It seems sometimes that the owners of just about every stately Provincetown house claim it was built for a whaling captain. In the case of 404 Commercial Street, a monumental Greek Revival structure that would not look wholly out of place in Charleston or Savannah, the claim is not hard to believe. Diners have known it as the Southern Mansion, Landmark, Chester, Bistro 404 and Dalla Cucina.
Under the ownership of J. Dyer, it’s shown on an 1858 street atlas, according to the Historic District Survey. By 1880, it was in the hands of Capt. John J. Cook and denominated 369 Commercial. It remained in the family until the death in 1948 of the captain’s daughter, Elizabeth K. Cook, who’d lived in the house all her life.
A cousin of Miss Cook inherited the property and sold it in 1950 to William “Bill” Griffin of Georgia, who had been for many years the “personal secretary to several wealthy men, a position which took him to many foreign countries,” as The New Beacon described his career. Griffin arrived in town in 1949 and — presumably falling in love with the antebellum No. 404 at first sight — soon owned the place. He quickly opened it as a restaurant called the Southern Mansion, and cooked up about 40,000 breakfasts and dinners before leasing the space in 1962 to Paul Bellardo and Hal Whitsitt for their Galleria di Bellardo, which moved here from 352 Commercial Street. Beginning in 1972, this was the appropriately named Landmark Restaurant, which survived at least into the late 1980s. At some point, the second-story balcony was removed, greatly elongating the proportions of the great portico.
The bellwether transition occurred in May 1998, when John F. Guerra and Jay Coburn of Washington reopened the place as Chester, named for their nine-year-old Airedale terrier, whose handsome silhouette became the restaurant’s logo. Guerra and Coburn liked to say they were offering an “elegantly relaxed experience not unlike a dinner party with special friends.” That translated as a grown-up establishment, with 200 wines on its list, an emphasis on fresh ingredients and regional cuisine, service modeled on the Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern in Manhattan — and prices to match. For its many admirers, Chester was an overdue, but not overdone, touch of sophistication. But it was also possible to ask: why does Provincetown need a high-concept restaurant, even if it’s only moderately high concept? Well, clearly the demand was there, since Chester lasted nine years and closed after Coburn and Guerra said they “had taken Chester as far as they could” and wanted to “exit at the top of their game,” with a 10-course gala dinner on 29 October 2006. Coburn, who was the executive chef, continues to run a summertime catering service called Chester at Home out of Truro.
After Chester closed, Michael Staz opened Bistro 404, which lasted several seasons. It is currently an Italian restaurant called Dalla Cucina (From the Kitchen), whose executive chef is Michael Ceraldi. Brad Carlson is the general manager.