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Where city’s loans went sour, a new Dorchester tavern will open

C.F. Donovan’s, a neighborhood melting pot that closed in November 2009, opens today as the Savin Bar + Kitchen tavern. C.F. Donovan’s, a neighborhood melting pot that closed in November 2009, opens today as the Savin Bar + Kitchen tavern. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff/ File)
By Stephanie Ebbert
Globe Staff / March 14, 2011

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Savin Bar + Kitchen plans to open its doors today, marking the latest incarnation of a Dorchester establishment with a storied history.

This is the site that used to be C.F. Donovan’s, a neighborhood melting pot that was shuttered without warning in 2009, just before owner Arthur Donovan filed for bankruptcy and waived responsibility for a mountain of debts, including $350,000 owed to city loan programs.

This was also the home of Bulldogs tavern, whose owner, Eddie Connors, was gunned down in a telephone booth in 1975 because James “Whitey’’ Bulger and Stephen “The Rifleman’’ Flemmi feared he would implicate them in another gangland murder. The restaurant’s basement office has a steel door with a peephole and deep dents that the new owners suspect were caused by bullets.

Now, the Savin Hill establishment has been renovated and reimagined as an upscale neighborhood pub by new owners Driscoll DoCanto and Kenneth Osherow. The menu includes snacks such as $6 pork belly cracklins’ and house-marinated olives, small plates of $7 fried goat cheese, and $18 entrees, including Irish beef stew and monkfish and chips. The restaurant will feature niche wines from around the world, a coffee-flavored brew on tap, and, in future months, a Sunday brunch.

“This neighborhood is really calling for this,’’ Osherow said of the restored restaurant. “We’re the only liquor license and restaurant to the east of Dorchester Ave. We’re it. This is like the meeting ground for this neighborhood.’’

Osherow is the realtor who has been building a small empire on Savin Hill Avenue, where he owns At Home Real Estate, McKenna’s Cafe, and Savin Scoop, a coffee and frozen yogurt shop, in the tidy row across the street from the new restaurant.

The restaurant was transformed by a renovation that removed columns, opening cramped spaces and creating windows to brighten the interior. Osherow brought on a team of local contractors to replace the electrical and plumbing systems and most of the kitchen, which is now open and lined with diamond-cut stainless steel. Renovations were done with an eye toward restoration: The beams in the ceiling, bar, and hostess stand were salvaged from Vermont barns, and the cavalry of beaten chairs that remained at Donovan’s was refinished and upholstered by a local craftsman, Osherow said.

Savin Bar + Kitchen plans to seat 99 upstairs and, eventually, 45 more in the lower-level dining room. In the past, the basement was not used because a sprinkler system was never installed to meet code requirements, Osherow said.

The old restaurant went dark suddenly in November 2009, leaving a temporary but uneasy quiet around the nearby Savin Hill T station. That made some realize how much they missed the foot traffic around the once-lively pub.

“It’s a very important piece of real estate in this segment of our neighborhood,’’ said Maureen McQuillen, president of the Columbia-Savin Hill Civic Association. “It’s our face when you come off that T stop.’’

The T stop was renovated a few years ago and more recently got a new clock tower. Along with a new school in the neighborhood and burgeoning businesses, the neighborhood has come far since it was derided as “Stab ’n’ Kill’’; now the civic association is trying to rebrand it Savin Hill Village.

The restaurant’s rise from the ashes may seem improbable in a down economy, especially given its dark past. Donovan had been struggling for years to open a second restaurant in Hyde Park and in December 2009, he filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy to erase debt of nearly $4 million.

The bank foreclosed on both restaurants and Donovan’s two houses, but many other creditors no longer expect to get their money back. Among them are the city’s Department of Neighborhood Development, which had loaned his second restaurant project $100,000, and the Boston Local Development Corporation, a nonprofit bank administered by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, which provided $250,000, documents show.

Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who lives in Hyde Park, acknowledged in an interview last year that he was the one who had initially suggested Donovan expand into the neighborhood after Mario’s Restaurant, a three-decade-old institution, closed its doors.`

Menino, who has received campaign contributions from Donovan, was counting on the kind of success Donovan had already achieved at C.F. Donovan’s and Patty’s Pantry, the Dorchester Avenue deli and convenience store he also used to own.

“I’ve known Arthur Donovan for years. The city knows Arthur Donovan,’’ Menino said. “There was no better guy for the neighborhood at one time than Arthur Donovan.’’

Donovan could not be reached for comment.

Dot Joyce, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said that what was most important for the city’s investment was that the restaurants have been reopened in both neighborhoods. The Hyde Park restaurant was bought at auction by a friend of Donovan’s and reopened as Annabelle’s. Savin Bar + Kitchen got another $25,000 from the city for renovations.

“That was always a good spot for a neighborhood restaurant and remains a good spot,’’ Joyce said. “We expect the new owners will do well and wish them the best of luck.’’

Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at ebbert@globe.com