Stokes Restaurant & Bar closes its doors with a Halloween open house.
Thursday, October 29, 2009
While Hattie’s haunting and the big adobe’s history make Stokes an unparalleled place, and the wild mushroom pizza and crispy duck confit are thoroughly wonderful things, it’s the people who have rendered the restaurant remarkable.
Sure they know your name and what you drink – bartender Mario Magaño often has regulars’ usuals en route and food fired before they sit – but as the most militantly picky chef around (Cachagua General Store’s Mike Jones) puts it, they also “value conversation and friendship and the atmosphere of the restaurant above all things, even reason.”
That’s the stuff that had locals coming in as relentlessly as the tides and the likes of Jay Leno, Joe Montana and Cameron Diaz grazing on house-cured prosciotto and powerhouse padron peppers. That’s also the stuff that makes ever-successful Stokes’ closing this Halloween rather spooky for its fans.
To achieve this permutation of perfection required a reverence for pure ingredients from the best local farms (Marquita Farms will sell only to Stokes and one other kitchen), a philosophy founding chef Brandon Miller and GM-owner Kirk Probasco installed when Michael Pollan was merely a repeat customer, not a household name. But it also required an unaffected irreverence, an easy ambiance, that dovetailed uncannily with the funky-cozy space and European countryside chow. Only in this kind of place could nutzoid-genius Chef Brian Christensen follow garlic and parsley frog legs with an unapologetic corndog – then post the obscene napkin note sent in reply on the kitchen bulletin board.
This place does things big and little with equal aplomb, from pioneering heirloom platters to refilling ice ninja-discreetly; same goes for doing the fresh (housemade mozzarella), delicious (grilled quail) and daring (Christensen’s “gangster salad”). So it’s tough to articulate what we’re losing with the close of Stokes after 13-and-a-half years, a run that followed another top spot, Gallatin’s – and was punctuated suddenly with the adobe’s sale by the Costello and Meyer families (whose ancestors called it home) to the Coastal Luxury Management team, a transaction still in escrow after an end-of-November extension. I can say I’m losing my favorite spot, but that doesn’t quite do it justice.
The lightly loquacious Jones had a few thoughts. “It’s our drug of choice as an antidepressant – much cheaper than Wellbutrin and psychiatry,” he says. “It’s the best restaurant on the Peninsula. [It’s] old-school hospitality that doesn’t exist. They’ve got the best kitchen for the money, mine included. It’s a tragedy for the local food business.”
Leaning back in a rustic chair, a melancholy but peaceful Probasco is more measured. He surveys a top floor that just had one of its last private parties. Video games, a ping-pong table and butcher paper brackets hint at the party’s vintage – his son’s 13th – which means, unlike his sister, he wasn’t around for the ’96 opening pops calls “the most fun time of my life.”
“It’s always been all about the people,” he says, “the people who walk through the door, the staff – sometimes I have to go through the files to remember the characters, the great managers, it’s a hysterical exercise.”
More than personality stirs this employee pot: When told privately of the restaurant’s impending close, they were given an chance to leave with understanding. “No one did,” Christensen says.
Probasco turns now to managing the close (“Placing staff is number one”). He admits that he has mellowed as a boss over the years, and cites only one regret – that a decade-plus of shared success with the owners has ended ugly.
From here he’s swapping 75-hour weeks for more time with family and life as a real estate broker with his father’s Mid Coast Investments – with an expert eye on restaurant properties.
He adds that sharing the sadness of a premature close with friends – just as he shared tastier times – has proven cathartic. This Halloween’s final night farewell, an open house, donation-optional, 6pm-close celebration, will channel a big menu of both. 373-1110.
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Another shift is happening in Heritage Harbor: After 32 years of rack of lamb and Grand Marnier souffle, Fresh Cream has soured on its foot traffic-faint place. Fortunately for 19-year owner Steve Chesney, he says his Aquarium landlords are eager to move in, and gave him a easy out on his lease.
Chesney says they are shuttering after Friday, Oct. 30 – interestingly, he says Restaurant Week has given the splurgy spot a surge in its last week – and planning on reopening in a view-poor but pedestrian-rich Carmel hotel in time for the AT&T Pro-Am in February.
“I can count the amount of walk-ins in 20 years on two hands,” he says. “It’s a little sad, but we’ve had a good run, been looking to relocate to a hotel and found an opportunity in Carmel.”
In other transitional news, Morgan Christopher was mysterious on the fates of Ol’ Factory Cafe on Monday, Oct. 26: “There are some hurdles with landlord, and finding the operational help, and financial issues,” he said. “I might turn it into a residence with a really nice bar.”
In the meantime, he scheduled a “potluck and brainstorming session” for 6-8pm Wednesday, Oct. 28: “Your support is already obvious and appreciated,” he wrote. “Now we need your ideas and creativity.” And I need me some Stokes.