Around this time last year, Chris Pastena was in high spirits. He and business partner, Lev Delany, had just moved Chop Bar to a new location in Jack London Square and, with his wife Jana Pastena, he was in the midst of reopening Tribune Tavern, the downtown Oakland restaurant that he originally opened in 2013 with a different business partner.
Pastena was hopeful and enthusiastic then, but this morning, when Nosh spoke with the Oakland restaurateur on the phone, his mood mimicked the eerie smoke-filled skies outside — dark, heavy and foreboding. Pastena said he and landlord, Doug Abrams of Highbridge Equity Partners, the group that bought the Tribune Tower building in early 2019 from Harvest Partners for $48 million, have been unable to negotiate a way to keep the restaurant open.
On Friday evening, a year and a day after he re-opened Tribune Tavern’s doors, Pastena will close them once again — likely for good.
Tribune Tavern has a history fraught with misfortune and partnerships gone awry. Seven years ago, Pastena and business partner Tom Henderson, with whom he worked to open now-closed Lungomare, created the restaurant at the foot of the iconic 20-story downtown Oakland landmark, the former home to the Oakland Tribune. A year later, the partnership soured and the two settled their “creative differences” out of court with an agreement to split the two restaurants, with Henderson getting Tribune Tavern and Pastena, Lungomare. In 2017, Tribune Tavern shuttered after Henderson was charged with fraud by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. (Henderson was eventually indicted in 2019 for defrauding more than 200 foreign investors of $110 million).
In January 2019, Pastena was approached by the building’s new landlords, Harvest Partners, with a proposition to bring back Tribune Tavern. At the time, Pastena gleefully announced on Facebook that the new owners “understood the creative and artistic vision we had for the original Tribune Tavern,” and had “put together a fully financed package to get us back our beloved treasure.” It was an opportunity, Pastena told Nosh last August, that was too good to pass up.
After a light makeover of the restaurant’s decor and layout, Chris and Jana Pastena welcomed back diners on Sept. 10, 2019. Inside the space that was once the Oakland Tribune’s “local room,” where reporters would share news tips for the day, the couple offered their take on “New American” tavern food.
Before the restaurant’s reopening, but after the Pastenas had signed the lease, the Tribune Tower building changed hands to Highbridge Equity. Pastena said, in hindsight, the position he’s in today may have stemmed from that transition.
“I didn’t sign my lease with him [landlord Doug Abrams], I signed my lease with Harvest Properties. They were wonderful and they really worked with me and they forged a partnership,” Pastena said, explaining that he didn’t feel that bond with the new landlord.
“There was no history with him, so it made it difficult. Honestly, I have to take responsibility too, because I kind of had heard Harvest was looking to sell the property and maybe I should’ve waited until they sold so I could’ve forged that relationship with him.”
Cracks started to show in the new tenant-landlord relationship early in the pandemic. The Pastenas closed Tribune Tavern on March 17 with the shelter-in-place orders. Pastena said he reached out to Abrams in May to ask for help in reopening but never heard back from him, so he and Jana decided to move forward on their own. Vandalism of the property during protests in downtown Oakland delayed their plans to reopen in early June, but eventually, the restaurant was up and running again for takeout and outdoor dining by mid-June.
Although they were back open, business has been extremely slow at Tribune Tavern, especially since most downtown offices are currently closed or vacant. In comparison, Chop Bar and Calavera in Uptown, which Pastena also owns, are both in areas with a robust enough residential clientele to keep them afloat. Pastena admits it’s always been a bit sluggish downtown, but before the pandemic, they felt like they were on the brink of finding their stride.
“Sales were always lower at the Tribune, but I was really proud of the team. We were really putting up some great food, stepping up our service. We were seeing people starting to come back, and it was becoming more of a destination,” he said.
According to Pastena, they finally heard back from Abrams in late July. Pastena said he offered to pay a portion of the back rent, including for the months that Tribune Tavern was closed, as well as a percentage of the rent moving forward, what he called a “spread the hurt” plan, which would allow him to stay in business and for the landlord to get some payment. Pastena said Abrams declined the offer, which is when he decided to close Tribune Tavern.
“If we were to pay everything we would just go out of business because we don’t have the capital. We need to have reserves to make it through this whole situation and we don’t know when it’s going to end, so the question remained, do we want to go out of business today or go out of business in two months?”
Abrams sees things differently. In a phone conversation with Nosh, Abrams said Pastena has acted in bad faith since before Tribune Tavern was forced to close in March. According to Abrams, Pastena has not paid rent since February. Although he sent a check for March rent and it was cashed, the restaurateur placed a stop payment on it. Abrams also said that Pastena has not paid utilities since the beginning of 2020 or Common Area Maintenance (CAM) charges.
Abrams said that Pastena never offered to pay back rent or a portion of rent going forward, despite receiving a Paycheck Protection Payment loan. Instead, Pastena offered to pay his CAMs. Abrams called the negotiation “untenable.” His other tenants, including Buttercup Diner and Modern Coffee, have been paying rent, even during the time they were closed.
“They’ve been paying rent, even though they were closed,” Abrams said, “They’ve been paying 65% of their rent — most are paying that, two-thirds of their rent. This guy’s paid zero.”
16 employees will lose their jobs
When the Tribune Tavern closes on Friday, 16 employees will lose their jobs. Before the pandemic, Tribune Tavern had more than 50 employees, but it has been working with a skeleton crew since June.
“That’s the tragic part, people losing their jobs,” Pastena said. “I’ve been up front and honest with the team because for the past month, I had the feeling that we [he and Abrams] weren’t going to come to an agreement.”
Pastena said he has been working to find his workers new jobs. He’s placed some workers in his two restaurants and found others jobs through his network, but he said it’s not been easy during this time, as everyone in the restaurant industry is working with barebones teams.
“Friday night will be our last night. We heard there might be a planned protest, so we might be forced to close early. That would be so à propos,” Pastena said.
Although the die is cast for Tribune Tavern, Pastena and Abrams still have to finalize the end of the lease terms. Abrams said when Pastena has vacated the building, he’ll make some improvements and find a new operator.
As for Pastena, he said he’s facing the last days of the business feeling numb.
“It’s a roller coaster heading into a freight train. Every day it’s something different and I’ve kinda reserved myself to just being numb and that’s really scary in some ways because my life is filled with passion and feeling passion and that creates really great emotions and highs and sometimes lows, that’s the beauty of life… The last couple of months, I’ve just been really numb and I’m hopeful I can just get out of that mindset, but I have to be in that mindset or it would be disastrous.”