August 07, 2002 11:00 pm
BIG CITY FLAIR: Rich Thomassetti brings his culinary expertise to the Elkhorn Steakhouse and Lounge on Adams Avenue in La Grande. (The Observer/Laura Mackie-Hancock).
BIG CITY FLAIR: Rich Thomassetti brings his culinary expertise to the Elkhorn Steakhouse and Lounge on Adams Avenue in La Grande. (The Observer/Laura Mackie-Hancock).

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Old habits die hard. So do beliefs and perceptions about certain institutions, specific places.

The same can be said for the restaurant/lounge on Adams Avenue which for a long time was known simply as "The Trop."

Then a man from Portland took over and turned it into a Chinese restaurant (Tai's). It didn't last long under that format.

As The Trop, it had quite a reputation for years, with a lot fights and unruly characters, admits one of the new owners, Gary Stone.

He and his niece, Rebecca Lester, took over the Tropidara some time after the building was burned out in July 2000. Their plan is to completely extinguish the place's old image.

For starters, they renamed it Elkhorn Steakhouse and Lounge.

"We've completely rebuilt this place from the ground up," Stone said one afternoon recently while occupying a seat at a table not too far from the bar, where four or five customers were seated, with a TV going over the counter near the end of the bar. It was late in the day, but some dinner customers were already coming in.

Stone said things started out great when the restaurant re-opened under his and Rebecca's management, but soon he and the cook he had hired had a parting of the ways. The food was just not that good, Stone admitted.

He put an ad in a Portland newspaper — and was he surprised.

Up popped a Paris-trained applicant for the job of chef. That's Paris, as in Paris, France, known for, among other things, turning out culinary experts. As in Le Cordon Blue: Academie d'art culinaire de Paris.

That man is Rich Thomassetti, who said he is Italian and originally from Altoona, Pa., and has been in the food business for 42 years — "since I was 16."

"I was working for the Red Lion Corporation in Astoria and was discontented with the corporate structure of things. I wanted a change," he said.

Now, after a few weeks, "things are still changing, but we've come up with a unique menu," Thomassetti said.

Stone said the chef "has brought a big-city flare to La Grande. We've got stuff you can only get in Portland. With the help of Rich, I think we've achieved our original goal."

Thomassetti said he was in the Army in Germany, where he started chef school before completing his schooling in Paris in 1963.

"I went to school for two years, then worked in Copenhagen, Denmark, for three years before returning to the United States."

He was the catering chef on the Queen Mary, which was owned by the City of Long Beach, Calif.

He came to Oregon in 1972 and was in Astoria "off-and-on for five years," he said and also did contract work, building 17 restaurants in Oregon.

Besides the recent innovations in the dinner menu, he has been busy developing a 22-page catering menu. Stone said the chef has a lot of experience in banquet preparation and hopes to attract groups of 50 or so to the restaurant's banquet room.

"It will take a little time since we're just starting the new menu," Thomassetti said.

He described the menu as being one "with a wide range, with items that are kind of unique to this area. It's pretty well-rounded. Dinner features several steaks, barbecue pork, seafood, pasta. We make our own chowder. We buy very little prepared products," he said.

Then there's a quesadilla or sandwiches, or salads at lunch, he said.

"What we offer is a nice freshness, something new for the people to try," Thomassetti said.

He's working 12 to 14 hours a day, he said, to make it all come together. But he's never too busy in the kitchen to come out and chat with the customers, "to tell me how they like their meal."

Thomassetti visited La Grande about 25 years ago and remembers stopping in at The Trop.

It's a different place now, and he's got a hand in helping erase that old image and the reputation.