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Graton Resort and Casino to include restaurants from Martin Yan, Douglas Keane, La Fondita family


The family behind a longtime Roseland restaurant with humble origins and one of Sonoma County's most prominent chefs will be among those running eateries in the Graton Resort & Casino when it opens later this year outside Rohnert Park.

La Fondita, which grew out of a taco truck launched in 1996, and a gourmet fast food chicken stall run by Douglas Keane, who was chef at the county's most decorated restaurant, Cyrus, will occupy two of nine spaces in the casino's food marketplace.

Also among the casino's 13 eating and drinking establishments will be celebrity Chinese chef Martin Yan's M.Y. China, which will be a standalone restaurant, and Boathouse Sushi, which has Santa Rosa and Rohnert Park restaurants now and plans a more pan-Asian menu for the casino marketplace.

"It's a huge opportunity, something I couldn't have hoped for," said Maria Elena Reyes, the matriarch of La Fondita, a bustling Sebastopol Road restaurant, and Delicias Elenita, its taco truck next door.

"We're thinking of doing it 24 hours," said her son Ivan Reyes. "The casino's a nonstop thing."

M.Y. China partner David Dodson said the company — which has one other, slightly smaller restaurant near San Francisco's Union Square — expects to open Nov. 1 in an 8,000-square-foot space with 240 seats, a wok bar and a noodle-pulling bar, and a mezzanine overlooking the dining room.

Station Casinos, which is to manage the casino for seven years, approached Yan's company early, Dodson said.

"What they were looking for was something more elevated than an ethnic Chinese restaurant, something that would appeal to a Caucasian and broader demographic," he said.

M.Y. China's prices should average roughly $20 per diner for lunch and $30 for dinner and it will be open for lunch and dinner, Dodson said.

The other stand-alone restaurants are: Tony's Pizza, created by Tony Gemignani of Tony's Pizza Napoletana of San Francisco; the Daily Grill; and 630 Park Steakhouse, a local version of a high-end Station Casinos' restaurant found in two of its other casinos.

The other food marketplace restaurants are: Tony's Slice House, also run by Gemignani; Beach Hut Deli; Habit Burger Grill; Roadside BBQ; and Scoops, an ice cream shop featuring organic Three Twins Ice Cream, a brand started by Neal Gottlieb of Petaluma. There will also be a Starbucks.

"We want to populate our lineup with names that people in this part of the country know and respect and trust," said Joe Hasson, general manager of the Graton casino.

All the restaurateurs are going to lease space from the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, which owns the casino. Under tribal rules, employees are to be paid from 10 percent to 30 percent more than prevailing Bay Area restaurant wages, depending on whether or not they earn tips, said Tribal Chairman Greg Sarris, a Delicias Elenita regular.

Keane, whose Cyrus garnered two Michelin stars, said he and business partner Nick Peyton had been looking for a new venture in Sonoma County after their Healdsburg restaurant shut in November following a legal fight over its lease. They chose the casino over offers in Napa Valley and Las Vegas.

"What really sold me on it was the design, the amount of detail and care they put into it," Keane said.

"I have had fast food style concepts, casual things, that I've wanted to do for a long time and this was the perfect opportunity," he said. "I think it's going to be huge."

His casino eatery will be named DK Wings. "It will not have a very high check average at all," he said.

Boathouse Sushi co-owner Hans Mogensen said he is projecting 400 to 500 customers daily at the casino, a volume equal to if not greater than at his existing restaurants, he said.

"We're very excited," Mogensen said.

Each of the nine marketplace restaurants will be about 1,000 square feet in size and they will share a common dining area.

"I think we've done a nice job of creating choice and price-points and a variety of menu items," said Hasson who said the restaurant selection process began in late 2012.

The choice of restaurants was designed to attract a broad range of customers, including those who may not necessarily be primarily interested in gambling, said Hasson.

"Anytime we can team up with a restaurant where the owners are well known or the brand is well known it adds that much more magnetism to the overall resort concept we are assembling," he said.

Restaurant selection is becoming increasingly crucial in the trade as a growing slice of revenue, casino hospitality experts said.

"They are extremely important, more important every year as the industry becomes more competitive and the competition is closer," said James Nickerson, a principal and director of White Sand Gaming, which advises casino operators from Europe to Asia.

"You need something to differentiate yourself and fine dining, dining choice, is a way to do that," said Nickerson, who has consulted for Station Casinos but not on the Graton Rancheria project.

The company has a reputation for skillfully determining the right mix of restaurants for its properties, another consultant said.

"They are astute operators. They seem to be very, very good at their price-points, what their customers' needs are, what the marketplace dictates," said Joseph Brunini, an independent consultant who was MGM Resorts International's president of marketing and customer development until last year.

"They are definitely customer-oriented and customer-friendly so I think they would be quick to modify if necessary," added Brunini, who has not consulted with Station.

In the Reyes family, the news of their selection was at first misinterpreted.

"My mother thought that Station Casinos wanted us to go cater for them while they were constructing." said Ivan Reyes. "But they wanted us for the casino. She was shocked."

"It's a blessing for us," he added, noting his mother was a factory worker and his father a garbage man when they started the taco truck.

Sarris said he steered Station Casinos executives to La Fondita, which opened in 2003, because he didn't like their initial choices for Mexican fare.

"Finally, I just said to Station's folks, 'Enough is enough; you come with me,'" to La Fondita, he said. "They were blown away and said, 'We'll start negotiations.'"

"It's the kind of thing that makes me feel so good," Sarris said. "They're doing quite well there on Sebastopol Road, I think, but this is going to put them over the top and maybe even let them get a little brand."

He said he had asked that local businesses to be prioritized. When it came to the larger restaurants, he said, "There wasn't anything here that had that kind of ability to deal with that kind of turnover."

"If they could have come up with something, fine," Sarris said, "but those big places have 250 to 300 seats each and they're going to be, I would predict, busier than hell."

(You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.)