by Len Lear
I’m not sure why, but if you get to know lots of restaurant managers, chefs and servers, you will find that most of them move from job to job almost as often as a U-Haul-It truck moves from one house to another.
A typical case in point is Michael Dombkoski, 57, who took a job one year ago with Davio’s, a high-end 19-year-old Northern Italian steakhouse at 111 S. 17th St. in center city, where Michael is now the general manager who seems to be able to negotiate every problem with élan. (Michael has lived in Glenside with his wife for 27 years. They raised three children there who all graduated from Cheltenham High School, are now adults and out on their own.)
Davio’s is a massive operation with a ballroom-sized dining room that seats 200 and a whole other floor that can accommodate another 150 for parties and banquets. They also have four restaurants in the Boston area, one in King of Prussia and one in Atlanta, and they hope to have one in California in the not-too-distant future.
The last time I had seen Dombkoski was in 2014, when he held a similar position at a.kitchen, the highly regarded restaurant near Rittenhouse Square owned by Ellen Yin, of Fork fame. “I did some consulting after that,” he said, “but I missed fine dining. It gets in your blood.”
When Michael was a business major at Villanova University in the early 1980s, he did not really plan to go into the restaurant and hotel industry, but he took a job as a bartender at the Four Seasons Hotel strictly as a way of earning money for tuition and books.
“I wound up loving the job,” said Dombkoski in an earlier interview, “and working for such a high-class company as the Four Seasons spoils you, so I stayed there even after I graduated. They sent me to the Inn on the Park in London for training. What could be better than that?”
Michael eventually became manager of food and beverage for the Four Seasons’ elegant Swann Lounge; he was also a labor-and-systems analyst, night manager and eventually chief concierge. Most hotel guests think of the concierge as a person who gets theater tickets and restaurant reservations for them, but a concierge may also be asked for a totally unpredictable array of personal services.
“You never know what the next day will bring,” said Dombkoski, who has a very calm, low-key, soft-spoken exterior but whose record in business bespeaks a python intensity. “For example, Joan Rivers’ husband, Edgar, checked into the hotel one day and then committed suicide in his room. It was my job to Fed Ex all his belongings to the West Coast.
“On another occasion, a fashion designer asked me to ship his entire line to Canada for a fashion show. It was a tremendous amount of work, and we got stuck at Customs, which made it quite a hassle, but guests are paying a lot of money to stay at the Four Seasons, so you learn to deal with their requests.”
In 1990 Michael became general manager at Taquet restaurant in Wayne and stayed there until 1993, when he became the first non-Asian general manager for Susanna Foo’s nationally known, eponymous restaurant on Walnut Street neat 15th.
In October of 1998, Michael left Susanna Foo to fulfill the dream of so many restaurant employees. Two months later he opened his own restaurant, ¡Pasión!, at 211 S. 15th St. with partner/chef Guillermo Pernot, who had been named “One of America’s Top 10 New Chefs” by Food & Wine magazine that year when he was at Vega Grill in Manayunk.
In 2002 the 55-seat restaurant, which was usually packed every night, was doubled in size when Dombkoski and Pernot took over the adjacent property, an eyeglass store, and embarked on an eye-OK renovation. The restaurant continued to thrive, but in 2007 it closed, not because it was not doing enough business but because the landlord doubled the rent when the lease was up.
Dombkoski had no choice but to move on. Thanks to his stellar reputation in the business, he was brought in to be managing partner of the Chelsea Hotel, which was just about to open in Atlantic City. It was Stephen Starr’s first hotel property, but Starr got out of it after a few years.
After one year Michael came back to Philly, did some consulting and then became a managing partner at the Timberwood Fire Grille in Abington but left after two years. “Partnerships are tough,” he said in an obvious understatement.
In 2011 he became general manager of the Wayne Hotel on the Main Line but left after six months to become managing partner with Susanna Foo in her Radnor restaurant (after she closed the one in center city). That position also lasted about six months.
So what is the peripatetic Dombkoski’s take on the restaurant business, which is so intriguing to people who frequently visit restaurants and/or who watch food- and restaurant-related TV shows? “The restaurant business appears glamorous, but there is a lot of hard work behind it,” he responded. “You don’t get to spend much time with your family when you’re in this business. When everyone else is out having fun on nights, weekends and holidays, you are working.
“People come to restaurants to escape from the problems of real life. If you are going to have a career in this business, you have to really enjoy hospitality and get great satisfaction from helping customers to have a great experience. That is our reward.”
I should mention that our recent dinner at Davio’s — food, service by Chris Moresi, who knows the menu like the fingers on his hands, and ambience — was sheer perfection, strictly five-star. The steaks and sauces went together like matching furniture. For more information about Davio’s: 215-563-4810 or www.davios.com.