Boulder restaurateur + dining media founder refocuses closer to home

Josh Dinar on the restaurant industry’s shift + what’s next

By Tatyana Sharpton Oct 8 2020

As Boulder’s restaurant industry adapts to the changing times, business owners reevaluate operations, from local eateries, which shifted to take-out models or other creative solutions like backyard markets, to dining publications — and sometimes both, such as for restaurateur Josh Dinar.

Josh Dinar

In 2016, Josh, who helps operate several restaurants across Boulder County and in Denver, co-founded Boulder’s comfort cuisine restaurant River and Woods out of a historic home on the east end of Pearl Street with Chef Daniel Asher. Josh also co-founded Boulder’s Restaurant Week, helped launch Boulder’s T|ACO as one of its starting partners, plays operational roles in Golden’s Tributary Food Hall & Drinkery and Denver’s Ash’kara, and partners in Boulder’s Rayback Collective.

He also co-founded DiningOut Magazine in 1998 when he was 22. At the time, Josh spent his nights and weekends working as a busboy at BJ’s Restaurant & Brewhouse and bartending at Boulder’s Spice of Life Catering. The rest of the time he and his partners spent developing the publication, initially wanting to put together a menu guide and doing stories about restaurants before it had become a thing, he recounts.

They had no specific vision for the publication; “We were just some dumb kids trying to put something together,” Josh, now its publisher, says. They traveled to different cities all over the country for inspiration and content, sleeping on floors and couches until they could afford hotel rooms and eventually grew the magazine into a national network of dining publications with a footprint in 18 cities in the US and Canada.

DiningOut, Winter/Spring 2019 edition

For over 20 years, DiningOut operated as a restaurant marketing platform writing about the hottest new spots and sprinkling foodie pearls like where to find the best patios. When Covid halted regular operations and River and Woods leaned into other options, turning its quirky backyard into an on-site mini mart and then a small-scale music venue for a summer of socially distanced dinner and music,  the need for innovation also spurred a shift in the way Josh and his partners approached DiningOut.

They realized the magazine’s current editorial philosophy wouldn’t cut it anymore, and decided to evolve the publication into what the city — and Colorado — needs when it comes to dining industry content.

September marked a new era for the Colorado publication as it completely re-launched with an emphasis on a journalism-based approach to the dining industry.  Josh and his partners leaned into something they’d talked about doing for years: curating resources for restaurants that consumers could also learn from, with articles that penetrate the ins and outs of the industry.

“Covid kicked a pivot point,” Josh tells BLDRfly. “We’re essentially launching a startup from a 20-year-old business.” The company closed eight out-of-state markets overnight and with a pilot operation in Denver, set out to do it the way they’ve always wanted.

Though the magazine headquarters in Denver, Josh sees it as a synthesizer bridging restaurants and communities across all of Colorado, hoping that its varied municipalities will draw from what others do well instead of working within a vacuum.

Closer to home

R&W’s Chef Daniel Asher mini-mart on its opening day. Image: River and Woods Instagram.

With Boulder’s movement towards simplicity, fresh ingredients and community connection, River and Woods fits right in at its homey, historical cottage at 2328 Pearl Street with a big backyard. It serves good ole’ comfort food, unfussy and authentic, with entrees like Rocky Mountain Trout, The Best Dang Pulled BBQ Pork Sandwich and Ole Hickory St Louis Ribs and sides like Smokey Bacon Cheddar Mac ‘n’ Cheese.

However, River and Woods exemplifies more than good food. The heart of the experience lays in its setting and community; the founding group, which also launched Denver’s Ash’Kara together,  doesn’t choose a concept until they have a space and location they believe in. Then, they let the space dictate what they plan to serve.

“River and Woods speaks to all of that for us,” Josh says. “Our landlords are the folks who ran the property as a restaurant for nearly 30 years. Their daughters were raised in that kitchen just as my kids are being raised there.

“You could not just drop River and Woods into a couple thousand feet of strip mall real estate. It wouldn’t be the same thing without its weird quirks and maddening imperfections, and it won’t be for everyone—nothing vanilla ever is.”

To Josh, a dining philosophy does not so much stem from a specific menu as it does specific people in a specific place and time, drawing inspiration from its vibrant communities to create culinary experiences with a commitment to creativity, sustainability and human connection.

When Covid-19 first hit, Josh and Asher immediately pivoted to a take-and-bake meal model where people could order from the menu and finish prepping the food themselves at home and also sold pre-packaged meals from a small mini market in the back of the restaurant.

Some highlights from River and Woods, including its bustling backyard, cheesecake and Chef Daniel Asher in action. Images: River and Woods Instagram.

A change for the better

Covid-spurred changes have brought to light many things broken within the restaurant industry. Things such as the wage gap between front and back of house, the upside-down pyramid from ownership down and the problems created by holes in the current tip system have all become even more apparent, but Josh believes the forever changes that come from this will prove positive. Meanwhile, the negative changes won’t last forever.

“It’s a definite movement and has been for a long time,” says Josh, “to create a new system where we can take that dollar amount and run a business where wages are distributed equitably and fairly.”

Although operating a publication along with multiple restaurants has been a “shit show, from a scheduling perspective,” specifically this year — and now on steroids,  Josh says that he finds running the magazine surprisingly therapeutic. It gives him an outlet to talk to others, a very valuable thing in an industry where you can feel very alone.

With many people confronting questions (now especially) like, “What’s the point of this?” and “Why am I doing this? We should just throw in the towel,” it helps to hear others in the same situation, commiserate and help out. “That’s what people more than ever are craving right now,” Josh says.  Even Joe Romano Boulder’s The Walnut Restaurant Group which owned The Med, Brasserie Ten Ten and Via Perla talked on the phone to Big Red F’s Dave Query nearly every day for three weeks when the storm hit.

Along with running River and Woods, Josh and Daniel had also planned to open Isareli fusion restaurant, Ash’Kara‘s second location, now slated for the end of October, on West Pearl Street next to Salt, as well as a beach-side dining concept in partnership with the City of Boulder at the Boulder Reservoir with tables in the sand and a world cuisine flair. Covid-19 set both projects back (originally they had set Ash’Kara’s opening for April!) as uncertain times left Josh and his partners pondering the feasibility of new investments and, like many business owners faced with difficult decisions, they paused.

Josh describes everything from March to June like getting hit by a tidal wave — you didn’t know which way was up. Then acceptance dawns and gradually you settle into the challenge.

“It’s like walking in the rain,” says Josh. “First you try to stay dry; you’re really uncomfortable and then you can’t get any wetter.” They stayed the course. As of now, both new concepts should open this year.

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Header Image: Compilation of images featuring Josh Dinar, River and Woods’ backyard and DiningOut Magazine.