When Richard Avery and Dean Zervos decided to strike out on their own, it was a logical next step. Ever since meeting in culinary school in the late ’80s they had been close associates, alternating turns working for one another while managing upscale spots up and down the East Coast. Stints along the way included a 300-seat jazz club in midtown Manhattan and a billionaire’s private resort, nature preserve, and cultural center outside of Jacksonville, Fla.
In 2007, Avery’s real estate agent invited him to have a drink at Simeon’s American Bistro, a longtime fixture of Ithaca, New York. Avery had been to Simeon’s years earlier, but on this occasion he was struck by the 140-year-old building’s ornate ceiling reliefs, marble bar, and other Italianate architectural embellishments. The kitchen, on the other hand, left a lot to be desired. “It had a double convection oven, a 60-inch deli cooler, a panini press, a steam table, and a hand sink, so it wasn’t much,” Avery said. “But Dean and I are both chef-trained as well as front of the house, so we knew we could figure out a way to make it work.”
And what the restaurant lacked in food prep amenities it more than made up for with its stellar location. Simeon’s sits at the entrance to a threeblock pedestrian mall known as The Commons, which is the business and cultural heart of Ithaca. The Commons generates heavy foot traffic from frequent festivals, concerts and performances, making it a highly desirable spot. “It’s the best location in Ithaca,” Zervos said, matter of fact. Business took off immediately for the bistro and two years after opening Simeon’s expanded operations into a closed pizzeria next door.
The additional space was used to install all-new bathrooms and a 24-seat mid-upscale dining room called the “club room” as a complement to the more bustling main dining area. More importantly, the renovation included a full-scale kitchen that allowed Simeon’s to offer a more robust menu. Revenue increased 18-20 percent over the next 18 months and the future was bright.
Then one quiet afternoon everything changed in an instant. It was about 4 p.m. June 20, a Friday, 2014. Zervos had gone home for a couple of hours between shifts and Avery was in the club room preparing for dinner service. As Avery answered staff questions on the night’s specials, a deafening crash rocked the building. A plume of smoke whooshed from the main dining room into the club room, followed by disoriented staff members. Avery remembered thinking that there had been an explosion. In reality, an out-of-control semi-tractor had plowed through the storefront, demolishing everything in its path.
Ithaca was relatively quiet at the time, with commencements at Cornell and Ithaca College happening the week before and summer vacationers still about a week away from making their way to the nearby Finger Lakes. On an in-season day, it wouldn’t have been unusual for 15 people to be on the patio and another 20 inside the dining room that the truck destroyed. However, Simeon’s was not empty. Longtime bartender Amanda Bush was behind the bar that the semi had just destroyed and she was unaccounted for after the crash. People from nearby businesses joined Simeon’s staff to pull away the wreckage, but had to retreat when a fi re ignited. Th e 27-year-old Bush, a mother of one who was pregnant, perished. “Amanda was not only a great employee, she was a friend,” Zervos said. “It’s hard to put into words how difficult it was.” Since the incident, Ithaca is now limiting the size of trucks that are able to take that route into the downtown area and New York Senator Chuck Schumer is allocating federal dollars to do a traffic study on the intersection where Simeon’s sits.
It wasn’t long after the accident that Avery and Zervos resolved to rebuild Simeon’s better than it was. They decided on a three-room concept, each offering its own distinct ambience. The main dining area has been restored to combine familiar design elements from the original restaurant, combined with newer more modern features. The former club room has been transformed into the “oyster room” where the focus is fresh oysters and small plates with a fun, casual atmosphere. A new lofted area overlooking the main floor promises the most refined vibe of the three.
The idea is to off er something for everyone, the owners said. For the menu, Simeon’s turned to the Maines Sales and Marketing team to help reimagine their offerings and align them with the restaurant industry’s craft cuisine movement. While Simeon’s had always carried a wide selection of “new American” dishes, they needed a more current description of the type of food they will be preparing. Their new tagline is “Craft Cuisine and Spirits,” and the menu will focus on handmade, artisan offerings such as pickled and preserved selections, dry-aged meats, custom charcuterie, fresh house-made pasta and a more expansive fresh oyster bar. The “craft” designation will also extend to their beverage service and cocktails, which will be prepared using syrups, purées and barrel-aged bitters that are all made in-house.
The insights from Maines experts were invaluable to the process, Avery and Zervos agreed, but the real difference-maker was the follow-through. “We met with Guy (Zehner), Chef Eamon (Lee) and Brooks (Teeter) numerous times over the course of this process and they were just awesome,” said Avery. “If you want to bounce things off people, if you want help, these guys not only listen and help you bring your ideas to life, they do what they say they’re going to do. In business, it doesn’t get any more important than that.” Simeon’s American Bistro is scheduled to reopen during the summer tourism season, two years after the tragic accident happened.
The extensive work that has gone into rebuilding hasn’t always been easy, but the owners said it has been a gratifying experience. And throughout the process, Bush has never been far from their minds. “This project, getting (Simeon’s) back up and better than it was before, is really our dedication to Amanda,” Avery said.
UPDATE: Simeon’s has reopened to the public for dinner on Friday, August 26th. For more information, visit: www.simeonsithaca.com