Like all Reno restaurants, Brasserie Saint James in Midtown closed to in-person dining in March 2020, at the start of the pandemic. Unlike many restaurants, Brasserie Saint James did not pivot to takeout. It simply . . . sat.
The restaurant did not reopen in May 2020 when dining began again at reduced capacity. It did not resume service that fall when signatures like bone marrow trenches and Brasserie poutine were ideal for cooler weather. The restaurant did not even give things a go during the busy holidays.
Questions (and gossip) flourished the whole time: What was going on at Brasserie Saint James, one of the city’s most watched restaurants?
Art Farley, then majority owner of Brasserie, would not comment publicly on his plans, and longtime reports of employee morale in free fall and aggressively indifferent service added a spiky garnish to the mystery.
Art wanted out
Although Farley was the public face and principal owner of Brasserie Saint James, he had two minority partners — Dean Albright and Joel Rasmus — since the restaurant debuted in 2012 in a beautifully renovated former ice plant built in 1930. Albright owns a Reno accounting firm; Rasmus is a Reno tech entrepreneur and angel investor.
After the pandemic hit, “Art came to the conclusion he wanted out,” Albright said. “We closed down, and then Joel and I had to make some significant decisions. What are we going to do? Open up again? We assessed everything.” Talks ensued about buying out Farley.
By early October 2020, an agreement had been reached and executed (as previously discussed by my colleague). Albright and Rasmus became 50-50 owners of Brasserie Saint James. (Farley, who reportedly now lives in Spain, could not be reached for comment.)
Getting the band back together
Ellie and Zak Girdis, a couple, met at the restaurant in its first year. She was head server; he was Brasserie’s opening manager. Albright and Rasmus recruited them (as front of house manager and general manager, respectively) to help revive Brasserie.
The owners brought aboard other folks with longtime connections to the restaurant: brewer Madison Gurries, brewing consultant Josh Watterson (the original brewer) and executive chef Karl Lindenberg (a onetime prep cook).
“They really wanted to reopen because they believed in the idea of Brasserie all along,” Ellie Girdis said.
Changing the restaurant culture
The first order of business in the past 10 months has been creating esprit de corps among the staff.
“We are changing the culture of the place,” Zak Girdis said. “Starting with happy engaged employees and staff and management. Treating employees well, treating them as human beings. That had all been left unattended before.”
Improving service at Brasserie Saint James, widely considered atrocious in the years just before the pandemic, has been part and parcel of changing the culture.
“One of us is here every single shift except Tuesday night, “ Zak Girdis said of himself and Ellie Girdis. “Taking care of customers, helping staff. Our whole goal when we make a mistake is to make it right. I don’t wany anyone leaving here unhappy with their experience.”
IPAs, now back in rotation
There also have been physical changes to Brasserie.
The herd of stuffed animal heads has been significantly thinned. Booths have been removed from the middle of the main dining room, opening up the flow. The beer garden has ascended to an upstairs terrace; the downstairs terrace is a new dining area. A small snacks menu is offered at the bar, then served on the roof.
Yet another change? Paying increased attention to the brewery side of the operation. That includes more canned beers from the canning line, expanding Brasserie beer distribution and at least 10 new beers on draft. Notably, IPAs, which Farley did not like (but which the public loves), have returned to the list.
All the old favorites
Besides its space, a gorgeous confluence of brick, hardwoods and history, the menu has always been a strength of Brasserie Saint James: a mix of French bistro, elevated pub grub and twists on American standards.
On the plate, that looked like Basque mussels or steak tartare, housemade soft pretzels or fish and chips, a Cubano sandwich or brunchtime jambalaya and eggs.
Since reopening, a handful of dishes (like steak frites) have been added to the menu, and pizzas (like a pulled pork version) have been brought back, but the menu is largely the one familiar through the years.
“We want to give people what they want,” Zak Girdis said.
So cue the bone marrow — without drama on the side.
Johnathan L. Wright is the food and drink editor for Reno News & Review. Follow him on Twitter at @ItsJLW or on Facebook personally or at @FoodNevada. Sign up here for the Reno News & Review free weekly newsletter highlighting our most recent stories.