S.S. Dion sails into its 40th year of business in Bristol

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 6/8/23

You don’t get to stay in business — especially the notoriously unpredictable restaurant business — without giving the people what they want. For 40 years, that is exactly what Steve …

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S.S. Dion sails into its 40th year of business in Bristol


You don’t get to stay in business — especially the notoriously unpredictable restaurant business — without giving the people what they want. For 40 years, that is exactly what Steve and Sue Dion have done with S.S. Dion, which opened for business exactly 40 years ago, on June 8, 1983.

They have seen a lot of changes over the years.

The longtime restaurauteurs both started their careers in Warren, where Steve served as Maitre’d at the late great Jed Hanley’s Fore’N Aft (“since before I was old enough to drink”), and Sue worked at TavVino.

“When we first met I was in the jewelry industry, I worked for a company in Attleboro in sales,” said Steve. “I’d grown increasingly tired of it, and the company was kind of on a down slide. So when we got married we decided we'd do our own thing.”

With Steve tracing his family’s Bristol roots back over a century, and Sue’s family (Servant) with longtime Warren roots, they knew they wanted to stay local. “This is just a good place to live and work and play,” said Steve.

It took some time, but they found their 520 Thames St. home, the site of the former Heritage restaurant. With help from Sue’s family of builders, they upgraded the space and launched in June of 1983 with a menu that was mindful of their customers’ wallets.

“It was different back then,” said Sue. “There weren’t as many restaurants.”

“When we first opened in 1983 the economy was in a recession, and so we had an aim of having a check average about $10 to $12 per person, including a drink,” said Steve. “We developed the menu with that in mind.”
“There were a lot of sandwiches,” said Sue. In addition to the dramatically different menu, Steve admits they were probably underselling the location. “But we wanted customers, and so we kept it as reasonable as possible,” he said. “And right away from day one we had business.”

Since then they have cycled through more than a few other economic downturns, from 1992, which birthed the long-running dinner for two with a bottle of wine special. Originally it was less than $25, though it approached $50 before they cancelled it post-pandemic due to rising costs. Challenges in 2008 and 2020 also had their impact, but the S.S. Dion sailed on.

All the while, they have adjusted with the times while remaining a consistently dependable place to get a great meal. The result is an establishment that is a perennial favorite with 40-year regulars as well newcomers discovering the Dion’s old standbys and eclectic specials for the first time.

Today, Steve and Sue are surrounded by family. Their son, Nic, works shoulder to shoulder with Sue in the kitchen, while daughters Mandy and Aly have other day jobs, but help out behind the bar seasonally and when needed.

In the past several years, Steve has stepped back, but not down. “They allow me to do a few jobs, and I'm gone by three o'clock,” he said. “It’s nice to have something to do and still be making a contribution.”

For Nic, it’s full-time and then some. Even when the restaurant closes for their annual spring and fall vacations, more often than not he’s working on renovations and improvements to the property — most recently, exterior work and landscaping as well as improvements to the dining room.

With Nic in the kitchen, there has been a renewed focus on scratch-made breads and pastas. On this early afternoon visit, just a couple of hours before the evening service, rolls are coming out of the oven by the dozens and warm focaccia sits on the counter, waiting to be piled into breadbaskets. One thing that has never changed at S.S. Dion? The fish. It’s always been considered a great place to get a great piece of fresh fish.

“One of your goals has always been buying local,” Nic said to Sue. “She has a reputation around the area for all those delicacy items, like soft shell crab and shad roe,” added Steve. “She’s the first one they call.”

“People weren’t talking about farm to table in 1983,” said Nic. “We were doing it since before it was cool.”

To celebrate Thursday, the Dion family is hosting a throwback party with family, friends, longtime and former staff, and regulars, where they will be serving menu favorites from years past and longtime bartender Jocko Safford will be performing with his Brothers All Band, an Allman Brothers tribute band. (Sorry, if you don’t already have tickets, it’s sold out).

It will be a wonderful reunion for many of the people who have considered the S.S. Dion “home” over the years, including families with more than one generation who have worked at the restaurant. How have they managed to maintain such strong connections in a business known for turnover?

According to Steve, it’s not complicated.

“You treat people with respect, and make sure when they walk through the door, they're happy to be here,” he said.

So what does the future hold for the Dion family? Not surprisingly, they are staying the course.

For some time, Sue imagined stepping back after 40 years, but now that mark has been reached, she’s looking to 50.

“I enjoy seeing the changes,” said Sue. “That's why I have another 10 years.”

Steve and Sue are also glad that, whenever they do decide to retire, their legacy will be in such capable hands. “I’m so proud of my son,” said Steve of Nic. “He's doing a wonderful job. The future is here, and we’re going to let the future happen.”

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A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.