Ferris' owners, local chef plan Mediterranean restaurant at Magnolia Hotel space

Tom Ferris and Dave Craggs, known for their durable Ferris’ Oyster Bar downtown, have taken over the former Prime Steakhouse in the Magnolia Hotel and plan to open a “Mediterranean-inspired” restaurant on April 1.

It will be the fifth incarnation of an eatery haunted by operator turnover since the boutique hotel was built 15 years ago. But Ferris is committed in making the newly anointed Catalano Restaurant and Cicchetti Bar catch on this time, saying “hands-on” owners, lunch and dinner hours and a varied menu with reasonable prices will make the difference.

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“It’s an opportunity that knocked and we think it will be a success,” said Ferris, who along with Craggs have operated Ferris’ Oyster Bar for 23 years. The veteran foodies, who trace their roots back to Zombie’s Pizza in the 1980s, and chef Aaron Lawrence, who most recently headed the kitchen at the Canoe Club, are equal partners in the venture. They inked a five-year lease, with another five-year option, for the 88-seat bar and restaurant.

Prime Steakhouse shut its doors on Jan. 6, a day before the restaurant’s president, Philip LeSeur, former chief financial officer of the Bear Mountain development, pleaded guilty in provincial court for failing to file corporate income tax returns. About 20 staff lost their jobs.

The restaurant briefly re-opened under the banner 50 Nights, a literal timeline that allowed the Magnolia to fill the space, bridge some lost jobs and fulfill hotel room service while finding new operators.

In the past, the space has been filled by Capital City Steakhouse and as an Asian-fusion place called Sanuk. The format when the hotel was first opened was a brew pub called Hugo’s, a huge success but deemed too busy — and noisy — for the four-diamond hotel.

For Ferris, it’s a fresh start with a new format. He said the location is enviable, tucked on the corner of Courtney and Gordon streets next to the Union Club and across from the beloved Belmont Building. The restaurant’s deck sneaks a perfect view of the Inner Harbour. “It’s a baseball throw to the Empress and a few more to the legislature ... it’s the perfect location,” said Ferris.

He said quality food and decent prices are usually what make restaurants work. But a major key is owners who have daily hands in the operation. He pointed to a restaurant rival and new neighbour, Mike Murphy, who operates Bon Rouge, Pescatores and Oyster across the street.

“What makes Mike Murphy successful? He likes going to work every day,” said Ferris. “If I wasn’t here right now, I’d be puttering around my oyster bar. You work hard to make it work. Some of the [previous owners] I don’t think wanted to be in the restaurant business.”

Lawrence is working on a draft menu, saying the common theme is reasonable prices, and lunch and dinner menus with local ingredients. Appetizers range from Cortes Island mussels and grilled local octopus to Sunwing Farm tomatoes and locally cured meats. The entrees include variations on seafood, chicken and beef dishes, pastas and salads. The lunch menu will feature paninis, sandwiches, soups and a gourmet burger.

The Cicchetti Bar will serve a Venetian form of tapas, or “small bites,” said Craggs, such as cod fritters, meat balls, olives and polenta fries — even oysters. “It’s a chance for people to come in, have a drink and check our cooking out,” he said.

The new operators said they will make subtle design changes to the dining room and bar, mostly brighter paint and new fixtures. The kitchen “is huge” now that a giant steak grill has been removed.

General manager Bill Lewis said the Magnolia Hotel received interest from five Vancouver-based operators, but chose Ferris and his partners. “I’m from Victoria and know Tom and what he can do,” said Lewis.

The April 1 opening will coincide with the completion of $1 million in improvements to the Magnolia Hotel, which has long been decorated with awards from international travellers and organizations as one of the world’s best boutique inns.

Lewis said the 64 rooms have been redone from floor to ceiling, each featuring new colour schemes and art from local photographers and artists.

Lewis said the massive overhaul is a commitment from local owners Jim Duncan and Tony Young, who built the hotel in 1998 on the site that formerly housed a Legion club, auto shop and other businesses.

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