Speakeasy Gone Good

Emeryville’s Townhouse restaurant reboots for a second time

Maximilian DiMare is rebooting the Townhouse menu with dishes from his Sicilian heritage. DiMare says he grew up in Boston and worked in his father’s Italian delis there. “In the morning, we were cranking out pizzas, lasagnas and really good Italian sandwiches,” he says. He learned his culinary skills there but he was also inspired by his grandmother’s cooking. His menu will have homemade pasta along with Mediterranean-influenced starters like mussels, and entrees like pork chops and chicken.

Townhouse was initially built in 1926 and operated as a speakeasy. But in more recent history, beginning in 1990, this Emeryville spot established itself as a place for locals to have a reliable meal out. The food was a familiar and comforting take on “California cuisine,” as Erin Barber, the longtime general manager, describes it. Having outlasted other dependable East Bay stalwarts like Bucci’s and Spettro, chef and owner Ellen Hope decided to sell Townhouse to a restaurant group in 2020. DiMare is taking part in a second reboot after the restaurant had a soft opening in September.

Barber explains that the new owners invested heavily in redoing the outside deck. “It was bare bones and now it’s a phenomenal, beautiful space,” she says. “When we reopened [last fall], we were serving out on our deck until we got closed down again in December.” The restaurant was only open for about two and a half months. Since then, DiMare’s job has been to refocus the dishes. Barber adds, “We’re not reinventing Townhouse, but building on what was already established.”

Until the menu is finalized, Townhouse remains closed for in-house dining. In the meantime, bar manager Todd O’Leary says that the restaurant has partnered with the online food platform Table 22. The site makes it easy for patrons of their favorite restaurants to sign up for a monthly membership or subscription. At Townhouse, there are three tiers to choose from: Liquor Enthusiast, Wine Enthusiast or Home Chef.  

Starting at $25, liquor lovers get two six-ounce cocktails. If they are feeling particularly thirsty, one-liter bottles are also standing by for pick up. Oenophiles receive a bottle of wine from the “premium cellar” for $25, or a total of six bottles for $150. And for those who are interested in cooking, Townhouse puts together “a rotating monthly box of provisions with recipes and suggested preparations.” A box might include the makings for a charcuterie board, pickled vegetables and cheese from local farms.

With all of 2020’s ups and downs, O’Leary is looking forward to being behind the bar again. “We want a convivial, neighborhood feel,” he says. “A home for people to blow off steam, to enjoy a beer or a glass of wine and have Max’s food.” His optimistic outlook for reopening Townhouse is directly tied to Maximilian. DiMare cooked the food at O’Leary’s wedding 20 years ago. “Max’s level of authenticity and his style of cooking—it’s going to bring Townhouse to a higher level from the culinary side.”

O’Leary explains that, going forward, the majority of the seating at Townhouse could be outside. “Part of our business plan is to make sure we’re sustaining on the outdoor service with that occupancy,” he says. And, when people can gather again, the managers have discussed the idea of using Townhouse as an event space. “With all the upgrades we’ve made to the patio, we feel like we have an opportunity that we didn’t take advantage of in the past 30 years,” O’Leary says.

Having worked with O’Leary for several years and having brought DiMare on as executive chef, Barber says what she’s been looking forward to is having such good food for people to taste and “just to hang out at Townhouse again.” Collectively, the current team has over half a century of experience in the restaurant business. “We’re excited about the team that we’ve built,” she says. “And about the potential of this space. After the pandemic, we’re just preparing for it to get better.”

Townhouse hours are currently in flux. 5862 Doyle St., Emeryville. 510.652.6151. townhouseemeryville.com.

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