As 2015 gets underway, Downtown Dining—at the helm of the culinary trifecta known as Rio Grill, Tarpy’s Roadhouse, and Montrio Bistro restaurants—is not resting on its laurels…nor any other seasonings. After 31 years, Rio Grill understands how to keep things fresh and interesting while still catering to loyal locals and other consistent customers, who have come to expect their favorite foods.
In January, Chef Cy Yontz introduces a new brunch specialty menu at Rio Grill and, in February, he’ll debut his new lunch-dinner menu. But not to worry; while Chef Yontz promises some exciting new savory dishes, he also will continue to serve long-time favorites such as his Chinese chicken salad, barbecued ribs, pumpkin seed-crusted salmon, and roasted Castroville artichoke, among others.
“The challenge and the opportunity,” says managing partner Tony Tollner, “is to continue to evolve as a local restaurant by maintaining what’s kept people coming for so long, yet intriguing them with new and different options. Everything is new to our first-time guests, but the long-time guests, who come in for the satisfaction of finding the comfort food they love, just might wonder what else we’ve got.”
Tarpy’s Roadhouse is upgrading and expanding not only its menu but also its catering department and the back of the house, with a new kitchen, catering office and general manager’s office. Following an extensive front-of-the-house remodel in 2012, with a new bar, art, paint, carpeting, and lighting, the focus of the upgrade continues to be on enhancing the guest experience.
“When Chef Todd Fisher joined us last year,” says Tollner, “he really brought a new synergy to the restaurant. His alliance with General Manager Debbie Edwards is exciting, and the result is tremendous culinary integrity and a higher level of service. We are really having fun at Tarpy’s, and our guests seem to be, as well.”
This year, Montrio Bistro, which will turn 20 in March, will undergo the most publicly noticeable changes. In time for an April anniversary celebration, Chef Tony Baker will introduce a new menu format with content changes, focusing on more medium-sized plates.
“At Montrio,” says Tollner, “we are introducing a sharing format to our neighborhood bistro, where guests get to play with their food. The emphasis will be on vegetables, with very exciting food choices and presentation.”
One of the more intriguing changes at Montrio this season is taking place behind the bar. Tollner designed what he calls the “Temple of Intoxication,” a functional art piece with a stair-stepped structure lit from below, which displays beautiful bottles of premium spirits. The piece is both subtle and significant, speaking to the craft cocktail movement.
“We are actually looking to launch a more guest-effective trend with our craft cocktails,” says Tollner. “Our cocktail wizard, Anthony Vitacca, creates amazing drinks of mind-blowing complexity and flavor. But I think we could lose some of our regular diners, who might be intimidated by our drink menu. Now we are swinging back to find balance, so our gin-and-tonic drinkers or those who want a beer, also will feel at home.”
It’s just good barmanship, he says.
Montrio, says Tollner, strives to be a neighborhood bistro, where guests can come in for a burger and a beer, or a steak and an appetizer. But they also want the restaurant to be interesting, innovative, creative and fun.
Montrio also wants to be visible and accessible. So they are in the process of dedicating the front two parking spaces to a “parklet,” an outside dining area with tables and chairs, framed by hand-wrought railings, lighting, and an expanded awning.
“Calle Principal is kind of a second-class street in terms of retail traffic,” says Tollner, “because it has been more of a wholesale and service street. The parklet is exciting because now, people who are standing down the street at the Marriott, will see some activity in front of Montrio. So we’ll have visibility. In addition, the Monterey Hotel is finishing their renovation with new guest rooms, retail spaces, and apartments. Now fronting Alvarado Street, the hotel will change their entrance to Calle Principal, which will bring our street to life with much more activity. And we’ll be ready and welcoming.”
Downtown Dining is looking to the new year with a focus on balance and accessibility by introducing exciting additions at each restaurant, while maintaining signature offerings that have made them so popular for so long.
A fifth-generation Northern Californian, Lisa Crawford Watson has enjoyed a diverse career in business, education and writing. She lives with her family on the Monterey Peninsula, where her grandmother once lived and wrote. An adjunct writing instructor for CSU Monterey Bay and Monterey Peninsula College, Lisa is also a free-lance writer, who specializes in the genres of art & architecture, health & lifestyle, food & wine. She has published various books and thousands of feature articles and columns in local and national newspapers and magazines.