It's 6 o'clock on a Friday night in New London and Daryl and Dave Gienau stroll up to the bar at Dev's restaurant on Bank Street. Smiling as she sees owner Candace Devendittis, Daryl hands her a bag stuffed with fresh mint leaves pulled from the garden of their New London home. "That's for our drinks and for you," she says.
"You got it!" Candace replies.
Dev's co-owner and Candace's mom, Bunny, has just arrived, her green eyes flashing greetings of hello at several patrons. "Dressed to the nines," as Candace says, in a tailored suit, Bunny will soon settle into slippers to make her social rounds. As "Uncle Paul," a retired history professor and die-hard Red Sox fan, guides a group of Coast Guard Academy cadets to a table, cousin Madeline chats with a couple while keeping an eye on her hostess station just inside the door.
Does everyone here know each other?
"We're here every week," says Dave Gienau, who serves as Dev's official unofficial handyman. "We've met so many friends."
The familial success story of Dev's dates to just before the start of the country's worst economic recession in years. But the real story begins long before that.
A New London native, Candace's family followed her father, a nuclear engineer, in his work around the world. She grew up in Spain and the Phillippines, graduating from high school in Taiwan.
After a 20-year hospitality career in Boston, the tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001, prompted her to take a look at where her life was going. She returned home. In time, she confided her dream of opening a restaurant to her mom, who "of course said no," Candace laughs. "But I had saved money and I knew, this is the time."
"I wasn't getting any younger," she says. "And to say, 'I've always wanted to do this' is the understatement of the century."
Sitting at night in the Montauk Avenue house that she shared with her mother, she rifled through ideas, looking for a concept that would resonate with people.
"A business consultant explained it to me like this: If you are in the 'Red Sea,' you have a concept that a lot of people have — like a burger place for example — it's popular but you're also swimming with a lot of sharks, so it can be a bloodbath," she said. "If you are in the 'Blue Sea,' you're the only one of its kind; there is nobody else."
So she set her sights on blue waters. And then, paging through a 1969 cookbook highlighting food from Spain and Portugal, she came across a picture of some tapas dishes and realized her direction. "It incorporates what I grew up with," she says.
Dev's opened in November of 2007, on the site of the former Ye Olde Tavern. Candace and Bunny filled the warm,
historic rooms with paintings and mementos picked up during their world travels. They launched a menu that fused Mediterranean and Asian influences. "And then you know what happened," Candace says. "August 2008 was the end of the world."
But Dev's has held on through hard times, opening their doors to community fundraisers, and racking up honors at the New London Food Strolls, including first prize at the 2010 spring stroll for their Red Dragon Noodle Bowl.
Candace said 98 percent of the food they serve on weekends is their signature and ever-evolving tapas. For that, she relies on cousin and executive chef Rachel Devendittis, whom she calls "the vision and creative force" behind the menu.
Candace's voice softens with gratitude when she talks about what the restaurant and community support has meant to her family. She talks about how watching cooking shows and brainstorming menu ideas with Rachel has brought them closer — despite their age and personality differences. She talks about the people who come in every week looking for her mom, whom she calls "the star attraction." She talks about how Paul gets ribbing for being the only male — the "thorn among roses," she laughs. And she says there was no question in her mind about choosing to operate a business in New London.
"This is my town," she says. "We have good neighbors."
Among them is young Ralphie, who gets paid $1 a week and soda to make sure no one snags Candace's parking spot, which his dad "thinks is the funniest thing in the world."
She calls the palate of the typical New Londoner "pretty damn sophisticated. Every day, people come in and want to know, 'OK, what are you doing that's new?' And I love it."
She is tired sometimes. She never really "leaves" the restaurant, mentally. And the pace is nonstop.
"If you don't like [the restaurant business], everything is bad. There are utility bills — huge sometimes — and taxes, and you have to stay ahead of high prices."
What makes it worthwhile, she said, are the customers who have come to treat the place as a second home.
"It is the hardest job. You have to be crazy enough to have passion. ... If you say, 'OK, I've done it,' you'll lose ground tomorrow."
345 Bank St., New London
11 a.m. to 10 p.m.,
Tuesday to Friday
4 to 10 p.m. Saturdays
11 a.m. to 3 p.m., Sunday brunch