By Brittany Tiplady
When I call Paul Grunberg for our interview it’s obvious that he’s in the throws of a lunch rush.
“I’m so sorry, can I call you back in 45 minutes? 30 minutes?” he asks, raising his voice amongst the fray of voices, and dishes clanging.
Less than half an hour later, we resume. I’ve been doing this job for a while, and I’ve gotten used to the usual shtick when interviewing a very busy person; it can be frustrating at worst, and tricky at best to capture the attention of your subject when their entrepreneur brain is focused elsewhere. I expected to have to fight for Grunberg’s attention over the phone, but to my surprise he was warm and pleasant and delightfully attentive. Much like his restaurants.
If you’ve ever been to one of Grunberg’s establishments, you’ll agree that it’s fair to say the man is kind of a genius. It’s a bold statement, I’m well aware, but alongside his dream team of partners, the award-winning restaurateur has cultivated a culture of dining in Vancouver that is unparalleled and steeped in tradition.
“I’ve been working in the restaurant industry since I was about 16 years old, so over 20 years in the business. I started off as a dishwasher, as the old tale goes, and worked my way up,” Grunberg recalls.
“I got into ownership with L’Abattoir Restaurant, and then opened up Savio Volpe and then Pepino’s Spaghetti House and now Caffe La Tana. So, I’ve been in this industry a really long time, and I’ve always loved the food and the people and those aspects to service. It’s the guest experience: always front and centre for me.”
Savio Volpe is the lovechild of Grunberg and his unstoppable trifecta of business partners: designer Craig Stanghetta (who’s prominent design studio Ste Marie has taken on stunning projects like Botanist, St Lawrence and Bao Bei), and chef Mark Perrier. Savio is a restaurant “styled after the classic osteria–rustic fare in the Italian tradition of freshness and regionality, using groceries gathered in the nearby lakes, oceans, farms and fields. Everything is prepared in the simplest, most flavourful way; pasta is handmade fresh every day–fatto a mano in casa–and meat, poultry and fish are kissed by smoke over the wood-fired grill and rotisserie.”
Since opening their Fraserhood doors in 2015, Savio has altered the landscape of Vancouver’s restaurant scene introducing a foreign concept to eager guests: the subtle art of a well-manicured dining experience.
At Savio, the experience starts when you enter the door. You’re offered a drink, your coat is whisked from your arm, you’re walked through the menu, given suggestions; no pressure, no fuss, and no nonsense. The house at Savio Volpe is almost always full and roaring with newcomers and regulars alike. Coincidentally, the restaurant, no doubt thanks to its well-earned popularity, has become a celebrity sighting hotspot. This summer, I was sat at a booth across from Eric McCormack, NBD. But no matter how busy it is, and it can get really busy, the staff are always present, always attentive; it’s as if the entire restaurant is just as invested in your dining experience as you are.
“I think that Savio Volpe, all bias aside, is one of the better restaurants in the country,” Grunberg says. “’I’m really proud of it, it’s a real stunner. We continue to evolve and we continue to grow the leadership team and the food culture there. Melanie Witt is our new Executive Chef, she’s been with us for quite some time but she’s been recently promoted. The food is the best it’s ever been. Kaitlin Leg is the general manager. She’s got a really strong grasp of leadership. So, you put those two together with the demand and you’re going to see success. And it’s a lot of hard work but it’s really paying off.”
After only one year of service, in 2016 Savio was recognized by enRoute Magazine as one of the Best New Restaurants in Canada, procuring the coveted 10th spot on the list. This accolade would be the catalyst for many to come, but the mounting pressure is no feat for Grunberg and co.: maintaining an untouchable standard of service is kind of their MO.
“I would say I am committed to delivering a higher standard of service. That’s my goal: to constantly be getting better. And the restaurant business is not forgiving, so if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse. And that’s not good in my business. So, there is a lot of pressure, continually, day-to-day, to bring my restaurants to a higher standard.”
You see, despite Vancouver’s evolution into a more fast, casual, counter-service style of dining, tradition and skill are the key ingredients essential to Grunberg’s own dining philosophy.
“I think it’s important that we don’t forget about the roots of cooking. I think it’s important that restaurants evolve with training front and centre. If you go to a line cook and ask them to make a hollandaise, or a vinaigrette, I just hope that the cook doesn’t respond with ‘I don’t know how to make that,’” Grunberg explains.
“It’s important to keep those traditions alive with grass roots cooking; I just don’t want people to forget how to make a hollandaise. Do you know what I’m saying?”
Earlier this year, Nick Felicella announced that after 62 years he would be closing the doors to his iconic namesake spaghetti house on Commercial Drive, and subsequently, Vancouverites mourned.Shortly after Nick’s Spaghetti House announced the plans to close, Grunberg and his team took possession of the space and went to work, opening Pepino’s Spaghetti House this summer. If you ever happen to open an app called Instagram, you might have seen signs of Pepino’s floating around your feed: flashes of generous plates of pasta, with a branded bib in tow might ring a bell.
“Nick’s Spaghetti House had been around since the 50s. He did a wonderful job of creating an American-Italian restaurant; it’s what the American-Italians ate when they came over from Italy. So, a lot of tomato sauce, and a lot of cheese, but it’s still comforting and delicious food,” Grunberg explains.
“This opportunity came up when Nick wanted to retire, and the place really did fall into our laps. So, we decided to update the space, and give it a second lease on life and pay homage to Nick and his family and what he’s created. It’s doing really, really well and our plan is to continue to evolve and put bums in seats and make people happy.”
The most recent addition to the Grunberg x Stanghetta x Perrier brand is Caffe La Tana.
“Caffe La Tana, is what you can call an old world Alimentari, or a market cafe. Where the strong focus is on fresh pasta and a ‘what’s for dinner, tonight?’ type of attitude. You can also stay and dine in; we serve fresh pasta all day, four to five different types. And we also serve really fantastic coffee and pastries and a nice selection of retail items,” Grunberg shares.
“We’re giving people a really good sense of hospitality and we’re giving them a good experience, all in a really unpretentious manner.”
I’m always curious, for those who are veterans of the industry, what makes a truly exceptional dining experience?
For Grunberg, it’s just that: an experience.
“What makes a really good restaurant is a special combination of the food, the service, and the atmosphere. And I know that it sounds very obvious, but it really is an art form and it is very much like the theatre. I know that that is a metaphor that is used often, but it’s really true. From the moment, you walk in, at a really great restaurant you should be whisked away on this adventure akin to a fairy tale. And I know that sounds cheesy but food, service, atmosphere, music, lighting it all makes the experience complete.”
Despite having a rather demanding day-job, Grunberg at the end of the day is a family man. He’s a North Shore-living husband and father of two little ones juggling work-life balance just as we all are. And when he’s at work, it’s all-hands-on-deck. No team member too important for the grunt work, and no restaurateur too busy for the dish pit.
“I was literally just bussing tables when you called me. I’m very much involved in my day-to-day operations. I’m touching base with my leadership team every day, and it really energizes me to see their successes. Watching them develop is my priority.”