Matador bar to open in old St. James Infirmary in Reno

On the roof, gorgeous steelwork; downstairs, booths to reserve

PHOTO/PROVIDED BY MATADOR: The enclosed booths with privacy curtains can be reserved at no charge at the new Matador Bar & Lounge on California Avenue in Reno.

A beloved Reno bar space — the onetime scene, for many of us, of slouchy cocktailing and late-night music and rooftop breaks (perhaps with ciggie?) — is returning to active duty.

Matador Bar & Lounge is set to launch July 8 in the former St. James Infirmary on California Avenue. St. James, named for a famous blues song, debuted in 2007; its final incarnation closed last year during the pandemic. Matador is celebrating its opening with a party that begins 5 p.m. July 8.

Dennis Leary, a San Francisco barkeep and restaurateur whose holdings include The Sentinel, purveyor of sandwich behemoths, and House of Shields, a 1908 bar next door, is opening Matador Bar & Lounge. During the coronavirus shutdown in 2020, Leary and his wife and their toddler daughter moved to the family’s cabin in Crystal Bay at Lake Tahoe.

“The pandemic essentially accelerated a life change. We wanted to raise our daughter in the mountains. I feel like I can integrate my lifestyle and work and do something in Reno I couldn’t do somewhere else,” Leary said, explaining his choice of the Biggest Little City for his latest project.

“I saw the (sale) listing online. I came here, I saw it, I loved the neighborhood,” added Leary, who is the new tenant but not the purchaser of the building, which has been owned for nearly 20 years by a local contractor.

Leary said the red seating and accents remaining from St. James Infirmary suggested the red of a bullfighter’s swirling cape, hence the name Matador, along with a broadly Spanish feel seen in planned elements like black and gold highlights, and in a neon bull’s head replacing the cursive neon Society sign (which has been donated to the Nevada Neon Project).

Besides nodding to Spain, Matador Bar & Lounge will tip its shaker to Reno tradition, Leary said.

“I like the casino idea with no clocks and no windows. I’m going to shade the window. Very dark and very low lit. I want it to feel like an old place but not like I’m trying too hard.”

On the roof, steel as art

PHOTO/PROVIDED BY MATADOR: A steel pergola and steel perimeter screens, all rendered in a flower-and-tendril pattern, now distinguish the rooftop terrace at the new Matador Bar & Lounge on California Avenue in Reno.

At Matador, work is proceeding apace for opening day. Wooden enclosures inset with openwork screens (sort of like confessionals) now enrobe the curving booths, creating separate bowers that folks can reserve at no charge, a first for a Reno bar (as opposed to a nightclub). Want more privacy? Draw the curtains closed.

Leary said he drew inspiration for the enclosures from Sam’s, a classic San Francisco seafood house with privacy booths “where people go and cut deals and have romance.”

Upstairs at Matador, the rooftop has been transformed by a coated steel pergola and perimeter screens rendered in flower-and-tendril fretwork by Paolo Cividino of Tutto Ferro, a Reno custom metal fabricator.

“I wanted something thin but also something strong because it’s windy up here,” Leary said. “I cold called Paolo. I saw his name someplace. He introduced me to the carpenters that built the booths.”

The small bar on the roof will, fittingly, be called Mirador, Spanish for “lookout” or “”vantage point.”

Farm ingredients; ass alone

PHOTO/PROVIDED BY MATADOR: The new Matador Bar & Lounge occupies the former St. James Infimary space on California Avenue in Reno. (The Rubicon Deli sign is for the deli at back.)

Leary owns Andromeda Farm, a 40-acre spread in Capay Valley, Calif., northwest of Sacramento (and east of Lake Berryessa) in Yolo County. This summer, produce from the farm like peaches, blackberries, chiles, figs and mint will contribute to the drinks at Matador Bar & Lounge.

“The idea would be to make peach-infused gin,” Leary said. “I have more mint than I know what to do with. A mojito made with mint that you grew? I think that’s a selling point.”

Overall, Leary said, the bar program at Matador will feature classic cocktails, “weighted more toward mezcal and tequila,” without anything being too precious, craft-ish or curated (horrid word).

“This is not going to be an uber cocktail place. I don’t think Reno needs another one because so many places do it well already.”

The other afternoon, Leary took a moment on the rooftop. A check of the sound system began below. “We have a good system. I can feel it in my feet,” he said.

Leary has been liberally deploying elbow grease getting Matador Bar & Lounge ready, as the dirt under his fingernails attests. DIY is his standard MO, he said.

“I’m on my own here, no investors. I’ve never had investors. It’s my ass hanging out there.”

Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink writer for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter.

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