It’s been 10 years since John Stage opened the first New York City location of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que (700 West 125th Street, 212-694-1777) in a stretch of Harlem that was then home to a meatpacking district and auto body shops. In that time, he’s watched the neighborhood transform “tremendously,” to use his word, as developers snatched up real estate around 125th Street and began building modern high-rises. He’s also kept his Syracuse restaurant going (that one is 25 years old) and launched Brooklyn, Stamford, and Newark restaurants, and he currently has a Chicago space in the works, too.
Perhaps those changes — internally and externally — are why Stage doesn’t want to dwell on this milestone too much. “Any time you have 10 years in New York City, you think, ‘Goddamn, 10 years, we made it. This is cool,’ ” he says. “But then you move on from there. We made a nice T-shirt, but that’s about it. You don’t want to lose sight of year 11.”
Never resting on his laurels has been Stage’s secret to success. He launched his business as a mobile operation in 1983; the longtime motorcycle fanatic would set up at biker events around the country and sell sausages and steak sandwiches. Eventually, he started spending more time in the South, and he realized that his “barbecue” operation — so called, he says, because he’d developed a sauce — was anything but. “I was told what I was doing was not barbecue,” he says. “So I decided I had to learn. The next season, I rode my motorcycle to Memphis and hit all these Southern cities along the way. I started to get the taste of smoked meat. That started the quest.”
Learning barbecue, he realized, would be a lifelong process, but that didn’t deter him from shifting his operation to accommodate his interest. “We changed everything,” he says. And he began to pick up recognition as one of the few real barbecue purveyors in the Northeast.
Stage tired of his gypsy lifestyle in 1988, and so he decided it was time to open a brick-and-mortar operation in Syracuse. “We had no restaurant experience,” he says. “But we decided this was a good idea.” That first Dinosaur awoke slowly, but as soon as it picked up its liquor license, it began to roar. “We broke through to the other side,” Stage says. “Things started popping.”
In 2003, he made good on his intent to someday return to New York City, and he began shopping real estate for a second location of his restaurant. “I looked all over Manhattan, and I couldn’t find a spot that enabled me to cook properly,” he says. “I couldn’t figure out how to deal with the smoke given the height of the buildings.” That is, until he stumbled onto a dirt-cheap building near the Hudson River in an area of town he’s known since he grew up in Washington Heights.
With Dinosaur, Stage helped usher in a new era of barbecue in New York City — it would be a few years before the smoked-meat frenzy really began. Unlike most of those newcomers, Stage doesn’t adhere to a particular style. Rather, he borrows a bit from many Southern cities. His brisket has a Texas bent, he says, but his pork sandwich is Memphis-inspired. And he borrows from the Carolinas, too. “I don’t pledge allegiance to any region,” he says. “If you’re doing real barbecue, you’re doing sort of the same thing, which is cooking low and slow.”
That philosophy was enough to propel him into a second New York City location, in Gowanus, when an old auto shop became available a couple of years ago and he was offered the opportunity to snap it up at a low price. “I’ve got a thing for old buildings like this, and it was in a fantastic location,” he says. There were some challenges with the build-out, though — the entire face of the building collapsed, for instance, and then it was ravaged by Hurricane Sandy. He opened in 2013.
So where does Stage go from here? “First I’m going to go check the brisket coming out of the pit,” he says. “You have to keep the quality tight, and not lose focus. Then I’m going to open up in Chicago, and make sure nothing bad happens anywhere else. And that means attracting great people — that’s the key to this whole industry. Get the brisket and the people, and everything else falls into line.”
And it’s the brisket that keeps Stage moving forward: “I love when a brisket comes out and it has that perfect ring,” he says. “When you hit barbecue perfection, that’s what makes me happy. I still enjoy that more than the rest of it.”