Passion Project: from Europe with love

Bella Luna Food Truck. Photo @callumscreations

Pinning down the power duo responsible for the fresh, new feel of The Wharf and Grand Old House was challenge enough but we managed to catch one half of the Italian-German combo to hear what’s in store for two of Cayman’s most iconic restaurants.

“I came to Cayman to learn English. I ended up getting a job in the restaurant industry and found my passion right there - I love what I do!” says Dunja (pronounced doon-ya). Born in Hamburg, Dunja arrived on Cayman shores in 2009. Six years later she joined forces with fellow restaurateur, Luciano De Riso, to run legendary Grand Old House.

“He’s a passionate Italian, I’m a strong-willed German girl, of course it works!” she says with a roar of laughter. “Sure, the beginning was tough. I had no previous management experience but Luciano is an incredible mentor with exceptional vision. I trust him, no matter what”. A certified sommelier with more than 20 years in the industry, it’s little wonder that he’s got the Midas touch.

Either way, the challenge must have been just what was needed because the pair have recently added a 2nd award-winning restaurant to their trophy cabinet. The Wharf, a waterfront icon on the edge of George Town and Seven Mile Beach, is also under their management.

Overhauling a culinary institution is no easy task. Times that by two and you’ve got some serious work on your hands. While the thought may fill most with dread, it doesn’t bother these two. “You role up your sleeves and get on with it”, she quips. “When we took over the Wharf, we had to think carefully as to what we were going to do. It was a Cayman classic with a strong reputation. We wanted to hold onto that but inject some new life into it as well”. And a fine job they’ve done. Gone are the white tablecloths and bowtie service, hello a contemporary look and feel.

With Grand Old House, they took a different approach. “It too is a Cayman tradition. It’s charming and comforting. We wanted to pay homage to that by mixing the old with the new”. And rightly so. Grand Old House is arguably Cayman’s longest standing restaurant and steeped in history. Think of it as your wealthy great aunt’s stately home. Except it’s on the water, in the middle of the Caribbean, with a mouthwatering menu and an insanely big wine list (over 2,400 labels. You can thank Luciano for that).

Efforts to revamp didn’t end there. “If we were going to modernize our restaurants, we wanted to bring our environmental policies in line as well. We’re proud to say that we have no plastic or Styrofoam on site and all of our cups are made from cornstarch or sugar cane. And we no longer stock beer bottles, all of our beers are on draught”. (Music to our ears! The Beach is big on preserving coastal environments. The less we rely on single-use plastic, the healthier our oceans will be.)

So, what’s next for this dynamic duo? “We’ve put a lot of effort into raising awareness of what the two restaurants have to offer. They are both incredible venues with plenty of space but each has their own unique style and atmosphere. The virtual tour has been fantastic for conveying this. Guests can go from room to room and explore the grounds to really get a feel for what each restaurant is like”.

“We’ve also got a pop-up restaurant opening within Grand Old House.” Open Thursdays to Saturdays in the Colonial Room, Jeanne’s will offer a carefully curated tasting menu. (Insider scoop: Jeanne’s is named after Mrs. Jeanne Brenton, the original owner of the property).

“New to The Wharf this season, we have a state of the art, full service conference suite. We’re also building a cigar and rum shack and have a new DJ for Boogie Nights.” For those of you who are yet to experience this, Boogie Nights is possibly one of the most fun dance parties this side of the equator.

“And we have a new event coming. I can’t say too much but it’s set to be the biggest salsa night on the island.”

Stay tuned Beach readers. And seriously, if you’ve not reserved your New Year’s Eve table yet, you’d better get on it. These places book out a year in advance.