Lara’s Fine Dining opens in former Salute’s location

Lara's Fine Dining opened in the former Salute e Vita Ristorante at 1900 Esplanade Drive in Richmond's Marina Bay neighborhood on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

A Richmond staple has been revived. Today, Lara’s Fine Dining opened its doors in the scenic waterfront restaurant formerly occupied by Salute e Vita Ristorante, at 1900 Esplanade Drive in the Marina Bay neighborhood.

The new restaurant owned by Lara Choe, who also owns the storied Hotel Mac in Point Richmond, offers a familiar Italian-influenced, fine-dining experience in a property that has undergone significant renovation.

Among the upgrades, Lara’s Fine Dining comes with a new kitchen featuring a new pizza oven, pasta maker, large mixer and walk-in refrigerator. Also, it has a new bar and bathrooms and, in one of the dining areas, a grand piano has been added right next to a working fireplace. Gallery-style artwork adorn the walls, and some are for sale.

“We make everything from scratch, the ravioli, fettuccine, angel pasta, the sauce — everything, all homemade,” Choe said.

By design, it appears, Lara’s Fine Dining is a fresh start at maintaining a rich tradition in the waterfront site. But what isn’t new about the restaurant is just as alluring for local community members. Choe has kept on Executive Chef Fernando Aguayo, who has worked under different owners at the property for 26 years.

Lara’s Fine Dining opened in the former Salute e Vita Ristorante at 1900 Esplanade Drive in Richmond’s Marina Bay neighborhood on Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020.

And the restaurant’s new general manager, Gon Vilayphanh, may be the most familiar face. A popular manager at Salute’s, Vilayphanh began his career bussing tables at this very restaurant in the 1980s, when it originally opened as Hawthorne’s. Self-taught in bartending (“I used flash cards”), he excelled in that capacity at the Berkeley Marriott and San Pablo casino before returning to Salute’s for 14 years. After Salute’s closed in July 2018, Choe invited him to work at Hotel Mac before offering him the GM position at Lara’s Fine Dining.

“It’s like home away from home for me,” Vilayphanh said.

Also familiar about Lara’s Fine Dining were its very first customers. Maryn and Garry Hurlbut, Richmond residents who co-founded and lead the Richmond Tennis Association, raved about their first meal.

“We had ravioli, in a light Italian tomato sauce, and it was delightful because it was not overpowered by its garlic, it was flavored by its garlic,” said Maryn Hulbut, who also serves as chair of the Richmond Recreation & Parks Commission.

Executive Chef Fernando Aguayo prepares meals on opening day of Lara’s Fine Dining.

She also had “giant, sweet, right off the boat scallops,” while Garry enjoyed the steamed clams.

“Food was great,” he said. “Love the menu.”

Next time they may try the pizza.

“Laura is a really wonderful business owner, and kind,” Maryn Hulbut said. “She is very generous in supporting charitable organizations, and she makes great food and we love her for that.”

For Choe, the restaurant has and will always be a tribute to its location, history and community. The restaurant was designed in 1985 by well-known interior designer Jacqueline Poe in conjunction with BAR architects of San Francisco. Poe opened the restaurant in 1986 under the name of Hawthorne’s, based on a tall tale about Joshua Hawthorn, a sea captain who lived in the house. To complete the scene, Choe says, Poe procured from England a 120-foot schooner to dock outside the restaurant.

Lara Choe, on left, owner of Lara’s Fine Dining, enjoys dessert on the restaurant’s opening day.

Poe later retired and sold the restaurant to Salute LLC. After some time, the eatery was purchased by Menbere Aklilu, an Ethiopian immigrant who began as a hostess at Salute’s and moved up the ranks. Like Choe, Aklilu is highly active in contributing to community charities, often using Salute’s to hold fundraisers and feed the homeless during Thanksgiving. She closed the restaurant following a long-running dispute with the property’s landlord, in part over the need for upgrades at the aging restaurant.

After Choe purchased the restaurant, over $1 million was invested to bring the facilities up to standard.

“I’ve been doing business in the Bay Are for 42 years, and I think this is the most beautiful place,” she said.

Lara’s Fine Dining is “all about good service, good atmosphere, and a friendly environment,” added Vilayphanh.

The restaurant opens seven days a week, Monday to Thursday from 11 a.m. to 9 .m., with the kitchen staying open later on weekends, and happy hours every day from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.

For more information, visit the restaurant’s website here.