The dining room at Monte Vista Fire Station has closed and will reopen in a few weeks as Gruet Steakhouse and Wine Bar. This is a little confusing, so pay attention, OK? See, the building (at Central and Monte Vista) is owned by Kerry Raynor and his partners, who include Ski Martin, the owner of the Owl Café on Eubank NE. (A few weeks ago, I interviewed Ski because he had partnered with Frank Marcello, of Copeland's and Zea Grill, on another Owl Café location in The Shops at I-25!) Raynor had been approached a number of times by people who wanted to put their own restaurants in his building, and always refused. It was a combination of events that finally made him change his mind.
In the 20 years that Kerry Raynor has been the proprietor, Monte Vista has been through many chefs, undergone several remodels, and endured vacillations of popularity and critical acclaim. The last few years have been relatively good ones for the restaurant; with chef Tony Nethery at the helm, Raynor was proud of the food and pleased with his success.
Nethery enjoyed his work in the Nob Hill landmark, but had begun to grow restless and sought another outlet for his creativity. That outlet came in the form of Relish, the popular, much-praised cheese and sandwich shop at 8019 Menaul NE. Near the end of 2004, Relish's front man, Johnny Orr, was in the process of splitting from a pair of partners—with whom he had started the business—when he and Nethery decided to join forces.
Nethery wasn't sure exactly how much of his time this new venture would take, and went back and forth on whether or not he'd be able to remain in charge of the kitchen at Monte Vista. Eventually, it became clear that he wouldn't be able to stay.
That's when Raynor decided to reconsider leasing the restaurant to somebody else. "I knew I didn't want to start all over again," he told me, "to try and find somebody as good as Tony." So he accepted Frank Marcello's proposal to transform the dining room into the Gruet Steakhouse and Wine Bar.
Marcello met Laurent Gruet and Farid Himeur (Laurent makes the wine and Farid's in charge of making money) through his other restaurants, where he sells Gruet wines. Over lunch and a bottle of wine, the three friends lamented Albuquerque's lack of a high-end chop house, and decided to create one.
The winemakers are investors and partners in the business; they're also in charge of writing the wine list. "We want to be a destination wine bar," Himeur said, describing how he wants to have a lengthy wine list, including plenty of half-bottles and wines available by the glass. Some of the steakhouse's by-the-glass selections will be in the $15 to $25 range; while $20 may sound like a lot of money to pay for one glass of wine, it's a less expensive way to try a bottle you definitely couldn't, or wouldn't, spend $100 on.
The menu will be designed by Kelly Mullarney, a California-based corporate chef who has consulted for a host of restaurant and hotel chains, including Zyng Noodlery and House of Blues. Marcello describes the menu as "simply, really good steaks," priced between $17 and $29.
Marcello is supervising a renovation of the space right now. Workers changing the color scheme, adding black marble to the counter tops, replacing the booths and adding a stone façade to one of the fireplaces. The work is expected to continue through Jan. 24, and Marcello expects to open for business on Jan. 31.
The popular upstairs bar at Monte Vista has remained open and Raynor will continue to manage the bar, separate from the steakhouse. He is working on a menu that will be cooked downstairs (as it always has been) but served only upstairs. The famous wings, he assured me, will always be available.
In other Nob Hill news (sort of), O'Niell's Uptown will close on January 31. We had known for many months now that O'Niell's in Nob Hill (3211 Central NE) would close at the end of December. After 10 years of beer and burgers in the same spot, owner Rob O'Niell had lost his lease. At least he still had O'Niell's location in Uptown, right? Well, the thing was that Rob had actually been thinking of closing the Uptown location (6601 Uptown NE) before he found out he was going to lose his Nob Hill place. "I'm not a sports bar kind of guy," O'Niell told me. He explained that his Uptown clientele seemed to want a sports bar, and though he and his staff tried to make that happen, in the end they found they didn't really like the place. "It never made me happy, or as happy as I wanted to be," he said. So he and the staff decided not to renew their lease there.
O'Niell believes that he needs to be in Nob Hill in order to be both happy and successful. He's not ready, he told me, to take another big risk and open another bar somewhere else in the city, hoping that people will come. So he's looking hard for space near his old place. A licensed contractor himself, O'Niell will be ready to start work as soon as he signs papers. One of the things he'll have to do is recreate his old wooden bar, which he regrets had to stay at the old place. And he wants his new bar to have double doors. "I was eating up front a few weeks ago and I realized—damn!—it's cold up here when somebody opens the door.
Another bar is already lined up to take O'Niell's place in Uptown. Oh yeah, it's a sports bar.
Chef and Restaurateur Gordon Schutte shut La Piazza to focus on Vivace. La Piazza, the upscale Italian eatery on the lower level of a shopping center at San Mateo and Lomas, closed after New Year's Eve. Schutte said that La Piazza, which was a much bigger restaurant than Nob Hill's Vivace, had struggled financially, while Vivace had its best year ever.
Schutte is one of the founders of Albuquerque Originals, an organization of locally-owned restaurants. He feels strongly about the contributions that local restaurants make to the city, and equally strongly about the negative impact of chain restaurants. "Every customer we have goes to P.F. Chang's," he told me, adding, "Some of them don't admit it. ..." But he sees this impact as simply a fact of business life. "I'm not bitter. In fact, I've been working so hard, I'm looking forward to a vacation!"
Schutte won't get that much time off. He still plans to be very hands-on at Vivace, a restaurant that he says defies trends.
Echoing what Rob O'Niell said about needing to be in Nob Hill, Schutte said, "I still think the right place, the right people and the right concept will really work. But now, more than ever, location is going to be really important."