Going Public

At Mighty Tavern, English emerges where the French once stood

Back Article Feb 1, 2014 By Douglas Curley

The woman on the other end of the line, a long-time patron of the now-shuttered La Boheme restaurant, said she wouldn’t be able to dine at Mighty Tavern. Her church didn’t allow its members to go into bars.

Joan Reid Lapuyade hung up the phone, realizing that her new restaurant, which has settled into the space La Boheme once occupied on Fair Oaks Boulevard, has a bit of a public-perception problem.

Just months earlier, Reid Lapuyade and her ex-husband, Dennis Lapuyade, found reconciliation among the white linens and dark curtains of the once-beloved French eatery. Among the custom woodwork, they envisioned a new, English-style public house, the sort of place where a man has a pint while his wife and mother lunch in a separate dining room.

Mighty Tavern was born.

It’s a neighborhood restaurant for families, and the Yelp crowd seems generally pleased, but as an establishment it is decidedly un-tavernlike. In fact, it’s far more likely to be filled by canoodling couples or local friends out for a casual bite than a batch of old timers gathered around a pitcher of Kronenbourg. Granted, Mighty Tavern does offer an impressive selection of draft and bottled beers.

Joan and Dennis admit up front that they didn’t do any demographic research to determine who their likely clientele would be. Perhaps there wasn’t time. The whole thing happened so quickly.

In February of last year, Reid Lapuyade had just completed a marketing consulting contract for a retail business at Pier 39 in San Francisco. She was looking forward to a little time off, maybe a vacation. At about the same time, her ex was finishing up a consulting gig. He, too, was ready for a break after more than 20 years of owning and managing high-end Bay Area restaurant properties.

“After learning that La Boheme was shutting down, my mom called me. She owns the property and developed the site along with my dad, Don, back in 1979. She wanted me to check out the building to see what needed to be done in order to attract a new tenant,” Reid Lapuyade says. “She’s 86-years-old, and over the years hasn’t been a very vigilant property manager. The place was in pretty poor shape and needed a great deal of work just to get to code.”

So she called Dennis, a former Chez Panisse maitre d’ who thought the best thing to do was sell the place. “But when I walked in and saw all the custom woodwork, I fell in love. At the same time, we didn’t want to sink a lot of money into it at our age, risking retirement money on a gamble like a restaurant,” he says.

The couple had previously owned and operated two locations of Bar César, a tapas restaurant in Berkeley and Oakland, until 2011. Reid Lapuyade hadn’t planned on getting back into the business, but after reacquainting herself with the restaurant’s charm, she thought, “Maybe this would be fun.” But she wasn’t about to do it by herself.

The couple, now strictly business partners, took over the property on Feb. 28, 2013, and for the next “very hard” 90 days, upgraded plumbing, roofing, decking and kitchen equipment. The Mighty Tavern opened on May 28.

To create a menu that matched the desired aesthetic — clean and simple — Joan turned to another former industry cohort, Carolyn Kumpe.

“I say, ‘Hello, you won’t believe what I’m going to do in Fair Oaks.’ Turns out, she was winding down a project with Renwood Winery in Plymouth. It was kismet. And Dennis liked her. Finding a chef that understood what we were trying to do here was his greatest fear.”

Kumpe developed a menu that reflects tavern life — it’s tasty, unfussy and family friendly, with burgers, steamed mussels, fried chicken and apple strudel. It’s American fare with European influence.

Noting the rehabilitated restaurant space, the upgraded kitchen, the foodie-inspired menu and the rooster-clad sign above the door, the Lapuyade’s daughter Madeline warned her parents to expect slow days nonetheless. The thought of an empty dining room shocked the two restaurant veterans. In their experience, it was not unusual to serve 500 dinners on a Saturday night.

But Madeline was right.

“The initial quantity of business was a really different experience for us,” Reid Lapuyade says. “It was really awkward. We didn’t know what to do with such a limited customer base.”

They discovered early on that regional differences in how people define a tavern was playing into their struggle.

“Here in the Sacramento area, when people hear the term tavern, they think of it as a step above a dive bar,” Lapuyade says. “That’s simply not the case in the Bay Area, Chicago or New York. Gramercy Tavern is one of the most elegant restaurants in New York City.”

So they changed the sign to read Mighty Tavern Neighborhood Restaurant and Bar. It seems to have helped.

“I think people in the neighborhood appreciate the risk we are taking,” Reid Lapuyade says. “They appreciate the alternative to the nearby shopping-mall restaurants.”      


 

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