A prime spot for prime rib
Carlo Cavallo plans BBQ concept at old Creamery
CARLO CAVALLO is turning the old Creamery on the corner of First Street East and East Spain Street into barbecue restaurant called Burgers and Vine.
“If it wasn’t for the Cuneos, I wouldn’t be here,” said Carlo Cavallo. The Cuneos are, of course, developers Dick and Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo, and “here” is the old Creamery building on the corner of Spain Street and First Street East on the Plaza that has sat empty since 2006. In November, Cavallo, who is the chef and proprietor of Sonoma Meritage Oyster Bar and Grill, signed a lease on the long-vacant property with Cuneo Properties and plans to open a new restaurant called Burgers and Vine, focused on the eponymous sandwich and Wine Country barbecue, in the space as soon as February.
The prime Plaza frontage, with nearly 3,800 feet of retail space zoned for a restaurant, was built in 1926 as the Sonoma Mission Creamery back when the area was a dairy hub. One of the building’s biggest assets, its age and history, was also its biggest liability.
Despite presenting a rare opportunity – any new restaurant on the Plaza would have to provide a parking space for every four seats – the building has been empty going on seven years.
After Cucina Viansa, which operated a restaurant out of the space, closed in 2006, the building’s owners had trouble attracting tenants, owing in large part to the cost that would have been involved in bringing the building up to code. “I looked at the space when the previous owners had it, and I just laughed,” said Cavallo.
“We’ve put $300,000 into the project to update seismic requirements and to install fire sprinklers,” Dick Cuneo told the Index-Tribune in January, shortly after he and Mary Ann purchased the building.
DeRose and Applebaum, the commercial real estate broker who’d listed the building, had it at $8,500 a month, which, at about $2.25 per square foot was at market rates. Those familiar with rents on the Plaza speculate that the space probably eventually rented at closer to $2 a square foot, not counting the basement, which is equal in size to the ground floor and could be used for anything from offices to product production.
“This is one of the best locations permitted for a restaurant,” said Ryan Snow of Cassidy Turley Commercial Real Estate (who was not involved with the present lease deal), referring to the amount of parking spaces grandfathered in with the building. “It’s very near impossible to get something like this.”
Snow said the asking price was very fair for a restaurant, but the potential cost of reconstruction had scared off potential renters.
Those with deep enough pockets, mostly chain restaurants, would likely have run up against Sonoma’s prohibition on formula stores. Others, who might have designs on turning the space, which had been set up as a fountain shop, into a fine dining establishment, would be looking at a million-dollar renovation.
Cavallo, working with Glen Ellen-based Mayacamas Design on the project, plans very little in the way of reconstruction inside the building. “We’re using the same framework,” he said. The biggest changes will be moving a bathroom and adding some prep kitchen space; the ceiling is also yet to be completed. Ryan Tatarian of Mayacamas Designs said the focus is on getting everything code compliant. Beyond that most of the changes will be cosmetic – the restaurant will sport a modern-rustic look with plenty of exposed wood and a very long (probably the largest in Sonoma) reclaimed redwood-topped bar at its center.
The permit process should be begun by next week, with plans submitted to the city council. Once the permits are approved Cavallo expects the bulk of the work to be completed in three weeks, including building the kitchen and redoing the floors with cabernet-stained concrete. “If I’m not open by February I’m going to be upset,” he said.
Cavallo has long loved barbecue (it’s what he cooks at home he says), and was the grand prize winner of the Chef’s Challenge for his “Sonoma-style” prime rib at the biennial National Beef Cook-Off in 2009. He’s been mulling a barbecue concept restaurant at least since then.
The new place will probably have six signature burgers varying in price from $6 to $40 and ranging from your ordinary beef to lamb to lobster tail-topped Kobe. The smokehouse menu will likely include brisket, ribs, chicken and Cavallo’s award-winning prime rib. Cavallo is currently looking for local sources of grass-fed beef and other meat.
The barbecue will be smoked over French oak wood barrel staves, which Cavallo says make a difference. He may also experiment with grapevine smoking as well.
The bar will probably have a whisky focus and offer six beers on tap, but Cavallo might be most excited about the adult shakes (non-alcoholic shakes will also be offered). He is also planning to make gelato onsite. The shakes and gelato, of course, harken back to the buildings days as the Sonoma Mission Creamery and Wagner Creamery. Cavallo found an old menu in the basement that dates back to the 1940s or ’50s that had on it only hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches, shakes and sodas, and he thinks it might be fun to bring a couple of the old shakes back.
Expect a late-night menu and live music Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays; partner Codi Binkley will handle that (other partners are Lou Kulack and Lance Morgan).
This past week, Meritage began serving sneak peaks at the new menu with “Burgers and Vine Wednesdays,” which will be ongoing every week as Cavallo tests items.