February 9, 2021 – The landmark property that was Gallatin’s, Stokes Adobe and Restaurant 1833 has a new tenant.
Just don’t ask what the name is, who the chef is or what’s on the menu.
All that will come in time.
First things first. At the moment, that includes 1) cleanup; 2) permitting; and 3) perhaps the most important part: assurance the incoming operators are experienced in rebirthing a destination place successfully.
Daughter-father co-owners Sarah Orr and Peter Orr are longtime locals based across Monterey Bay but with deep connections to Monterey, where Sarah went to high school (York School) and Peter continues to serve on the Monterey Jazz Festival board.
Salinas-born Sarah has been working in restaurants since 15, bussing tables at Cafe Sparrow in Aptos, throwing dough at now-gone Aragonas and waiting tables while in college at University of Colorado at Boulder. After graduating she went into advertising, but couldn’t resist the hospitality calling, becoming a GM for a range of Hillstone Restaurant Group properties across Southern California.
“My whole life I wanted to do restaurants,” she says.
After Santa Cruz beckoned her back, Sarah and her successful strawberry-farming father partnered on acquiring and revitalizing Margaritaville in Capitola starting a half dozen years ago.
“Owning and operating are very different,” she says. “ I learned all about that. I had to—and got to—make every decision.”
They found enough success transforming the formerly shuttered spot into a Mexican cantina popular for its from-scratch chips, salsa, chile verde and, yes, Margaritas, that they were ready for a new revitalization project.
But Sarah is clear: The tourist-centric Margaritaville formula works there, and there it will remain. The Stokes Adobe project will be very much its own thing.
“Our plan is seasonal California cuisine with a focus on craft cocktails,” she says. “First-class casual.”
An extended conversation with Sarah reveals she has put a lot of thought into how to apply what she’s learned at every restaurant stop with her new project, and that she’s attentive to granulars like seat capacity caps, ideal group size and how to best populate a unique—and uniquely multidimensional—space.
“I know it’s not exciting for everybody, but it’s the stuff that I feel passionate about,” she says.
She hopes to open the patio by this summer and eventually, post-pandemic, introduce the interior of the restaurant and the bar. The tentative plan is for the first floor to be dedicated to the restaurant with the second floor reserved for parties and events.
Peter thinks guests will ultimately be most drawn by two things.
“One, we’ve learned from our restaurant experience that people talk a lot about food, but service is very important, and we concentrate on both,” he says. “Secondly, there’s a lot of history to that building and we’re excited to be a part of that and build on that.”
Edible Monterey Bay talked with Sarah as she and her team continue to excavate and explore the historic (and famously haunted) space, an effort that began in December. The property is owned by Orbis Financial after it foreclosed on Coastal Luxury Management last June.
Below appear her thoughts on everything from operating philosophy to Hattie the resident ghost.
Edible Monterey Bay: How would you characterize your vision for a place, particularly one so many care so much about?
Sarah Orr: Locals and neighbors and former employees have all come in, asking, “What’s it going to be?” “Who are you?” “What’s the name?” “What’s the menu?”
For now it’s a pretty big project just getting the property ready. There was a lot of stuff left. Fortunately we don’t mind rolling up our sleeves and getting down to business.
Our plan is to, first and foremost, bring it back to being a beautiful home, to fix things up, and aesthetically turn it back into a classy, classic house, then open up a restaurant that feels like going to someone’s home.
We want to make it approachable, affordable enough to visit multiple times a week, and capitalize on the amazing outdoor patio.
We want it to be nice, but not too formal, where there are no white tablecloths, but things are done properly.
I imagine you are holding off on menu development because you want to give your chef the creative ownership required to make this work.
Yes. At this point so much is undetermined. At the end of month we’re really going to start going toward finding a chef, which will be a huge step.
The quality of food is critical to our success. At Margaritaville, everything is made from scratch, with high-quality ingredients and a level of detail we take pride in.
“High-quality ingredients” is something people hear a lot. Can you say more?
We use only Royal Hawaiian Seafood, which is 100-percent sustainable. We use fresh, never-frozen meats. The juice for our cocktails is juiced every day, and that’s a big commitment with the amount of margaritas we sell. Chips are fried fresh from local tortillas.
People ask, “Why are the chips so good?” “Why is the salsa so good?” Well, it’s fresh, and it’s the ingredients.
Across every ingredient choice we make sure to choose what’s freshest and local as possible. Having worked a lot of restaurants and being personally obsessed with food, that’s everything.
But we’re really proud of our service too. In a high-volume restaurant, it’s not easy.
And it puts a premium on smart hiring.
Hiring, training and overall operations. We believe in [complete] customer satisfaction. So we pay attention to guests and listen carefully when they tell us something went wrong.
We really home in on food, service and environment, then the restaurant works for itself. They sound obvious, but I think people get distracted by other things.
You mentioned a focus on craft cocktails and also accessible price points. So how much will a good drink run?
When I have friends and family visit the property, I ask a lot of questions. “What do they want to eat?” I ask them to envision what they would order. “How much should a martini cost?”
Everyone who sees the space wants steak. I was imagining fresh pastas and a fish of the day. And using the pizza oven. But people who come in say that place says “steak.”
Whatever we do, it will be at a reasonable price point. We’re going to end up accomplishing that via volume. I need to find a chef who can create the level of food the place demands but can also keep a price point that allows a large group of people to come on a regular basis.
How much should a martini cost?
I was asking you! $14?
I would love to get a craft drink for $10. Less, actually. But that’s a working journalist talking, and spending a lot of time in more affordable parts of the world than California has ruined me. What other feedback have you received so far?
People feel really connected to that place, but they also tell me that the place can feel cut off from the community. We want to make the space feel open, accessible and welcome.
And warm. I’ve been working in that space for two months and there isn’t a lot of heat. I mean, that house has been there since 1833. So I want it to feel open and warm, literally. There are four fire pits outside but I want more. We want to use all the indoor fireplaces.
It’s part of the community, and should be part of the community, and people should feel welcome and want to be a part of it. You do that across the menu, the staff and the aesthetics.
The space tells a story on its own—and not just the ghosts. I think our version of that is going to evolve into its own identity.
What was the most meaningful lesson you took from reinventing Margaritaville?
When you start a restaurant, you have a plan of how you think things should be. You have to have confidence, a vision. But as you move forward, you have to learn to be flexible. Even if you think one item should be on the menu, or staff should have a certain point of service, if it’s not working, you have to be able to let it go and move onto a better plan.
You have to be willing to listen to your staff and your guests—both in what they’re buying and what they’re telling you.
Also, in order to make it in Capitola, we had to know how to navigate the summer and the winter, two very different times.
How has Hattie the ghost helped so far at 500 Hartnell?
We were working on the hood and my husband dropped his cell phone in it from the roof. We were calling [the phone] and could hear it. We turned the hood on and off and nothing happened.
Then he said, “Hattie, please give me my phone back!” We turned on the hood and it popped out. I know it sounds crazy.
I didn’t believe it when we took over. And if there was a ghost, I figured it would be scary. But ever since we’ve been in the space, we talked to the ghosts. There’s not a user manual for this place, so every time we needed to find a light switch, we’d ask.
One time I couldn’t find the bathroom light on-off switch. Five minutes later I went in the office upstairs to turn off an alarm—and the office is upstairs, not where you’d expect the downstairs bathroom switch—but that’s where I found it.
There’s been little moments like that. Moments that someone is there helping us. It sounds silly, I know, but I think they are happy the restaurant is getting a new life.