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February 2, 2009 at 10:12 AM

35th Street Bistro: Yes, there’s still life in Fremont

I know, I know: I’ve been holding out on those of you who’ve called and written, asking what’s going on at 35th Street Bistro — closed since January 12. The answer is it’s been sold, and the deal finally closed on Friday when owner Bob Day handed over his bistro’s keys to new owners, Michelle and Mason Citarello.

“It’s bittersweet,” said Day, who was home doing the crossword puzzle when we spoke on Saturday. “It’s kind of funny to wake up in the morning and not have to worry about who’s coming in or calling in sick, what we need, whether or not I have to go to Cash & Carry.”

If you haven’t been around long enough to track this site’s trajectory, Day bought the hallowed, hippified-haunt long known (and loved) as Still Life in Fremont in 2002. He later re-envisioned it as a well-received Euro-styled bistro and in the years since, the kitchen had been graced by a fleet of talent including Renee Erickson (who consulted on 35th Street’s original menu before relocating her Boat Street Cafe to Western Avenue), Steve Smrstik (after a lengthy run at Flying Fish, now working at The Pink Door), Tom Black (now lending a hand at Culinary Communion) and, most recently, Catherine McRoberts (after many years at Chicago’s fabulous Frontera Grill and Topolobampo).

Today that kitchen is undergoing renovations in preparation for its re-opening date, slated for early next week: just in time for Valentine’s Day. Meanwhile, the dining room and its small bar will be getting a minor face-lift. “We love the character of the space and we’re planning on keeping it the bistro that everybody loves,” said Michelle Citarello. “There’s a lot [of restaurants for lease] out there, but we didn’t find anything else with this type of charm, the client base, the reputation it had and the location.” Before finessing the deal — a months-long endeavor — “We looked at so many restaurants. But I loved this place as soon as I walked through the door.”

So, who’ll be cooking next? “Mason will act as executive chef, taking care of the back of the house,” said Michelle, who met her husband when he was an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu in Pasadena and she was his student. “I’ll be running the pastry program and work as GM.” The menu will essentially remain the same, she said, adding, “the restaurant was listed for sale as a Mediterranean bistro even though it’s more French, and my husband and I are both Italian.” That bistro designation, she said, will offer the kind of flexibility to “play” in a variety of culinary milieus.

The Citarellos have family in the area and moved here two years ago. They’ve worked locally at O/8 Seafood Grill and Trader Vic’s (her) and Azura Asian Bistro (where he was GM and director of operations). Michelle describes working her way up from culinary school intern (at the Bellagio in Las Vegas); to baker, line-cook then front-of-the-house management at a small family-owned Italian joint in Southern California (“I learned more there than I’d learn in any other place in just a couple of years”); to a stint at a high-volume house in Long Beach where she further honed her wine knowledge.

This weekend, when she and her husband changed the locks on the door of the restaurant they now call their own and spent their first day of work as restaurant owners, they finally reached the goal so many industry insiders aspire to. “We saw a lot of heartbreaking things out there,” Michelle said of the time spent looking for the restaurant of their dreams. And despite the recent closure of many area restaurants, they’re viewing the future through a bright lens.

As for Bob Day, he’s taking a break before forging ahead with his post-restaurant life. Among the would-be owner/operators who looked at his Fremont business with hope in their eyes, he said of the Citarellos: “They really loved the restaurant and the staff, and they wanted to keep it the same. They liked everything about it.” Because of that, during his transition from bistro-owner to bistro-goer, “I can let go of it and feel confident that my guests will continue to come in and be treated well.”

The restaurant scene “is not pretty” these days, Day admits. In this challenging marketplace, when “you keep seeing brown paper in restaurant windows,” selling a going concern — and keeping that concern going — isn’t as easy as it once was. Yes, the sale of his restaurant is bittersweet, but he wishes his successors well, he said, and as a future customer, “I plan on enjoying something in the bar in the next week or two.”

UPDATE (2/3/09: 10:23 a.m.): Since my posting, Michelle has told me they’ll be retaining two kitchen staffers plus six service staff. Due to the lengthier-than-anticipated closure of the restaurant, “many were forced to find work elsewhere,” she said.

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