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One year later after devastating fire, Calistoga Inn set to reopen


After being closed nearly a year and getting about $2 million in repairs and upgrades, the fire-scarred Calistoga Inn is slowly coming back to life, restoring a major hole in the small town's social life.

"It's been this void as you drive into town at night because the property is so big and to have it go dark every night" is difficult, owner Michael Dunsford said this week as crews scrambled to finish repairs on the kitchen and dining area. "There is just so much energy that has radiated from the patio that creates just a great vibe for the downtown and that's been lost for the last year."

Fire ripped through the upper floor of the century-old inn, brewery, and restaurant at the western end of downtown Calistoga in the early hours of Aug. 28 of last year. Firefighters say it began in a faulty vent fan in the common bathroom area of the 18-room hotel.

Although firefighters were able to knock down the blaze quickly, flames severely damaged the roof. The downstairs, home to the restaurant and kitchen, suffered extensive water damage that destroyed most of the walls and equipment and fried the building's electrical system.

The extensive damage forced owner Dunsford and his mother and business partner, Rosie Dunsford, to gut the structure to meet modern building codes, a far more expensive and time-consuming process than the worst-case estimate in the days after the blaze.

But now the revamped inn is poised for a comeback. The guest rooms reopened July 3 and Dunsford hopes to be serving food and pouring beer again by Aug. 5.

Longtime regular Peter Stetson, a local tech consultant who has been going to the inn since the Dunsfords bought it 24 years ago, said he plans to be first in line for a pint when it reopens.

"It's just such an institution," he said. "The pub atmosphere is always friendly...everybody knows your name."

The inn is one of only a few bars in town that regularly stay open until midnight or later. It also has by far the largest outdoor dining area and the only outdoor beer garden, a shaded spot on the banks of the Napa River. It is the only source of fresh beer in the north end of Napa Valley after the closure of St. Helena's Silverado Brewing Company last fall.

But the closure of the inn was more than a social blow to Calistoga. The loss of 18 hotel rooms cost the city revenue from the transient occupancy tax, the levy guests pay on every hotel room night, though the city doesn't know precisely how much it has lost over the past 11 months.

The inn was well insured, Dunsford said, but the coverage only paid for the salaries of top managers and key staff. That meant most of the 70 employees had to find other work.

Remarkably, around 90 percent of the former staff is coming back, Dunsford said.

Bartender Danny Bazzoli said he's eager to get back to work in the place he's called a second home since 1993, when he started as a busboy at age 16.

"It's a place where tourists come to mingle with locals; where the locals can be comfortable being part of Calistoga, the roots of Calistoga."

Even employees who have remained on salary during the down time seem ready to get back to work.

Brewer Brad Smisloff said the time off "kind of made me go stir crazy."

Although the small brewhouse, with a capacity of just 217 gallons, didn't suffer damage in the fire, Smisloff took advantage of the down time to scrub and rebuild the equipment, paint the walls and refinish the floors.

He resumed brewing the familiar lineup of beers a few weeks ago, including the American-style wheat and the red ale, both of which won medals in the Great American Beer Festival in the 1990s and remain the inn's flagship brews.

Sadly, he said, copious quantities of both beers went down the drain after the fire because the inn couldn't sell beer while the structure was under repair.

"We had a bunch of people over...we tried our damnedest to drink it but there is no way we could even begin to scratch the surface" of what was left over, Smisloff said.

There is some disagreement about when the inn was built. Clearly it was sometime between the 1880s and the first decade of the 20th century, but there is no question it is a major part of the fabric of the town.

It even has a small place in Hollywood history, serving as a location for the filming of the 1940 movie "They Knew What They Wanted," starring Carole Lombard, Charles Laughton and a young Karl Malden in his first credited movie role. It was, in those days, known as the "Fior D'Italia," a hotel and Italian restaurant that is still remembered by older residents of Calistoga.

Dunsford said he is going to keep much of the pre-fire feel and look in the restored inn, but there are going to be some changes, starting with the new fire sprinkler system, a new handicap-accessible guest room and expanded restrooms, formerly dark and difficult closets tucked in various corners.

And with an all-new kitchen comes expanded opportunity to step up the food, he said. The menu will remain the same — casual, fresh California fare — but he has hired Chef Sean Mindrum, formerly executive chef at Mustards in Napa, among other high-profile gigs.

Mindrum said he plans to keep the new menu similar to the old one, but with his own twist. The new kitchen also will have a pizza oven, a feature the old one lacked.

On the bar side, Dunsford plans to go more upscale, though not so much as to alienate regulars. Gone is the dance floor that used to occupy the back end of the bar on weeknights, but the beer lineup will remain the same.

He plans to add a high-end cocktail menu, under the direction of mixologist Eduardo Lago, who he hired shortly before the fire and who now is returning as bar manager.

"We definitely want to attract a more tourist crowd," Lago said, but the bar will work hard to maintain the casual hang-out vibe. "That is going to keep the locals very happy, even with all the changes."

(You can reach Staff Writer Sean Scully at 521-5313 or sean.scully@pressdemocrat.com.)