When Matt Boyle and Jeff Van Horn started to create a cocktail event space, they realized they had a better idea in mind.

“Once we got about halfway through the build of the event space, we decided why don’t we have something that can open more than just a couple times a week in an event space and open an actual bar,” Boyle says.

Their idea turned into a cozy 30-seat cocktail and wine bar in downtown Dartmouth. Dear Friend Bar opened last summer and was a natural progression from their previous business Clever Bar Keep. The concept of this Dear Friend embodies the nature of the bond between the co-owners.

“It’s just a neighbourhood bar where people could spend some time together,” Boyle says. “It’s just a place to meet your dear friends. We’re great friends as well, so we’re just kind of something that came full circle of our friendship and our business relationship.”

About 80% of the menu is cocktails, with Chef Bradley George’s seafood-focused menu complementing the offerings. One of the most popular cocktails on the menu is Guava Have It, a cocktail of fresh lime, guava, French liquor, and tequila. One of Boyle’s favourite dishes is the Bossam Bun, a Korean-style pulled pork sandwich offered during the day on Friday to Sunday.

Photo: Submitted

As has been the case industrywide, this past year was hard for Dear Friend. They closed three times for pandemic lockdowns, laying off their workers each time.

“However, we opened in the middle of the pandemic, so we knew the risk that we were taking,” Boyle says. “We see it is coming full circle now that we’re allowed to be open and the need for people to go out, spend time with their friends, be in public spaces and enjoy a beverage. I think that is something people are sorely missing, so we’re happy to be positioned where we are and able to weather the storm through different government programs but also our ingenuity.”

The biggest obstacle meeting the distancing requirements, a 50% cut in capacity. But that had a bit of a silver lining. “We look at it positively in that it allowed us to train staff with a minimum amount of clients and get them to a position where they felt confident and secure,” Boyle says.

Weathering the pandemic and emerging more robust, Boyle praises the workers.

“The staff we have is incredible, and they’re all very dynamic,” he says. “I think empowering those people, allowing them to do what they enjoy, allowing them to have balance, an opportunity to grow through learning and challenge. I think it is really important for the restaurant industry as a whole. There are some conditions for culture to grow strong that need to change in our industry, so we’re just trying to flip the classic model on its head and allow people to feel a part of something and grow with the business.”

Dear Friend demonstrates the adapting and changing environment the restaurant industry has been going through since the pandemic.

“I think what you’re probably seeing is the best of the real idea of what people believe entrepreneurs are,” Gordon Stewart, president of the Restaurant Association of Nova Scotia. “They make things happen … Restaurant people are that way; they’re not trained to be in the restaurant business, but they’re in that business, learning every day, and hopefully improving every day. They’ve done some pretty remarkable things and pretty interesting change-arounds—everything from new ideas, serving food size, take-out, patios. There’s been a lot of changes in the industry, and there will be a lot more. I’m encouraged overall.”

Dear Friend’s focus will continue to be their patio and serving up delicious food and drink with one year under the belt. There will be additional staff joining the team from Toronto in the coming weeks. Ultimately, Boyle hopes patrons get a sense of belonging and a welcoming environment when they come to Dear Friend.

“It allows me to work on my feet and see a lot of the people that I love on a regular basis,” he says.

Halifax Magazine