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Modesto’s Dewz makes list of top 100 restaurants

“I didn’t even know until they alerted us that this Top 100 list existed,” Judy Aspesi said. “For the customers to think we have great food and great service is so rewarding.”

Dewz is in prestigious company on this year’s Top 100 list, including the world-famous The French Laundry in Yountville and Le Bernardin in New York. It is among only 10 restaurants in California to make the cut.

For the Aspesis and executive chef Vincent Alvarado, the accolade is one they’ve been slowly building to since the restaurant opened in 1997. Back then, Dewz was a simple casual dining spot with paper napkins and 25 wines on its menu.

Now, Dewz is one of the city’s premiere fine dining establishments with crisp tablecloths and cloth napkins and more than 1,000 wines from which to choose. The restaurant includes a full bar and seating for about 100.

“We didn’t have a business plan back then, other than have good food,” Scott Aspesi said. “It’s not what we envisioned when we started, but then we didn’t really envision much of anything. And then gradually we realized we were going fine dining.”

The restaurant has managed to survive and thrive as a gourmet destination despite a move from a high-traffic downtown corner to a more peripheral spot and the sharp economic downturn in the valley economy from the recession.

Scott Aspesi said the key to their success remains the food. Alvarado came on board at Dewz shortly after it opened and became a full partner about a decade ago. Alvarado said when the restaurant moved in 2007 from its prime corner spot at I and 11th streets near the Gallo Center for the Arts to its current spot near J and 15th streets, he made some strategic changes.

“Since we’ve moved, I’ve tried to take the food up a notch,” Alvarado said. “We also wanted to take it up a notch with the dining room and general ambience of the restaurant.”

The dinner menu has a selection of steaks, seafood, pastas and more, with entrees ranging from $28 to $38. It has also become a popular, if inadvertent, special occasion spot for many diners. Customers receive a free photo and bottle of wine on birthdays and anniversaries.

Scott Aspesi said one couple recently came in for an anniversary dinner and took home their 14th photo to hang on their wall.

Still, that reputation as a fancy dining spot sometimes works against them. The Aspesis said they often field calls asking if there is a dress code (no) and even whether the restaurant is a private club (no).

Dewz also purposely does not court the late-night bar crowd. While the restaurant has a full bar, it closes by midnight, with dinner service ending at 10:30 p.m. Scott Aspesi said that strategy has kept their clientele consistent and comfortable.

The owners and staff have closely monitored and been responsive to their reviews, both from diners directly and from online critics. Scott Aspesi said he reads reviews, particularly negative reviews, to look for ways they can improve their food and service. He has also contacted reviewers who were unhappy through sites such as OpenTable.com and Yelp.com to apologize and make up for their bad experience.

“We really learn from the bad ones, and if someone has a problem we try to address it right away,” he said.

It’s that kind of attention to diners’ needs that keeps longtime regulars such as Betsy Fillicelli of Modesto coming back. She brought a co-worker to Dewz for lunch Friday for his birthday.

“They’re just really gracious hosts here,” she said. “They sincerely care about their customers. They’ve got good food, an excellent wine list. They’re just good people.”

The Aspesis said most of their regular customers followed them the five blocks to J Street four years ago. They also hope the OpenTable Top 100 listing will help more new diners find them, and possibly help get the restaurant on the national map.

“The next step is a Michelin star,” Scott Aspesi said. “But really, I just love smiles. I love to see people smile and laugh, and that’s what it is all about.”

On the Net:

www.opentable.com/bestoverall.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2284.

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Mystic Maggie

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