At the edge of the Yale bubble, smack dab between Miriam African Hair Braiding and a clothing store on Whalley Avenue, sits Dozo, a new Japanese restaurant. On a Friday night, while many restaurants in downtown New Haven are packed, Dozo hosts only a handful of patrons.
The few customers in the restaurant have discovered Dozo, which opened Oct. 3, either by chance or convenience. Although it is out of the way for most Yalies — in a neighborhood where few students venture after dark — assistant manager Kei Lam said its opening has not yet been widely advertised to the community. Scott Healy ’97, executive director of Town Green Special Services, said he thinks Dozo’s arrival will help reinvigorate the neighborhood around Whalley Avenue, which has not shared in the economic upturn that other areas around Yale have experienced in recent years.
While some students interviewed said they were excited about the prospect of an affordable Asian restaurant, others expressed reservations about trekking to its remote off-campus location. Nonetheless, Lam said he hopes people will be attracted to the fresh look of the restaurant.
Dozo’s sign — bright red block letters on a metallic backdrop — and well-lit windows stand out in an area where most businesses are closed at night. In spite of its visual appeal, some Yale students said Dozo is too far out of sight to be even considered as a dining option.
“It’s past Popeye’s,” Emma Ledbetter ’10 said. “I don’t want to go that far.”
Ledbetter is in Pierson College, which has a back gate that opens on to Park Street and is only a few minutes away from Dozo. She admitted to occasionally walking to restaurants on Orange Street, even though they are farther from Pierson than Dozo.
Students’ reluctance to venture to the new restaurant may stem from their lack of familiarity with its location rather than its distance from campus. Most students interviewed said Whalley Avenue lies beyond the comfort of Yale’s perimeter, bordering on a potentially unsafe area. Although many students run errands at stores near Dozo — including Rite Aid, Shaw’s Supermarket and Staples — few said they visit the street after sunset.
Although Lam is aware that many Yale students may be uncomfortable with Whalley Avenue, he said he sees their hesitation as an exciting challenge.
“The owner has been in the business for 20 years,” Lam said. “He knows what he’s doing.”
Dozo’s owner, Lin Wong, also owns Miso, a popular sushi restaurant in New Haven’s Ninth Square neighborhood.
Wong said the Whalley area is much like what Ninth Square used to be — commercially undeveloped. He said before restaurants such as Miso moved into the area, Ninth Square was a warehouse district with empty storefronts and was considered vacant and unsafe. Today, the area is a flourishing business district near Audubon Street, he said, and has witnessed considerable growth in the number of restaurants, shops and galleries.
Wong said he hopes Dozo will do for Whalley what Miso did for Ninth Square — invite commerce and establish a sense of safety.
“Good food will bring people down here,” Wong said with confidence.
Healy said city officials have confidence that Wong and his new restaurant will help change the face of Whalley Avenue. He said Dozo will likely succeed, given its location across from a Courtyard Marriott hotel in a dense residential neighborhood.
“This is a restaurant that offers quality sushi for a mid-range price point, closer [to Yale] than other sushi places,” Healy said. “Students will go if the product is there.”
Healy said city officials have held discussions about making the Whalley area more pedestrian-friendly in order to attract more commerce and foot shoppers. One possible option is what he called “traffic calming” — adding stoplights at crosswalks to provide a more comfortable walking experience. If enacted, this initiative has the potential to increase foot traffic to venues such as Dozo, he said.
Wong also said he believes Dozo offers quality that will make the trip worthwhile. In addition to the Japanese selections like those found at Miso, Dozo offers a wider range of Asian cuisine, including ramen noodles served in broth. Priced at about $8 or $9 apiece, entrees are also cheaper than those at Miso, which Wong hopes will resonate with college students.
The staff members at Dozo are very conscious of the quality of their service, Lam said. The restaurant has a separate bar and even a “party room” in the back, a space that employees said they hope to use for student happy hours and group dinners. Wong said he decided to postpone a formal opening in part because he wanted to acquaint his new employees with the work before the restaurant becomes too busy.
But while Dozo may help diversify the businesses on Whalley, neighboring merchants generally seem uninterested in its arrival in the area. Temeka Jackson, a nail technician at TJ Nails a few doors down the street, said while she may be interested in dining there, she doubts Dozo will bring more customers to her business, which mainly caters to black New Haven residents. Likewise, some clients in Miriam African Hair Braiding, next door to Dozo, said they were not interested in trying the food. But both beauty salon employees said they think the restaurant brings a unique flavor to the street.
“This street needs something different,” Jackson said.
Wong said he does not mind his neighbors’ apathy to his new restaurant, since he thinks the services Dozo offers set it apart from the fast-food establishments and aesthetic services nearby. Healy said he thinks the growing versatility of the street will be an advantage for the city.
“Within a healthy neighborhood, people should be able to take care of all their daily needs,” Healy said.
With a hotel, beauty salon, fraternity, fast-food restaurant, fashion store and now a restaurant all on the same residential street, he said, Whalley is contributing to New Haven’s economic development by drawing more students to a new area of the city.
Ben Flores ’10, who dined at Dozo three days after it opened, said the restaurant may change the dynamics of the Whalley neighborhood for good. Although he said Dozo is definitely out of the way, its cuisine and reasonable prices will convince students to make the trek.
“People walk to Zeta,” he said. “Walking here will be no different from that.”