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Flavor of the past: Latin-themed eatery Ox and Stone aims to revive Restaurant Row

Rochester Business Journal
August 15, 2014

The Latin social house and restaurant Ox and Stone has opened on Alexander Street, with its owners motivated by a desire to create a gateway from Park Avenue into downtown and to resurrect the area some recall as “Restaurant Row” of the ’70s and ’80s.

The restaurant, a dba of Das French LLC, is in a 3,680-square-foot building at 282 Alexander St. that most recently housed Bamba Bistro in April and before that the Rio Bamba, dating back to the first half of the 20th century.

The former Victorian mansion was built in the 1880s. It resembles a castle and features a grand stairway and arched doorways. The Rio Bamba was started in the 1940s. Monroe County records show the property was acquired Dec. 1 for $630,000 by NCTBP Calabrese LLC. 

With the building holding such history, the Ox and Stone owners, a mother-son duo of Robin Banister and Jonathan Swan, have decided to bring a South American option to the neighborhood.

Banister and Swan also own the Daily Refresher Inc. at 293 Alexander St.; J.C. Swan Inc., doing business as Dorado at 690 Park Ave.; and Astrotweak Inc., doing business as Cafe Cibon at 688 Park Ave. Launching their fourth restaurant is a bit easier, Swan said.

“We are really making a concerted effort to actually change the area with, obviously, food as our weapon,” Swan said. “We are basically the door between downtown and Park Avenue—the best street in our city—and if we can expand the Park Avenue feel to the city, I think we can really be recognized as a gateway.”

Donn Calabrese chose the pair as the right fit for the building. Calabrese, co-founder of Conking & Calabrese Co. in Fairport, passed away Aug. 8.

The new tenants, Swan and Banister, remodeled the restaurant with new floors, paint and an extended bar. It took 62 days to renovate before its opening on July 24. The business has 38 employees—excluding the owners—with tentative plans to add a handful more by the end of the year.

“Even though we have these large spaces and a lot of them, we are still so hands-on doing all of this ourselves,” Banister said. “We built it out ourselves.”

“People already kind of know about us and know what our values are as a restaurant group,” Swan said. “I think there’s a lot of excitement about the place—not just because we were here but because of the historical significance. So when we were building out, we were really in tune with that and wanted to reinvigorate the building.”

The environment of the restaurant is meant to beckon to the past.

“We really want for this to be not only a social house and a Latin kitchen but also a community place for people to come and meet,” said Brian White, general manager of Ox and Stone. “Back in the ’70s and ’80s, this street was called ‘Restaurant Row,’ and it was all unbelievable restaurants. We’d like to bring that back with what we’re doing here—just kind of up the game for the neighborhood.”

He added: “We want people to come in and enjoy our food and enjoy our cocktails and mostly enjoy the company of others. Most Americans are used to: you walk in, you sit down, you order, you’re done in 15 minutes. We’re never going to be like that.”

The restaurant serves lunch and dinners with Latin cuisine such as traditional enchiladas or variations of tacos, including blackened mahi-mahi. The menus have a healthy focus with all items made from scratch.

Rochester’s affinity for fine dining and fresh food has been directly influenced by Wegmans Food Markets Inc., Banister said.

“Wegmans has really been instrumental in getting people involved and aware of items and different foods from around the world,” she said.

Each quarter the restaurant is expected to grow by 10 to 15 percent.

“We want a steady increase,” Swan said. “We don’t want to have that huge bang where you’re swamped and then people might get the wrong impression. I want to be a staple here. I want to be one of the best restaurants in town.”

Transforming perceptions of the neighborhood is a challenge. Many people still think of East Avenue and Alexander Street as a hub for college kids, the owners said.

“There’s a misconception of this corner where it’s like college central, and it’s not; it hasn’t been for a few years,” Swan said.

Special events will be 25 percent of the business. Up to 225 people can be accommodated at a time. Menus also can be tailored by region of the world, focusing on French or Spanish cuisine, for example, because the business has experienced chefs.

The new restaurant comes with high expectations, Swan says.

“The only challenge, I would say, is that I think this building has a pedigree,” he said. “People expect a seriously good product—not that we haven’t met that match, but just coming to grips with that and realizing we could be something really special if we do this right. It’s a little bit of an added pressure. I’m really excited about it, and I think that we’re going to do well with it.”

8/15/14 (c) 2014 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email service@rbj.net.


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