RESTAURANT RESURRECTED

April 17, 2002 11:00 pm
Justin Husbands of Curt Walter Plumbing works in the revamped kitchen at the former Tropidara. At left is the Elkhorn Steakhouse's new gas range. "The kitchen was a mess and we have completely redone it," said new owner Rebecca Lester. (The Observer/Phil Bullock).
Justin Husbands of Curt Walter Plumbing works in the revamped kitchen at the former Tropidara. At left is the Elkhorn Steakhouse's new gas range. "The kitchen was a mess and we have completely redone it," said new owner Rebecca Lester. (The Observer/Phil Bullock).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The former Tropidara restaurant and bar, which caught fire in July 2000 — will reopen as a steakhouse under new owners.

Rebecca Lester of La Grande and her uncle, Gary Stone of Spokane, who has moved to La Grande, have bought the building and are in the process of renovating it. Both will be active partners in the business, Lester said.

"Our target date for opening is the first week in May," she said this week as workers continued a massive renovation of the building.

They have renamed the business Elkhorn Steakhouse and indicated they are interested in developing "an upscale, fine dining establishment with a quiet lounge." They plan to appeal to families.

Total seating is 250, including dining, lounge and banquet room, Lester said.

"We'll have an elk and kind of a cowboy theme. We've created two large ‘Walls of Fame' and want people to bring in their photos of elk, with their names and dates on them."

She said the menu emphasis will be on steak, but seafood, chicken and pasta dishes will be served. She will offer "some special wines and microbrews."

There is a small dance floor, and she plans to have live music Friday and Saturday nights.

Lester was one of two Charter Communications employees laid off as that company shifted its call-in center to Vancouver, Wash., in recent months, she said.

Most of her work experience has been in clerical positions. She has worked in restaurants and tended bar before, she said.

Since the fire, the building has been mainly a boarded-up storefront that was an eyesore for downtown La Grande. The restaurant is on the ground floor of what is essentially two adjacent buildings, a two-story and a three-story one.

Downstairs, the fire caused mainly smoke and water damage, and workers have been busy making repairs.

"We're spending a lot of time just gutting and cleaning the building, putting in new carpeting and doing other work," Lester said.

"We've done minimal changes to the structure, but we've had to do a lot of painting, more remodeling, including walls, put in some new wall coverings, done tons and tons of cleaning. The kitchen was a mess and we have completely redone it."

She is seeking $20,000 in financial assistance from the city's Emerging Economic Opportunities fund. She appeared at city council Wednesday night to seek those funds for renovation of the faade of the building. She said she had not drawn up any plans for the exterior.

Lester and Stone would like to expand in the future to the second and third floors. Lester plans to work with city and state historical preservation groups, since the building is in the historical district.

"Our long-range goal, over two or three years, is to remodel the three-story building, which has two huge halls on the upper levels. We want to open it up for weddings, meetings and banquets," she said.

At the time of the fire, Tai's Chinese Restaurant occupied the street level space. Tai Zhu of Portland started the business in March 2000. He did major renovations, including new interior walls and new plumbing and put in new tables. He had seating for 100, a banquet room, and the bar could accommodate about 40. He never opened again after the fire.

The fire started just before 4 p.m. July 27, 2000, in an upstairs apartment on the front of the building and gutted the apartment. The fire did extensive smoke and water damage to the restaurant and bar downstairs and to other parts of the upstairs. It burned away a figure of a dancing girl in a hula skirt on the outside of the building.

Arson was suspected, but no one has been charged.