Chef and consultant Dave Murray is leaning on years in the kitchen and the back office to create a dining experience that melds the approachable and the exotic for a wide audience.
By Matt Skoufalos | November 12, 2019
Chef Dave Murray is no stranger to hard work.
Long hours and sweat equity are part of any kitchen culture, but these virtues are so deeply engrained in Murray’s work ethic that a wall in his restaurant is adorned with the word HUSTLE in big metallic letters.
Embracing the blue-collar aesthetic of its namesake, Murray shrugs off 115-hour work weeks, balks at the notion of a break, and feels most at home when he’s deep in the grind.
This fall, he’s leveraged that effort in relocating Denim, his modern American bistro, from Cherry Hill to downtown Haddonfield.
It’s the latest twist in a varied career that’s included stops at Atlantic City’s The Water Club under Iron Chef Jeffrey Zakarian, and Georges Perrier’s Georges’ (and then Peppercorn) in Wayne, Pennsylvania.
For the last eight years, Murray was out of the kitchen and working as a restaurant consultant. While working on the 2017 makeover of Cherry Hill’s La Campagne as The Farmhouse, he was pressed into service as its acting executive chef.
Ownership eventually closed down The Farmhouse, but Murray took the opportunity to continue on in the space with his own concept, Denim. After a year, he found success with the menu, but couldn’t come to terms on a deal to buy the building.
On a whim, the Cherry Hill resident inquired about the recently shuttered Braise 116 space, “because my heart’s been in Haddonfield,” Murray said. As soon as he saw the place, “it made perfect sense.
“Within five minutes of being in here, I Facetimed my wife on my phone, and she said, ‘I could do much with that space,’” Murray said.
Murray describes the feel of the new Denim as “industrial-urban meets Haddonfield, New Jersey.” The ability to open with very few changes to the decor—ironically, its tabletop pattern is called “the farmhouse”— seemed only to confirm that he was on the right track.
“It was like a dream; like somebody was in my head already,” Murray said. “Everything I would have wanted to do, from these sconces with the Edison bulbs to the chandelier, it all screamed my taste.”
The move halved the overall footprint of the restaurant, but added 20 extra seats and a 50-percent bigger kitchen area.
Murray also renamed it Denim BYOB, out of respect for the neighboring Haddonfield Bistro.
Its menu walks a line between the gourmet and the everyday, drawing upon Murray’s skills as both a trained chef and a restaurant consultant.
Denim serves “fan favorites” alongside foodie-driven meals for the “more adventurous,” the chef said. To wit: his greenhouse-grown fried green tomatoes with house-made pimento cheese and salted caramel.
Ditto the goat cheese croquettes with lavender honey and crushed hazelnuts, or the gougere with whipped beet boursin and arugula salad.
Other dishes show off Murray’s whimsy, like the sourdough-pretzel-crusted rainbow trout with pomegranate and Düsseldorf mostarda—a play on Philly soft pretzels and mustard—or the cheesesteak-adjacent steak frites with cabernet-braised onions and Cooper Sharp fondue.
Murray cites as influences Michael Solomonov and Marc Vetri; chefs he doesn’t know personally, but whom he admires for their ability to “take something that’s out there, find a little angle, and tie it all together.
“I’m trying to be approachable for everyone, so that person who wants to come dine with us can find some stuff on our menu that’s more chef-driven,” he said.
“The dishes are definitely geared more towards the foodies, but they’re recognizable to your average, everyday person who just wants to come have a meal.”
Instead, Murray focuses on execution and quality.
His kitchen produces fresh-made pasta, butchers its own meats and fish, and has no walk-in cooler, an expression of his commitment to freshness.
That crowd-pleasing aesthetic also finds fuller expression in his overall business model. When Murray heard local restaurant-goers complaining about parking in downtown Haddonfield, he decided to validate their receipts. At 50 cents an hour for the meter, he’d rather just take it off the check than have it keep people from coming in.
Denim also offers small incentives that make a difference. Rack up a $50 check? He’ll take $10 off for diners who pay in cash. Other unique promotions, like a potential Football Widows’ Sunday Brunch, are also in the works.
“I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel,” Murray said, “but I’m trying to make a restaurant where people will feel comfortable coming over and trying something.”
“My brother said to me years ago: would I rather be right, or would I rather be successful?” Murray said. “It’s a great saying.
Denim BYOB is located in The Shops at 116 King’s Highway in Haddonfield. Hours are 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday and Monday, and from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. For more information, visit denimbyob.com.
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