For their newest project, husband-and-wife restaurateurs Bobeck Parandian and Joann Guitarte want to take an old Victorian house on a quiet, tree-lined residential street in Alameda and convert it into a full-service French-Creole restaurant. And not just any old house: The restaurant that Guitarte and Parandian are calling La Maison — literally, "the house" — will be located in the 122-year-old Queen Anne Victorian at 721 Santa Clara Avenue that has been their place of residence for the past ten years.
Indeed, as Guitarte explained, if all goes according to plan, about one year from now, she and Parandian will be on the market for a new place to live.
Guitarte and Parandian are perhaps best known as the owners of Cafe Jolie, a French restaurant housed in a commercial complex that's just down the street from their home. (They also own a pizzeria called Bowzer's Pizza on the other side of town.) But the inspiration for turning their house into a restaurant came relatively recently, during trips to the New Orleans area to visit Parandian's father, Guitarte said. There, in the French Quarter, they continuously came across multiple Victorians that had been converted into restaurants or other businesses. Each time, Guitarte's reaction was, "This looks just like our house." And so the seed of the idea for La Maison was sown.
Guitarte, who is the chef for all of the couple's restaurants, said the menu will be a kind of California spin on traditional French-Creole cuisine, and while she's still in the early stages of experimenting with recipes, she definitely plans to include her own versions of signature dishes such as a po'boy sandwich, gumbo, jambalaya, and red beans and rice. Gravies will be a little bit less heavy to account for Californians' tastes. "The flavors are there, but we won't overdo it," she said.
Of course, the real novelty of the project will be the feeling of eating at a restaurant that had at one point been someone's house. Parandian will do all of the design work himself: Not much will be done to the exterior, but the plan is to carve out enough space to seat about fifty people inside, in addition to installing a large commercial-grade kitchen. There will be garden seating for another thirty diners in the backyard. The idea, Guitarte said, will be to create a kind of "synergy" on the West End of Alameda. With the Saturday farmers' market, Cafe Jolie, and several other shops all just steps away, the hope is to create a lively, community-oriented atmosphere that's not unlike the French Quarter — if perhaps on a smaller scale.
Last month, the couple's plan passed its first major hurdle when Alameda's planning board voted six-to-one to change the property's zoning designation, though the lone dissenting vote hinted at the fact that the project does have some detractors. Guitarte acknowledged that some residents in the neighborhood have expressed concern that there will be excessive noise in the evenings due to the outdoor seating area — especially since there are several apartment complexes in the house's immediate vicinity. Guitarte suspects that the city will address those concerns by placing restrictions on how late the restaurant is allowed to stay open. According to Guitarte, Alameda's reputation as a sleepy island community where everyone goes to bed early might end up rendering those fears moot: At Cafe Jolie, for instance, she said she rarely seats her last customer for the night much later than 8:30 p.m.
Of course, during a time when much of the East Bay is dealing with a major housing crisis, some might feel uneasy about the prospect of converting a residential property into a restaurant. That said, most of the recent discussion in Alameda has centered on affordable housing, especially on the rental market — a designation that would have never really applied to this particular house anyway, Guitarte argued.
At the end of the day, Guitarte hopes the new restaurant will wind up helping to enhance the charming, homegrown vibe that has long been the island city's stock in trade — especially, she said, in the face of a recent influx of big-box businesses such as Target and In-N-Out.
The next bridge Guitarte and Paranthian will need to cross in order to make La Maison a reality is city council approval. After that, there will be an extensive build-out process that will include putting in a new concrete foundation, as well as major plumbing and gas work for the kitchen. The earliest Guitarte foresees the restaurant opening is sometime in the summer of 2017.
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