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Rossi’s 1906 brings new life to treasured El Verano venue

Friday, August 29th, 2014 | Posted by
Rossi's 1906 held a soft opening in July but there's now no mistaking the welcoming venue at the former Little Switzerland in El Verano. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

Aimee Weiss, at right, greets guests to Rossi’s 1906. After a soft opening in July, there’s now no mistaking the welcoming venue at the former Little Switzerland in El Verano. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

By DIANNE REBER HART / Sonoma Valley Correspondent

When Max Young began renovating the historic Little Switzerland in El Verano last year, he didn’t expect to find any skeletons in the closet – but was pleasantly surprised by the memorabilia discovered in the walls.

The old-time snapshots, matchbook and 1959 calendar are now safely tucked away. The beehive in the kitchen wall was ceremoniously removed.

Little Switzerland now Rossi's

Bar manager Bryan Tatum serves drinks at Rossi’s 1906. The bar is the original, just resurfaced during the recent renovation. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

Young believes that old buildings have a way of speaking. At 108, the Little Switzerland has stories about those lively days when the hamlet just west of Sonoma was a resort destination.

A yellowed flyer found lodged between the wainscoting listed a telephone number with a Webster prefix and announced the 1962 summertime picnic reservations for the Swiss Athletic Club, the United Swiss Societies and the Alpineer Folk Dancers, among others.

Max Lepper was the proprietor back then, promoting his establishment’s “good food” and “imported wine and beer.”

Much has changed since the beer garden and polka days of the Little Switzerland, but Young knows to respect history, especially in a venue long treasured by the community.

“I really enjoy finding old spaces that have ghosts,” he said.

Young reopened the venue last month as Rossi’s 1906, honoring Swiss-Italian founder Al Rossi and the founding year of his original bar, and kept many things the same.

A framed chalkboard lists the specialty cocktails that include the "Call of the Wild," a tribute to Sonoma Valley author Jack London. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

A framed chalkboard lists the specialty cocktails that include the “Call of the Wild,” a tribute to Sonoma Valley author Jack London. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

The only thing missing is polka music, an attraction now provided by the Sonoma Moose Lodge. Young won’t compete, instead booking live music from jump blues, jazz, swing and other contemporary bands. Rossi’s 1906 also features Southern-style barbecue and fixin’s, prepared by pit master Joey Brown and chef Rudy Mihal, and a full bar of specialty cocktails, outdoor seating and the same dance floor that saw generations of waltzes, polkas and line dances.

“There’s too much history in that room to ignore it,” said Young, 49, who owns three bars in San Francisco and one in Oakland. “We’re a part of Sonoma. We need to be a part of the community. We get that.”

Young purchased the building out of foreclosure more than 18 months ago. He declines to reveal how much he invested, saying only that he “put my heart and soul into it.”

His wife, Karen, is from an old Sonoma family, the Bruscheras, and the Youngs maintain homes in Boyes Hot Springs and San Francisco.

Owning the venue brings a “sense of responsibility,” Young said. “It’s more of a stewardship.”

Aside from revamping the electrical system and insulation, everything else was cosmetic, more nip-and-tuck than full facelift.

An original alpine mural in the dining room honors Little Switzerland of the past. (Towns photo)

An original alpine mural in the dining room honors Little Switzerland of the past. (Towns photo)

“No walls were moved, nothing like that,” Young said.

Weathered carpeting outlining the dance floor was replaced with reclaimed wood from a barn in Washington state, the same wood used as paneling trim and transformed into dining tables.

Painting, staining, sanding and a good scrubbing updated much of the building. A new deck was added along with red umbrellas and picnic tables on the tree-lined patio.

The countertop of the vintage bar was resurfaced but otherwise is the same. Coolers at the far end of the bar were refurbished but are the exact ones from the 1940s shown in an enlarged photo hanging nearby.

Bar manager Bryan Tatum spent four months helping refurbish the barroom, often stopping to give curious passersby a peek at the progress.

“All day people would come up and beat on the door while we were working,” Tatum said. “People brought in old photos. They always have fantastic stories about their polka nights.”

General manager Anastasia Riley said she and Young purposely held a soft opening last month. Signage didn’t go up until a few weeks after the doors first opened.

“First impressions really matter to me and I wanted to get it right,” Riley said. “It’s very humbling. People tell me stories of how their grandparents met here.”

Some of the memorabilia found during the Rossi's 1906 restoration included a 1959 calendar and an old-time snapshot of the Little Switzerland. (Towns photo)

Some of the memorabilia found during the Rossi’s 1906 restoration included a 1959 calendar and an old-time snapshot of the Little Switzerland. (Towns photo)

Word of mouth spread, though, with busy nights now typical.

Thirty employees include well-known bartenders Michael Briones, Brian Gilliland, Brian Scanlan and Ross Skelton. Together with the bar manager, they bring a collective 120 years of bartending skills.

Young wants locals and out-of-towners alike to head to Rossi’s for “supper”  and socializing in the beer garden atmosphere. Young kept some of the Swiss alpine murals lining the dining room, perhaps honoring those ghosts of Little Switzerland past.

“I’ve been there long enough to know its history is an important place in Sonoma, El Verano especially,” Young said. “Our job is to uphold that and breathe new life into it.”

Rossi’s 1906, 401 Grove St., is open for supper from 5 to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday and until 9:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. The bar opens at 3 p.m. and closes at 2 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Closing time fluctuates for the bar on Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday.

A menu for kids 12 and under is offered. Take-out is available. Banquets can be booked in the future.

For more information, call 343-0044 or visit facebook.com/rossis1906sonoma.

Picnic tables add to the casual atmosphere at Rossi's 1906, where patrons relax in the tree-line patio on a recent Friday evening. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

Picnic tables add to the casual atmosphere at Rossi’s 1906, where patrons relax in the tree-lined patio on a recent evening. (CONNER JAY / The Press Democrat)

  • Barbara Ferdinando

    Congratulations max and Karen! Sounds fabulous! Wouldn’t your dad love this!

  • barbara & darrell

    Welcome to sonoma Max & Karen We love your new Rossi, the food and staff are both EXCELLENT

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Dianne Reber Hart is our Sonoma correspondent.

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