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