For Aiki and Hillary Terashima, an 111-year-old dancehall, tavern and beer garden was the real deal. When the opportunity came up eight months ago to take over the space at 401 Grove – what was Rossi’s, the erstwhile Old Switzerland – the couple who had met in a San Diego Sushi bar saw a chance at realizing their life lifelong ambition.
Sonoma was ready for a creative seafood restaurant, they figured. A neighborhood joint, with fresh, wild, sustainably caught fish at a price that casual diners could, well, sustain. And with two kids themselves, it would have to be family friendly.
Like a delivery of fresh fish, it’s all about the timing. After a few years of restaurant consulting (Shiso & Picazo Cafe), Aiki was ready to get back to cooking. “He was itching to get back in the kitchen. It’s his true passion, that’s where he thrives,” Hillary says.
They took the plunge.
When the two met, about 10 years ago in San Diego, she was front of the house, he was back. Romance bloomed, as did their business savvy. “We’ve both been working in the restaurant industry since we were 15,” Hillary says. It was time, they decided, to do it on their own terms.
They opened a sushi bar within Bay Park Fish Co – a fresh fish market, and launched a successful mobile sushi bar catering company. But while not exactly fish out of water, they felt a draw to return closer to home, to Northern California. If they stayed on, they’d become “rooted,” Hillary felt. Ultimately they sold the business and headed back to the Bay Area.
Aiki scored a position as a Sushi Chef at world-renowned Iron Chef Morimoto’s namesake restaurant in Napa. It was here that he learned how to butcher fish, and created a relationship with Morimoto’s fish purveyor – who now supplies The Reel with the top seafood products in the world. Morimoto’s was great experience, but it wasn’t Aiki’s kitchen. Next came the consulting jobs in Sonoma, for which Aiki wrestled with remodels and floor plans — instead of 250-pound tuna.
The couple had and eye out for their own place, and in October were invited into the Rossi’s space by owner and landlord, Max Young. They took two months to freshen and brighten up the historic space, and developed what they call a “friendly community eatery.”
The approach is informed in part by parenthood. The couple have two kids, Nikko, two-and-a-half, and Lucca, aged nine weeks. “They’re industry babies,” says Hillary, holding Lucca in her arms.
“It’s hard to find a comfortable, reasonable family place in Sonoma,” she says. “It’s either Mexican or Mary’s. We wanted a place locals, whether they’re parents or not, to be able to hang out, eat great food and feel at home.”
The staff includes local industry veterans Enrique Padilla formerly of Aventine, who shares general manager duties with Hillary, and Brian Gilliland, the bar manager, familiar after long stints at Sonoma Grille and Maya. Enrique and Brian have found their comfort zone behind the beautiful, 28-foot long redwood slab bar where they are mixing up refreshing summer cocktails and entertaining bar patrons daily.
“Enrique and Brian have been great additions to our team. They both have great energy and are very good at what they do. The locals love them,” says Aiki. The attention to detail is paying off – the place just voted Sonoma’s Best New Restaurant in the Index-Tribune.
The creative menu includes lobster mac-and-cheese, Macadamia crusted halibut, Whole fried local fish and raw preparations such as local oysters, kampachi crudo and ahi poke.
Meat lovers aren’t left out – try the Habanero lemongrass sticky ribs.
True to its days as a dancehall, the restaurant has perhaps Sonoma Valleys’ biggest dance floor, and live bands are very much part of the weekend menu. The venue also has an old-school music permit, so acts like Pato Banton on August 5 can keep the amps cranked up until closing time. Look for bigger touring acts in the near future, like Steve Kimock, The Wailers and Don Carlos as the venue’s new booking agent reps the club on a larger scale.
Still, when your reputation is fish, you’ve got to stay fresh. Chef Aiki, who prides himself on relationships with the best purveyors, butchers the whole fish, meaning he’s often dealing with slippery specimens bigger than he is. He only brings in wild seafood products, which are sustainably caught whenever possible. But even a 250-pound tuna is no match for a confident chef with a razor-sharp knife. Chef Aiki can knock a big fish down to serving size in about twenty minutes.
The Reel Fish Shop & Grill
Lunch: Tuesday-Sunday 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Happy Hour: Tuesday-Sunday 3pm to 5:30 p.m.
Dinner: Tuesday-Thursday 5 to 8:30.; Friday-Saturday 5 to 9;
Sunday 5 to 8 p.m.
Bar hours: 11:30 a.m. to close
401 Grove Street. Thereelfishshop.com. 707-343-0044