An 1870s Gothic revival church. A former blacksmith’s quarters. A brick walk-up where Barbra Streisand used to perform on the balcony.
These historic locales don’t sound like the average restaurant setting, but that hasn’t stopped plucky owners and chefs from transforming storied buildings into restaurants with stories. The renovations come with their challenges, from high costs to a lack of modern heating, but owners say they reap rewards that new construction simply can’t provide.
“If you’re doing a concept that’s very new, clean, and modern, it makes sense to be in a new building; otherwise, I think old spaces have charm and history,” says Yassmin Sarmadi, owner of Church & State Bistro, which opened shop in the former Nabisco bakery and offices in Los Angeles.
The restaurant’s history gives her staff something to tell customers that few competitors can rival.
Kevin B. Malone grew up surrounded by Civil War history in his hometown of Manassas, Virginia, 45 minutes west of Washington, D.C. As proprietor of the upscale dining venue that bears his name, “It was only logical that I would open my first restaurant in historic Old Town Manassas,” Malone says. Perhaps less obvious was his selection of the former Manassas Presbyterian Church as the site for his restaurant, which opened February 2013.
Built in 1872, the church was an architectural landmark in the community, reflecting the population that lived there post-Civil War. From the exterior, with its red sandstone and Gothic, traceried windows, the restaurant still looks like—and could even be mistaken for—an antiquated church.
The renovation inside included a comprehensive kitchen update from the tapas restaurant that existed there before, which entailed replacing 65 percent of the kitchen equipment. Items replaced ran the gamut from refrigeration equipment and dishwashers to exhaust fans and ventilation hoods, as well as safety and fire-suppression equipment. Restrooms had to be updated and an existing HVAC system was replaced after the first year of operation.
Once the renovation began, several old relics were uncovered, including the antique Tiffany stained glass windows. As the old scaffolding was removed, personalities from the past emerged in details, like initials dating back to 1874 inscribed just below where the belfry had stood.
Today, dining tables sit comfortably near the old church’s windows, so guests can look out over the town. The inviting ambiance reflects the contemporary American cuisine grounded in meats and seafood.
Malone says there’s pride in reinvigorating such a historic building, though the fact that Malones is a historical site slows down architectural evolution. Malone wants, for example, to renovate the upstairs of the church into a 40-seat sports bar, though its approval will have to go through the National Trust for Historic Preservation first.
While he says it’s impossible to calculate the renovation’s total cost, Malone states, “I’ve found one major benefit of opening a restaurant in an historic building is that guests are not only experiencing award-winning cuisine, they are also engulfed in the soul of the destination.”