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New owners plan upscale steakhouse for Railroad Square landmark

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Michele's Italian Restaurant, one of the last watering holes of old Santa Rosa, was sold this week to Mark and Terri Stark, who have launched four trendy Sonoma County nightspots over the last four years.

The Starks will close the historic West Seventh Street spaghetti house on Jan. 1, and reopen it in mid-2007 as an upscale steakhouse with a piano bar and extensive scotch list.

The remodeling project is expected to cost about $500,000, said Mark Stark.

"We feel that area in Railroad Square is going to bust loose in the next five years," Stark said. "It's a great area, with a lot of history."

The sale of Michele's is another sign of changes in Railroad Square, once an area of boarded-up stores on the wrong side of the freeway. Today, the square is a bustling community of retail shops, antique dealers and nightspots.

"Railroad Square is a very popular place right now," said Don Taylor, 20-year owner of Omelette Express on Fourth Street. "There's probably more demand to be here than there is supply. One of the few ways to get in here is to buy an existing business."

The building now called Michele's restaurant has served Italian food to Sonoma County residents since 1934, when it stood in the heart of the old Italian district.

It was originally Guidotti's restaurant, then sold and renamed Michele's in 1967. The 4,500-square-foot restaurant has changed owners twice since then, but has kept the same name and virtually the same menu.

"The menu is basically the same as when we bought it," said Bob Forsyth, who bought Michele's in 1989 with three partners. "The recipe for minestrone soup has been the same for 35 or 40 years."

But times and tastes change, and Michele's, with its big brown leather booths and moderately priced dinners, watched from the sidelines as restaurant-goers switched to newer places with trendier menus.

"Michele's was always about good food and large portions at a good price," Forsyth said. "Now it's gone to small plates, at the opposite end of the spectrum."

Small plates - high-quality food in small portions on sandwich size dishes - is one of the hallmarks of the Stark family's restaurants.

The chain includes Willi's Wine Bar, a classic roadhouse in Larkfield; Willi's Seafood, an East Coast-style oyster bar in Healdsburg; Monti's Rotisserie and Bar, a small-plate restaurant in Montgomery Village; and Barcode, a cocktail lounge with live music in downtown Santa Rosa.

The Starks have been hoping to open in Railroad Square for some time, and were set to buy the Ristorante Capri on West Fourth Street but owner Raj Gulati died and the deal fell through.

The refurbished Michele's will be the fifth nightspot launched by the Starks since the couple moved to Sonoma County in 2002.

"Why waste time?" Mark Stark said. "We really wanted to do a lot of cuisines and put them in a fun-type atmosphere with great, relaxed service. You come to them to hang out, to be in a fun-energized environment."

The Starks haven't picked a name for the new Michele's, although they expect to keep the vintage neon sign. They have also asked Forsyth for his collection of historic black and white photos that currently line the restaurant's walls.

"We're going to maintain some of the integrity of the outside. It's a great old building," Mark Stark said. "Inside, we want to give it our own touch. I see a lot of cozy leather booths, some great lighting and some interesting artwork."

Michele's, which has 200 seats, was about the last affordable banquet facility in downtown Santa Rosa, Forsyth said.

"One of the sad things is that a bit of history is gone," he said.

But selling the place felt like the right thing to do. "It feels really good," Forsyth said. "It's a lot of responsibility to run a business that's open six days a week. I'm going to take some time off and do a little traveling."

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