Starting in a small barroom, Donohue’s Bar & Grill has expanded and gone through major facelifts over the 20 years since it opened, and has become a fixture in the Watertown restaurant scene. The celebration of Donohue’s 20th anniversary kicks off this week.
John Donohue, owner and founder of Donohue’s, still recalls the day he opened for business — July 24, 1998.
“It was the Friday of the Hawaiian Open — the Friends of Matt Galligan golf tournament,” Donohue said. “They all came in after the tournament.”
Looking back on the start of the restaurant, Donohue said that he was in the right place at the right time. At the time, Donohue was working at the Waverley Oaks Athletic Club in Waltham, as well as, at Bemis Market.
“Opportunity knocks,” Donohue said. “I was looking to get into my own business and it happened to be RJ’s in Watertown that opened up.”
In March 1998, friend of Donohue’s father heard that the owner of RJ’s wanted to sell, and he mentioned it to Donohue.
“The next thing you know we are in negotiations,” Donohue said.
When it opened, Donohue’s occupied less than half the space of the current restaurant. Donohue called the former bar “old school,” and had 35 seats, a pool table, four dart boards, and had a limited food menu. .
Hitting the 20-year mark is something that not many restaurants in Watertown can boast, at least those still open for business. Others include Greg’s, Mt. Auburn Grill, Halfway Cafe, Stellina and Casa de Pedro. There are also new eating options coming to town seemingly every day.
“There are new restaurants coming in, which is great. It provides Watertown with great options and a great opportunity,” Donohue said. “I didn’t want to fall behind, and bring in new customers.”
Keeping up with the latest trends and improving the place has always been important for Donohue. In November 2000, the restaurant took over the space next door on Bigelow Avenue, which had been a number of things over the years — a bakery, a rug store, an electrical company and a vacant space.
The back function room opened in 2001, and in 2010 the patio opened. The most significant change came two years ago.
“With the changing market in Watertown, I know, for me to be successful I had to upgrade my facility,” Donohue said. “We closed after the Super Bowl in 2016 and 39 days later we reopened with the new and improved Donohue’s you see today.”
Another focus for Donohue has been giving back to the community. The annual Donohue’s Turkey Trot 5K on Thanksgiving raises money for the Watertown Boys & Girls Club. Donohue’s also helps with causes like the Watertown Education Foundation.
To celebrate being in business for 20 years, Donohue’s will hold a 20th Anniversary Luau on Friday, Aug. 31, featuring three beers from Kona Brewing Co., food and prize giveaways.
The luau will just be the start of a long celebration of the bar and grill’s 20th anniversary, Donohue said. The restaurant will also have the Halfway to St. Patrick’s Day celebration in September, the Turkey Trot, and the 20th Anniversary Christmas Party.