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April 1, 2023

Steakhouse Marinating on Plaza Street?

Change in the air, construction abounds as restaurants play revolver

The roof has been razed and the walls have come down on the narrow business space at 113 Plaza St., next door to Duke’s. 

Though the applicant, builder and owner won’t answer directly, the restaurant is widely presumed to become a steakhouse; the big Texas Lone Star motif in building plans does little to challenge that presumption.

For years known as Seasons of the Vineyard, the gift shop and Ferrari-Carano tasting room gave the Dry Creek Valley estate winery a toe-hold in busy downtown Healdsburg. 

But Don Carano passed away in 2017, and in early 2020 Rhonda Carano sold the business to local entrepreneur Bill Foley, who added the stately winery and garden to his expanding portfolio. Six months later, Foley purchased the downtown gift shop, but shortly thereafter the pandemic shuttered the business. 

Now the location is gutted back to its beams and girders, brick walls exposed and the ceiling lifted, from the front wall to the back of the 3,205 square foot lot. The project was shepherded through the city permitting process by contractor Brad Ridgeway of the Glacier Restaurant Group (Whitefish, MT), and architect Douglas Thornley of Goring and Straja Architects (Berkeley). 

After several inquiries to the contractor and architect, a response was finally received from Mia Thomas, vice president of sales and marketing for a Foley’s hotel group, which includes Healdsburg’s Hotel Les Mars (27 North St.), as well as luxury properties in Santa Barbara and the Willamette Valley. 

“Unfortunately, we’re not quite able to share that yet, but shouldn’t be too much longer,” Thomas replied, in response to questions about the name, style and expected opening date of the restaurant. 

An echo in Healdsburg

The plans presented to the city’s planning commission in 2021 are for an 89-seat restaurant, modifications to the front façade of the building, a new 750-square foot mezzanine added to a second floor and a new roof terrace of approximately 150 square feet. 

Ironically, these are the same sort of changes that caused a furor in Healdsburg not so long ago just across the Plaza, at 106 Matheson. That project became the Matheson Restaurant, which has since earned high marks from foodies, and its Roof 106 bar and restaurant is popular with tourists as well as locals. 

But civic dissatisfaction with Craig Ramsey and Dustin Valette’s plans for the historic former Plaza Gourmet, Copperfield’s Books and other businesses led to a petition to halt the project, and an appeal of the planning commission’s approval was brought to the city council.

Brigitte Mansell, who filed the 2019 appeal over the Matheson’s plans (and is currently a candidate for city council), gave the Tribune her reasons: “Our appeal was about size and how the project affected parking, a restaurant worker shortage and how this footprint was out of what the Downtown Plaza District mandates: small-scale.” 

It was co-signed by 14 other residents (including another current candidate, Chris Herrod), and sparked a heated hour’s worth of public comment at the city council meeting where the appeal was heard.

The city council denied the appeal, and the Matheson and Roof 106 opened in the summer of 2021, a bit behind schedule thanks to COVID. It has proven to be a popular addition to the constantly fluxing downtown restaurant scene. 

In contrast, the planning commission hearing on 113 Plaza went virtually unnoticed by the public. As the minutes from the June 8, 2021 meeting record, “Chair (Dan) Petrik opened the hearing for public input and hearing none, closed the public input portion of the hearing.”

Why the difference between the upset of 2019 and the relative complacence of 2021?

“The noticing and outreach for this project was the same as for the 106 Matheson project but certainly did not result in the same amount of community interest,” the city’s community development director, Scott Duiven, told the Tribune

“I can only speculate that that was due to the smaller scale of the project and also a recognition by many, even those originally opposed to the project, that the 106 Matheson project turned out well and the issues raised relating to scale, massing, shadowing, noise, etc. did not come to pass.” 

At one point in the 2021 hearing for the 113 Plaza restaurant, then-new Planning Commissioner Conor McKay questioned if the 89-seat restaurant fell under the definition of a “small-scale” project, considering the additional parking that would be required, among other impacts.

“I just think an 89-seat restaurant is not necessarily small scale,” said McKay. “It’s just the intensification of the use from a relatively small-scare tasting room to this 89-seat restaurant seems rather stark, considering we’re located in a district that is supposed to promote small scale activities.” 

Petrick said, chuckling, “If you want to know more about that particular topic, I suggest you go back and read the meeting minutes for the Matheson project.”

Architects’ rendering of the projected restaurant at 113 Plaza St., formerly the Seasons of the Vineyard tasting room, expected to open in 2023. (Courtesy of Goring & Straja)

Sign of the Star

Another controversy, or at least some raised eyebrows, may result as the Plaza Street restaurant continues to take shape. The architect’s treatment of the “clerestory” windows above the entrance drew some curiosity and concern from the commissioners. These are the windows at the second story or mezzanine level that would allow light into the building. 

In the proposed design, these windows feature a large lone star above the entrance, etched into the glass. 

“The star featured in the renderings is conceptual and is a tribute to the owner’s grandfather, who was a Texas Ranger,” architect Douglas Thornley responded, though he added that the final name of the restaurant had not been selected. 

Duivin said the city was not in a position to pass judgment on the Lone Star design. “That is not something that we would regulate due to First Amendment rights,” he told the Tribune. “We look at the size, quantity and location of signs and remain content neutral.”

The storefront building is thought to date from 1883, though much renovation has gone on since then. In fact, the next step for the Nordby Construction crew is “removing inappropriate material and decorative elements added in the 1980s or 1990s, including removing the ribbon and flowers motif,” elements that may have seemed appropriate to a gift shop and tasting room, but less so to a Texas-style steakhouse. 


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