It’s in their blood

Restoring the Red Tavern to its former glory

Red Tavern owners Rich and Chris Garcia out on the restaurant’s popular patio.

Red Tavern owners Rich and Chris Garcia out on the restaurant’s popular patio.

Photo by Brittany Waterstradt

Rich Garcia grew up in the restaurant business, washing dishes and busing tables in his family’s Italian eatery in Turlock. Today, his sister owns restaurants there and in nearby Modesto.

In college, Garcia studied criminal justice, and for 12 years he was an investigator in the Idaho State Police, based out of Twin Falls. But California beckoned, and so did a return to the restaurant business. “Once it’s in your blood, it’s really hard to get out,” he explained during a recent interview at the Red Tavern, the venerable fine-dining establishment on The Esplanade near Third Avenue that he and his wife, Chris, now own.

The Garcias ate at the Red Tavern several times when it was still owned by its founders, Craig Thomas and Maria Venturino. When they learned, in 2012, that it had been sold, they asked their broker to keep an eye on it, in case the new owners couldn’t make it work.

Sure enough, it came back on the market, and the Garcias bought it 15 months ago.

Word of mouth is all-important in the restaurant business, and the word at that time was that the Tavern’s quality had declined from what it had been under Thomas and Venturino. The Garcias knew they had to turn that perception around.

Running a high-quality, high-end restaurant is kind of an art. Garcia calls it “an intense balancing act,” one in which a multiplicity of parts must function in harmony or the customer will go away unsatisfied.

This is especially true when the restaurant changes its menu every six weeks, as the Red Tavern does, and uses only locally grown, organic vegetables that are in season and locally sourced meats, such as those from Llano Seco Rancho. Needless to say, perhaps, the Garcias and their chef, Thomas Gilligan, are regulars at Chico’s Saturday farmers’ market.

At this point, Garcia feels good about what they’ve accomplished. The restaurant is in the black and business is increasing every month, he said. Most important, customers are telling him they’re pleased.

“I really think we’re back to the heyday [of the Red Tavern], but with a slightly different approach to the cuisine,” he said.

One difference is that the menu draws from more traditions. “We love French and Italian,” Garcia explained, “but we also love Spanish, Asian and Mexican as well at times.”

Innovations include a special ethnic-cuisine dinner held on the last Thursday of each month. One recently featured Spanish tapas, and another focused on Portuguese cuisine, a rare offering here or anywhere.

Other additions include an all-night happy hour Tuesdays on the patio, with drinks and appetizers both at reduced prices. On Wednesday evenings, there’s jazz on the patio from 6:30-8:30, and on Sundays brunch is served. The restaurant is also open Sunday evenings for dinner, meaning that it’s open every day except Monday. The Garcias figure that if they can attract customers on a day when most other restaurants are closed, all the better.

So far, so good, Garcia said. “Every month we’re doing better and better. We’re definitely in it for the long haul.”