Chris Pastena is in a good mood this week. His voice is relaxed, his vibe is jocular; it’s not necessarily what you’d expect from a chef-restaurateur in the midst of big changes at not just one, but three businesses. Highest and most recent on his priorities list was reopening his Jack London warehouse district restaurant Chop Bar, co-run with chef Lev Delany, now in mixed-use residential and retail building Fourth Street East, just half a block and across the street from its former digs.
“I live on Second Street and Jackson. Chop Bar is now on Fourth and Jackson, it used to be a Fourth and Alice; I was getting sick of the long commute,” Pastena joked when asked what prompted the move.
Pastena said there were a few factors that made the decision to move the 10-year-old restaurant an easy one. Four or five years ago, he said, Chop Bar outgrew the 1,600-square-foot space at 247 Fourth St. The restaurant had a separate commissary kitchen because there wasn’t enough room to prep and cook at the restaurant; he and Delany wanted to consolidate everything under one roof. The partners also wanted to host more events at the restaurant — like winemaker dinners — and provide a space for large groups to reserve. And they wanted to expand Chop Bar’s food and drink menu. But, they didn’t want to leave the immediate area (“We have such a strong neighborhood following; it’s our home.”). Now, in a space almost double the size with a bigger kitchen, a few more tables and a private dining room, Chop Bar is able to do all of these things. The move has been “an opportunity to grow as a restaurant,” Pastena said.
But Pastena admits, until they reopened, he wasn’t sure everyone — especially Chop Bar’s longtime regulars — was on board.
“I was very nervous because Chop Bar is an institution and people love the space, it was people’s home, it was their living room and changing that is very nerve-wracking. It was a little bit stressful,” Pastena said.
He felt a lot of relief after the first few days of service at 190 Fourth St., where he and Delany have tried to recreate Chop Bar’s brand of easy and approachable comfort food that adheres to the high standards of the food-savvy Bay Area.
“The response to the new space has been absolutely amazing. People are really happy with it. No ‘we miss the old Chop Bar.’ Instead it’s ‘this is great, we love it’. We’re really able to translate the same feeling, the same emotions at the new space. I haven’t heard anybody missing the old Chop Bar,” Pastena said.
At the new Chop Bar, the menu will allow more opportunities for sharing, both small plates and larger dishes. Pastena said he wants to “let people have more options for communal experiences at the tables.” More burner space, a convection oven and two deep fryers will give chef Delany chances to experiment with new dishes, like salmon croquettes and fried chicken Bloody Marys. Pastena said in the old space, they used a cast iron pot to fry everything; it’s now been retired, hung on the wall as artwork in the dining room.
“Ten years of poutine was made in that pot — it has history,” he said.
Pastena also owns Oaxacan restaurant Calavera in Uptown, and for seven years, Cal-Ital spot Lungomare in Jack London Square. Recently, Pastena sold the latter to a Southern California based restaurant group to focus on Chop Bar’s move, as well as opening a Calavera outpost at the Oakland Airport (scheduled for the end of the year or early next year) and reopening Tribune Tavern (more on that later).
On top of that, he said he was dissatisfied with CIM Group, the developers who own the property at Jack London Square. “They weren’t the strongest partners for small business owners; they were doing their thing without working with us. It made doing business even harder instead of making it better,” he said, giving examples of events at the waterfront that draw crowds, but according to Pastena, don’t positively affect the restaurants there. “Ten thousand people would show up and we’d have our slowest Saturday. I see all the people, they’re not coming in here, they’re eating at that $7 food truck.”
But just as he let go of one business, Pastena is revving up to open another. On Sept. 10, he’ll reopen Tribune Tavern, a restaurant he first opened in 2013 with business partner Tom Henderson (the two also partnered on Lungomare). The short-lived Downtown Oakland eatery at 1 Broadway has a movie-worthy backstory — Pastena severed ties and sued Henderson in 2014, claiming Henderson hid financial information and doled out too many freebies to friends, family and himself. They settled out of court, with the two splitting their businesses — Henderson got the Tribune Tavern and Pastena, Lungomare. But the tavern ultimately closed in 2017, after the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commissions brought fraud allegations against Henderson.
In January, new owners, Harvest Partners, contacted Pastena about reopening Tribune Tavern. On Facebook, Pastena shared the announcement, writing: “They saw and understood the creative and artistic vision we had for the original Tribune Tavern. Harvest has been a great partner and put together a fully financed package to get us back our beloved treasure!! We are incredibly happy and enthusiastic to announce that we will be re-opening the Tribune Tavern in all its original glory in the Fall of 2019!!!”
For the Tribune Tavern’s second coming, Pastena has brought on some of his most trusted allies. This time, his business partner is his wife, Jana Pastena, who will oversee human resources and “the development of ideas” at the restaurant. She has a long background in the hospitality industry, but she also has a law degree. Over the years, she’s been involved at Chop Bar, Calavera and Lungomare. (She’s an amazing guiding force; I could never do it without her,” Pastena said.)
Dario Pantoja, currently executive chef at Calavera, will also play a role. He’ll move full-time to Tribune Tavern, while remaining “the creative force” at Calavera, Pastena said. Trib’s fare will be, what Pastena calls “California tavern food;” think Caesar salads, French onion soup, burgers, cocktails and New York steaks, made with seasonal, fresh and high-quality ingredients. The opening menu is being finalized this week.
Pastena said the Tribune Tavern is pretty much ready to go. Most of the staff has been hired, walls repainted, floors redone and some layout changes made for better service flow. The last pieces of the puzzle are the final health inspections, which he hopes to complete in the next week or two.
After the fraught first experience with Tribune Tavern — and while also running multiple large full-service restaurants — we asked Pastena why he’d even consider giving the tavern another shot.
“I put my heart and soul into this restaurant, and every part of my blood sweat and tears went into it. I love it; it’s a part of me. When it closed and the new owners took over the building and they floated the idea of it, with a good amount of thought, it really made a lot of sense to me. To be able to have a second swing at it is an opportunity not many people get. I’m certainly fortunate and want to pay homage and respect to the work we’ve done. To have that second opportunity was too good to pass up.”
Chop Bar is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., Monday through Thursday; 8 a.m. to 11 p.m., Friday; 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday and 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., Sunday.