Ann Zyburra had a phone in each hand on Monday morning, fielding questions on one while squinting at the other. She didn’t recognize the area code, but she knew all information was critical before the public opening of the new Milias Restaurant on Tuesday.
“I don’t think it’s Hawaii–our fish come from Hawaii,” she said.
It turned out to be a telemarketer–the fish were fine. In fact, despite the stacks of office papers being organized and the bustle of employees, both Zyburra and co-owner Adam Sanchez said that there weren't many loose ends left before opening their doors the next day.
“It’s not just a restaurant–it’s a destination,” said Sanchez.
Operating under several names and owners since opening nearly 100 years ago, the once popular stop for Hollywood’s elite, the Milias Restaurant, reopens in Gilroy today. From the original hand-cut marble floor to the crown-molded ceiling, the new Milias is packed with local history and aims to rub shoulders with other high-end causal restaurants like San Francisco’s Bix.
“We’re cowboys and chandeliers,” said Zyburra.
It was two years ago that the long-time friends and foodies bought the former Harvest Time Restaurant and began planning their vision: a revival of the cosmopolitan Milias of the 1920s.
“We signed the lease Feb. 1, and we have not left the building since Feb. 2,” said Sanchez.
In the first part of the century, names like Clark Gable and Bing Crosby would make the restaurant a regular stop on trips between Hollywood and Monterey. The Milias Hotel, now apartments, was a popular stay for the elite, and there’s still a classic barbershop near its original location out front.
For Sanchez and Zyburra, the first chapters of their revival of the Milias began while working together at Al Sanchez Volkswagen in 1986. The two shared a passion for food–a young Zyburra had once been accepted to culinary school in France, and Sanchez took cooking just as seriously.
In the years to come, what started as a monthly competitive cook-off for friends turned into a widespread reputation for exquisite dishes and Sanchez’s first-place finish in the 2000 Gilroy Garlic Festival cooking competition. The duo eventually transitioned from the car business to catering full-time, a successful endeavor that was like an accelerated learning program for opening a restaurant.
Sanchez said he remembered coming to the restaurant in the late 60s, and taking ownership of the space felt natural.
“We would sit down with chefs that would start out skeptical,” Zyburra said, “By the end of the conversation, they all said ‘How can I help?’”
Extensive renovation, including moving walls and leveling floors, created a large lounge space and dining room. The owners said that they wanted to create a feeling of comfort and elegance, a space that suited both a cocktail dress and a construction vest.
Yet despite overhauling every part of the restaurant, the owners kept many of the original features, including the distinctive horseshoe-shaped bar and a prohibition-era prescription for whiskey to the original founder, George Milias. A hand-cut marble floor was left unpolished to show its age, and a certain freestanding urinal even helps tell the restaurant’s history.
“John Wayne peed in that urinal,” laughed Zyburra.
The owners didn’t stop with restaurant relics: when the Gilroy Museum didn’t have room for the distinctive windows of the ancient Halls building, they became custom wall lighting in neighboring Milias. A hand-crank phone from the early-century train station adorns one wall, and a server’s station sits atop a wooden icebox.
“This stuff just started coming to us,” said Sanchez.
It’s quite easy to become wrapped up in the historic treasures in every corner, but it’s the menu that the owners said would keep people coming back.
The duo drew on the network they had built over the years to develop a selection that includes county-exclusive aged steaks and distinctive cheesecakes.
Even the cocktails are exclusive, and Sanchez said that the two San Francisco mixologists who developed them were overjoyed to learn that the Gilroy Demonstration Garden would be providing the fresh ingredients.
“They came up with some really unique stuff that only we have,” said Sanchez.
All employees are encouraged to suggest new items, a collaborative culture that Zyburra said would help bring new items to the table and enhance the sense of ownership that her staff has already adopted.
For now, the restaurant will be exclusively open for dinner service. Lunch is on the horizon, but not for a few weeks.
In the meantime, seeing the invite-only crowd of friends and supporters sit down for two training runs on Friday and Saturday was a good sign for the long-time friends.
“I turned to Adam and said, ‘It’s alive,’” Zyburra said.
“Rather than hearing drills and hammers, it was great to hear forks on plates,” said Sanchez.
The public opening of the new Milias Restaurant, 7397 Monterey St., is Tuesday, 5–10 p.m. The restaurant is open for dinner Tuesday–Sunday. Call 408-337-5100 for reservations.