FOOD & DRINK | By Ilona Saari
Raising The Bar
I first learned what a saloonkeeper was while watching old B&W westerns on TV. They were mostly men who owned bars (a.k.a. “saloons”) with girls in satin dresses and feathers in their hair entertaining the patrons — cowboys and gunslingers — while someone played a piano wearing a gaudy garter on his sleeve. (Before I was prime-time age, there was, of course, Miss Kitty of “Gunsmoke,” but she stands alone as a female saloonkeeper legend.)
Hitting the bars of Manhattan as a career girl changed that rough western image. Gone were girls in satin dresses with feathers in their hair unless they were working the city streets and cowboys and gunslingers didn’t come barging through swinging saloon doors. But, saloon-keepers were still mostly men who owned or ran restaurants/bars, and their larger than life personalities brought in the patrons. They regaled you with stories as they greeted you warmly at the front door or table hopped, checking to make sure you were happy and sated.
I was fourteen when I first heard Toots Shor’s booming voice as he chatted up customers while I hung out at the bar sipping a scotch sour. OK, I lied. I just felt that young to be in a place where Frank Sinatra was known to hold court, a hipper bragging right in NYC than “George Washington slept here.” Sitting on a bar stool at Toots’ made me feel I had arrived. I didn’t know to what I was arriving, but it was a heady feeling. But, when Toots toodle-oo’d to that big saloon in the sky, I soon discovered other dynamic saloonkeepers. There was legendary Vincent Sardi, who was old, but still toodling, and the great Elaine Kaufman, the only female saloonkeeper (bar/restaurant owner or manager) I ever knew.
One night at Elaine’s, I was sipping a vodka martini when I spotted Norman Mailer with a couple of people at a table along the right-hand wall just before the doorway into the “Siberia” room (reserved for those in disfavor or people Elaine didn’t know or want to know). On the wall above Mailer was a lighted sconce which, for some reason, bothered him to no end. He turned it off. Within a nano-second, portly Elaine materialized at his table and turned the sconce back on. After a few friendly words, Elaine returned to her nightly post at the end of the bar and Norman again turned off the sconce. Elaine scurried back and turned it on — Norman turned it off — Elaine turned it on … It was her restaurant, after all. Friendly words turned to angry words, angry words turned to yelling and yelling turned to fisticuffs (well, a little skirmish anyway) — the clash of the titans!
The next thing I knew, Elaine picked up Norman by the scruff of his neck and dragged him out of the restaurant. He returned the next night, of course, and was back at his table (not Siberia), but the sconce stayed on. Elaine definitely could play with the big boys!
No, this wasn’t Damon Runyon’s Manhattan, but the Manhattan of the ‘70s and early ‘80s. But, shortly after I moved to California in 1985, the foodie era began and chefs became all the rage. Gone were the great LA saloonkeepers like Dave Chasen, though his chili lives on. I missed them … that is, until I moved to Ojai. Here in our glorious valley, we are blessed with two great saloonkeepers who know what it takes to keep a saloon running.
I first met Russ Brunelli when I interviewed him for the Taste of Ojai website shortly after he became General Manager of The Ranch House. As a girl from Queens, I instantly connected to this boy from the Bronx.
Russ has “saloons” in his DNA. His grandparents were bar owners and two uncles are bartenders, but Russ veered from that genetic path and became a recreational therapist at Bronx Hospital Psychiatric Center and at New York Hospital, Cornell. After a decade recreationing, his “roots” took hold in Rockland County, New York when he bought a tiny pizza joint (4 tables). His saloon-keeping life began.
He eventually left Rockland County for Manhattan where he ran restaurants/bars before leaving NYC with two trash bags of clothes and his guitar to become the general manager of a saloon in Chicago. He returned to Manhattan some years later and opened Brunelli’s, his own Italian restaurant, with a full bar, on York and 75th.
His “front of the house experience,” as well as his stint as a restaurant owner in Rockland, had turned him into the quintessential saloonkeeper, where patrons became regulars because of his warm, welcoming nature and ability to spin a good story. Tom Clancy was a regular who dined on the kitchen’s popular veal with pesto and melted mozzarella. Antonia Bennett (yes, Tony’s daughter) sang there. But, after 10 years and the 9/11 tragedy that kept the bridge & tunnel crowd out of Manhattan, business began to slip. Russ sold the restaurant and soon found himself back in Chicago.
He was just finishing up a stint running a placed called The Joint when Steve Edelson beckoned and brought him to Ojai to run The Ranch House.
This city saloonkeeper who once hiked on cement pavements among a forest of skyscrapers fell in love with pastoral Ojai with its towering oak trees and dirt hiking trails. He embraced founder Alan Hooker’s farm-to-table approach to the restaurant’s menu, (now being deliciously realized by Chef Logan DeBone), that includes a daily Alan Hooker “special,” as well as the restaurant’s history with Krishnamurti and Beatrice Wood. (Beatrice created pottery dishes for the restaurant when it opened in 1949 and not long ago, while cutting back the thick ivy on the property, the staff discovered a “2001 Space Odyssey(ish)” monolith made from Beatrice’s broken pottery).
Even some of the bar’s signature drinks are “farm-to-table.” Try its lavender gin martini, made from Empress gin and a bit of simple sugar with a twig of lavender as garnish. Or owner Angie Edelson’s homemade version of limoncello dubbed, “Angiecello” … or the Lemon Verbena champagne cocktail — an Alan Hooker recipe consisting of a brown sugar cube, orange bitters, Prosecco, a lemon twist and verbena leaf. And while you’re sipping your drink or dining on a gourmet meal, or both, Russ will make sure you’re happy, plated and sated.
As a food writer who is forever seeking the perfect cheeseburger, I asked my new Ojai friends when I first moved here where I should continue my quest. They all said The Jester, a pub owned by Nigel Chisholm. They regaled me with stories of music, dancing, drinking and a menu of burgers that would end my questing forever. But, alas, before I could sink my teeth into any of these touted burgers, broken pipes in the street flooded the restaurant, as well as the town’s movie theater. My achy, breaky cheeseburger heart was shattered.
Then I discovered The Vine, Nigel’s bar/restaurant in the Arcade, a dark and moody place with live music and a full bar with plenty of stools where you can get comfortable and enjoy a cocktail or a glass of wine. The perfect definition of a Manhattan saloon.
Growing up in England, Nigel loved the TV show “Cheers,” which featured a bar where everyone knew your name and a barkeep/saloonkeeper who welcomed his customers, listened to them, talked to them and kept them happy.
In England, folks called Cheers a neighborhood pub, in the tradition of local pubs that represent an extension of home. But, as much as Nigel enjoyed the show, he didn’t see owning a pub in his future.
At twenty-four, he left England and crossed the pond, first to Canada, then to the U.S. exploring life, seeking adventure, picking up odd jobs along the way. He waited tables at The Fish Shack in Key West and helped renovate a motel where he lived for free. He went to Colorado to learn how to ski and stayed for the winter cleaning condos to pay for it all. He also spent time in Nicaragua during the Contra War to see for himself what was happening there.
Then, down to his last $10, he found himself in a Santa Cruz brewery with a fellow Brit behind the bar. Hours and many beers later, Nigel still had his $10 and had found gainful employment. But, in 1991, he left the states again, this time for Japan where he lived and coached soccer.
Years later, back in America, Nigel found himself in Ojai’s land of milk and honey, but opted for wine and whiskey when pub life beckoned and he started a career as a bar owner. He bought The Jester in 2007. The space was perfect: a bar (of course), tables, a stage for bands to play, a dance floor and an outside patio. Beer was on tap and in bottles, and a full selection of hard liquor was available. His Irish coffee became a favorite Jester drink. Pub food and tidbits were on the menu — but it was the 12 different burgers that intrigued me, including a Gentlemen’s Burger. The ingredients were kept secret, but you were asked if you had any food allergies before you could order one, just to make sure you didn’t have a seizure on the bar stool. Nigel promises The Jester will reopen, so I hope to try that burger.
Not long after The Jester closed, Nigel opened The Vine where he still hosts a trivia night, as well as bands and musicians who play there. Tapas and salads, tortizzas and quesadillas are among the items on the menu.
Recently, Nigel has opened the bar during the day for wine tasting, where townies and tourists can come and have a glass or try a flight of his own wine, Feros Ferio, made from grapes grown in Paso Robles, Los Olivos and other local appellations.
Nigel also works as an actor from time-to-time and played “Banquo” in last season’s production of “Macbeth” at the Ojai Art Center Theater. A strong believer in giving back to the community, he recently was awarded the Hope Frazier Award by the Ojai Arts Commission, in recognition of his contributions to the cultural life of Ojai. The vital music scene at the Vine was cited, of course, but also his creation of a special Monday night program featuring young artists, his display of paintings by local artists, his hosting of poetry readings, and a number of one-of-a-kind fundraising events for local individuals in need, or local non-profit entities.
His saloonkeeper philosophy: provide a safe and friendly environment for customer and staff alike … to be a place where even if everyone doesn’t know your name, you’ll feel welcomed.
Russ Brunelli and Nigel Chisholm — get to know their names and they’ll get to know yours as well. ≈OQ≈