For their bar/restaurant with an unusual theme, Joe Gurba and wife Bethany have brought on board chef Mark Gray, well-known for his outside-the-box thinking.
“The touchpoint is an American bar, American hotel bar to be precise, from the late ’50s and early ’60s, so the esthetic is visually driven from paperback novels from the same time, especially Canadian paperback fiction,” said Gurba. “The look and feel is: come in, seat yourself, maybe meet someone you’ve never met before, vibe of an American bar from that time.”
The restaurant is called The Watch That Ends the Night, inspired by the 1958 Hugh MacLennan novel of the same name. The décor will include ferns and a serpentine banquette, as Gurba looks to create the bar he and his wife always wanted to patronize.
“We saw the move toward industrial and minimalism as having overstayed its welcome a bit,” he said. “With design, the pendulum always swings back and forth between the minimal and the decorative. We felt it was time to be on the front edge of bringing it back toward the decorative.”
Now under construction and scheduled to open in early October, The Watch is located in the Dartmouth condo community of King’s Wharf. Apart from the built-in potential clientele of King’s Wharf, Gurba wants people from Dartmouth, where he and his wife live, to have a place where they can drink and walk home or have a cheap taxi ride.
“Dartmouth is fantastic. I think the peninsula has so many amazing establishments, it’s at risk of being oversaturated,” he said. “I always feel like I’m going to the big city when I go over to Halifax.”
After leaving Battery Park last month, Gray had considered an opportunity on Fogo Island in Newfoundland before being introduced to Gurba by George Christakos, his former boss. Gray heard the concept and liked it right away.
At The Watch, Gray will be the creator, not the plater.
His kitchen will focus on mostly cold items, so Gray, who long ago tired of plates with a protein, a starch and a veg, can expand his pickling, curing and fermentation repertoire.
“The biggest thing for me is preservation, preserving seasons, preserving meats, preserving vegetables and fruits. It’s something I think I do very well, and I have done and become somewhat known for,” Gray said during a tour of the shell that will become The Watch That Ends the Night.
“When you have a pantry that’s massive, with all these pickled items and salted items, your menu is so much more layered with lots of flavours going on throughout the year. That being said, there’ll be a rotating menu of fresh items, mostly cold. It’ll be a mostly cold kitchen: ceviches, oysters, caviar might come into play, and foie gras maybe. We’ll cure our own raw olives.”
Gray is the father of two young children, and this job should let him be both a chef and a dad. He can prepare the food during the day and hire cooks to assemble the plates at night.
“It will be a lot more assembly on the line, less element cooking, though there will be three hot dishes — a house sausage, for example, I’d like to do porchetta, pastrami, and we’ll do a vegetarian seasonally changing flatbread,” he said.
Part of the restaurant’s space has been allotted to Steinhart Distillery, which will have a retail shop from which spirits demonstrations will be done. With a focus on cocktails, Gurba is importing bartender Riley Maggs from his hometown of Edmonton.
“There’s only a handful of dedicated, craft cocktail bars and the people working there are very dedicated to their places and I feel like I’m on very friendly terms with the owners of those places. So I didn’t want to try to steal someone,” Gurba said. “And Riley has great talent.”
Chris Haley, named the city’s top server by readers of The Coast, will move over to The Watch from the Wooden Monkey.
“We’re going to have a great team,” said Gray. “I’m excited about it.”