New owners wise to Owl’s historic importance
As new proprietors of a dinner house that represents both Grass Valley’s rough-and-tumble Gold Rush heritage and Wild West elegance, it goes without saying that John and Sherri Soares have the building’s reputation to uphold while creating their own.
The couple, who purchased the Owl Grill and Saloon on Mill Street July 16, are newcomers to Grass Valley and the restaurant business.
Call them flatlanders if you will. It’s a term they readily accept.
“This has been a dream of mine for many, many years,” said John Soares, 54, who worked in marketing and sales in Livermore before moving his inventor wife and children to Grass Valley, where relatives are close by.
Except for a new lunch menu, don’t expect much to change at the venerable restaurant, which opened for business in 1883 as the Bank Exchange Saloon. In fact, the couple is looking for ways to preserve the past inside the building’s walls while creating new memories.
It is their duty, they believe.
“We want the Owl to stay the same. We’re very interested in keeping the history, the stories alive,” said the owlish, bespectacled John Soares.
Pull up a wooden stool to the hand-carved cherry bar, and the place seems to come alive.
The bar traveled thousands of miles from Austria around Cape Horn and was delivered to the restaurant in 1880. A vintage, 1913, hand-cranked solid brass cash register sits prominently on a table behind the bar, ready to enter its 10th decade as a serviceable money machine.
A quick glance around the restaurant reveals more touches of an era that’s bygone, but one that many would love to keep intact.
There’s a photo of boxing great Jack Dempsey, the “Manassa Mauler” who ruled the heavyweight roost following World War I; a half-door where pasties were passed to hungry miners from the cooks near the bar, and where a computer now stands; and a “relieving station” where – legend has it – men would urinate in a trough within spitting distance of the bar after imbibing a few potent potables.
“I don’t think we’ll bring that back,” John Soares joked. “The health department would have issues with that.”
That’s why there’s a “Ladies Entrance” at the side of the restaurant, a touch Soares and his family intend to keep.
One of the lingering bar mysteries that lives on is the recurring ghost of a miner named George, whom historians believe was probably killed during a poker game at the Owl. The restaurant was named for its former status as a 24-hour food, drink and merriment establishment.
A stein sits atop a table, in constant homage to “George,” whose true story may forever be mired in legend. “Night Owl Mug Club No. 1 – George,” the etching on the glass reads.
The Soareses want to keep the old-time tradition alive, and are asking patrons to bring in old photographs to make a collage on a wall.
The couple credits former owner Gary Hanson for laying the foundation of the restaurant they hope will continue to thrive.
“That place is a big part of the town’s history,” said Hanson, who transformed the Owl from a restaurant/saloon to a dinner house when he bought it six years ago. “Who knows how many ghosts are in that place?”
The Soareses plan to find out.
“We sometimes feel like caretakers in a museum, and it’s our responsibility to keep the stories alive,” John Soares said.
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