which means dishes featuring salmon and shrimp have been swapped for ones that include monkfish, black-mouth bass, haddock, hake, oysters or mussels. Even the beef is raised in Dennis at SeaWind Meadows, Erica Dunn said.

“It’s a more condensed menu,” Adam Dunn said, “but so much labor goes into every dish.”

But reintroducing an establishment that was known as a staple for special occasions hasn’t always been easy.

“We took over a restaurant that was a beloved restaurant on the Cape for 40 years,” Adam Dunn said. “For a lot of people ... change is really hard. I think a lot of people felt like no matter what we did, it could never live up to what they had in their heart.”

Erica said the most satisfying feeling comes when longtime patrons of The Red Pheasant arrive seeming skeptical, but leave with a smile and a promise to return. She wants The Pheasant to have a truly approachable feel, she said.

“This is how you can have a super casual, nice dinner,” she said, referring to her favorite item on the menu, a bone marrow burger topped with a duck egg. “Have a burger, have a nice glass of wine or a cocktail — it doesn’t have to be this special occasion you’re coming out for.”

The couple is already feeling at home in Dennis, where Adam spent his childhood summers. A sprinkling of gifts and cards was left on The Pheasant’s doorstep when word spread that Erica had given birth to a son, Leo, in July. Since then, she’s also found support through programs for young parents at local libraries and at Cape Cod Hospital.

“I think what has surprised me is the access to things,” she said. “The libraries, there’s incredible programs that are all free. That’s how I’ve met friends.”

As their first year in business winds down, the Dunns say they’re already thinking about ways to solve the biggest challenge they faced this past season — staffing. Although their first hire, executive chef Toby Hill, was a natural fit, the couple had trouble attracting and retaining other staff.

“People said staffing’s hard and we said ‘Oh, OK,’” Adam said. “And then you realize, oh no, it’s not hard, it’s impossible.”

The high cost of housing coupled with unreliable public transportation makes it hard for restaurant workers to survive on Cape Cod, the Dunns said. They’re considering adding an apartment on The Pheasant’s property where J-1 workers or culinary students would be able to live while working in the restaurant.

“There’s no affordable housing,” Adam Dunn said. “This is a crisis on the Cape.”

The restaurant closes for the season Jan. 1 and reopens April 1, but a slate of special events is planned throughout the winter, including an oyster shucking and tasting class Jan. 12; a steak frites cooking class Jan. 13; a wild game tasting menu Jan. 18; and a Chinese food night, pasta making class and an Italian Valentine’s Day dinner in February. A list of events can be found on the restaurant’s website, pheasantcapecod.com.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2ENvVQi

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Information from: Cape Cod (Mass.) Times, http://www.capecodtimes.com

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