With the launch date initially scheduled for a year ago, The Baler Restaurant at the Pendergrass will open to the public for dinner on Nov 25 after a successful—if slightly shaky—soft opening Nov. 23.
“That evening was a good experience, for the most part,” said Yvonne Sanchez, who co-owns the business with her husband, Raul Escareno. I didn’t think we were ready, but Raul said, ‘No matter what, we are opening.’’’ It was mainly family and friends, and it was a chance to put all of our staff on their toes. There were a few glitches, and we have a little list of things to review, but the most important part was that the food was on point,” Sanchez said.
Opening with an abbreviated menu and with the renovations of a private dining room in the rear of the restaurant still unfinished, Escareno said launching the Baler was a lot different than when he opened Mangia Italian Kitchen six years ago.
“With the smaller restaurant, it was a lot easier,” he said. “There was no beer or wine yet because the license was still being processed. So we just had the food and were ready to rock and roll. There is a lot to coordinate here since we are trying to have a bar and finer dining—there are more steps in the process.”
Taking over the location of the former Hollister Bar and Grill at 500 San Benito Street, the couple transformed the interior into what a restaurant might have looked like when the Pendergrass building was constructed in 1927, with period artwork, furnishings and gilt-framed mirrors.
One of the guests at the soft launch, 91-year-old Francesca Williams, praised the renovation while recalling how she elevated Escareno from a busboy to kitchen staff when he was just 15 years old after noticing how hard he worked at her restaurant.
“He was such a good kid, always,” she said. “I thought he would be doing something wonderful because he wants to be different and has to have things perfect. Everything here is absolutely elegant and beautiful—I think I rubbed off on him a little.”
Head chef Lucio Lozano brings over 22 years of experience working in local restaurants, including stints at Mission Cafe, Payne’s and the Westside Grill. Focusing on local produce and meats, he plans to expand the menu as the Baler finds its rhythm and expands into foods that are not easily found locally.
“We are going to have a tomahawk steak, which is really rare to have around here,” Lozano said. “It will be big enough to serve two and will come with side dishes. And we will have chicken dishes from all over the world and different kinds of fish. We have a chance to do big things here, but we will take it step-by-step as the staff gets used to what we are doing.”
The restaurant offers ribeye and New York steaks, including a cajun dry-rubbed and blackened ribeye with a cream sauce. Oven-roasted half chickens and tenderloin pork chops with a honey Dijon sauce are available. The restaurant also has a seafood risotto with prawns, mussels, clams and calamari.
The salad menu includes The Baler, featuring tomatoes, bacon, avocado and a blue cheese dressing topped with Harrisa seasoned chicken. Truffle mac and cheese appears as one of the appetizers, made with orecchiette pasta and bacon. There are vegetarian and vegan options as well, including stuffed portobello mushrooms and broccolini Calabrese with peppers and garlic.
Beer and wine selections will be limited, as Escareno says he wants to avoid drawing business away from the existing alehouses and the soon-to-open Crave Wine Company tasting room. The house wine, at first, will be Idyll Time chardonnay, Sirah, zinfandel, and their special blend Syrapinot.
“We want to create a good atmosphere with great food,” said Sanchez. “We want people to enjoy a good dinner with nice lighting and great service, a place where they can feel like a million bucks. A place where you can have a date night or just a little getaway from life.”
The Baler will be open Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays at 3:30 p.m. and the dining room will be open from 4:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays will have the same opening time but the dining room will close at 10 p.m.
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