News Column

Songs and suppers: Shawn Lyons now owns the restaurant where he started playing guitar 28 years ago

June 6, 2014

By Mike Dunham, Anchorage Daily News

June 06--Alaska food fans can point to several constants at Villa Nova. The classic Italian menu of scampi and veal dishes, rigatoni, domaldes and calamata olives. The long wine list. Attentive, personal and gracious waitering. The sign advising, "Please be patient, good food takes time"; the dishes have always been individually prepared. Another sign saying, "Eating good food also takes time." The general patina of a well-loved, old fashioned, Old World ristorante, complete with a guitar player in the corner reverently plucking out the notes of "Greensleeves."

What you may not guess without being told is that the guitarist, Shawn Lyons, is also the owner.

"I like doing this more than playing concerts," said Lyons, an accomplished musician and hard-core outdoor sportsman who has regularly regaled Daily News readers with both reviews and accounts of his wilderness adventures over the years. "There's less pressure. People are only half-listening."

Once in a great while we hear of a busboy or dishwasher rising to the position of restaurant owner, and Lyons has done those jobs too. But a solo restaurant musician is often paid only in tips; for one of their number to do it begs for an explanation.

Lyons credited his recent acquisition to his own frugality and getting a good deal. But it's also clear that he loves the place where he's played three or four nights a week for the past 28 years.

"I want to carry it on so it's exactly the same as it was with George."

"George" is Giorgio Chrimat, the Italian immigrant who created and operated Villa Nova for 30 years until a few weeks before his death on April 17. When Lyons mentions George, it is with the tone of a son speaking of his beloved father.

Lyons' own father introduced his son to music and outdoor excursions back in Boston, Lyons' hometown. The big, Irish Catholic family made regular treks in the White Mountains. While still a teenager, Lyons hiked the Appalachian Trail.

The wide-open spaces drew him west and north to Yukon Territory, which is where he was adventuring when a college friend in Anchorage sent a letter urging him to check out the city.

"I liked it so much I moved here," Lyons recalled.

His first job in Alaska was as a dishwasher and prep cook. But he had another talent. He was an expert guitarist.

He picked up the instrument after hearing his brother, in the bedroom below his, strumming Bob Dylan songs and folk tunes. He gravitated toward rock.

"I was a Deadhead," he confessed. "I started taking classical lessons to improve my finger-picking chops."

He had always liked the classical music his father played at home. Now he discovered he loved classical guitar repertoire. At the University of Massachusetts he majored in English and took private lessons on the side because the school at that time did not offer a guitar major. By the time he left Boston he'd recorded his own disc -- which was a lot more difficult and expensive in the LP days than in the current CD/MP3 era.

One of the things that attracted him north was the relatively small population of musicians, which he suspected might mean less competition.

That guess turned out to be a good one. He was recruited by University of Alaska Anchorage jazz professor Karen Strid-Chadwick to teach guitar; he's still on the faculty there, teaching music theory and English.

Around 1986, he heard that the Italian eatery at Arctic and International might be looking for a musician, so he took his record to Chrimat. He'd barely begun his pitch when Chrimat said, "When can you start?"

Thus began a long relationship during which Lyons became as much a part of the place as the wine bottles lining the walls, as much a part as the sign declaring, "Garlic breath is sexy."

"I started helping, putting things away after we closed, busing tables, prepped a little bit," Lyons recalled. "After two years he started paying me. Twenty-five dollars a week."

The gig left him with time for one of his other enthusiasms (he has several; get him started on English poetry), challenging himself in Alaska's wilderness: "I participated in the Iditasport 11 times. I won it nine times. I won the Coldfoot Classic three years."

About two years ago, a different challenge arose when Chrimat grew ill.

"For all of us, there was the question of what's going to happen," Lyons said. "People wanted to carry on."

Different proposals were floated involving investments by several employees but by the beginning of this year other participants had dropped out and Lyons, with Chrimat's encouragement, decided to go it alone.

Connectivity, continuity and loyalty to customers was always a goal for Chrimat. When a Daily News food writer asked him what he'd do if a customer ordered something he'd never heard of, the Italian-trained chef declared, "There is no such thing! Whatever the customer wants, the customer gets."

He sold the business once before, around 2001, to open a new restaurant in San Francisco (he had a hand in restaurants all around the world at one time or another). Within three years he was back in charge of Villa Nova. Faithful customers lined up for the reopening under the previous management.

Lyons said he leans heavily on Chrimat's long-time staff, the waiters, executive chef Dale Keefe, line cook John Norquist, etc. He has no plans to make any big changes.

"It's important for people who ate here last year and had a good time to know that they'll get exactly the same thing when they come back this year," he said. The dishes will keep being done separately, the chocolate mousse and other desserts prepared in house. There might be more catering in the wings, he said, and the possibility of hosting parties in the dining room on Mondays and Tuesdays, when the restaurant is closed.

Villa Nova is among a handful of Anchorage eateries that have undergone almost no remodeling since they opened. Lyons has a few of his own photographs hanging on the walls showing wild places he's walked and climbed into, inserting a bit of an Alaska feeling into the Mediterranean ambiance.

Chrimat sold his restaurant to Lyons for the price of an average Anchorage home, a song for a successful restaurant but still a lot of money for most of us. How did a cafe guitarist and assistant professor come up with six figures?

"I live fairly simply," he said. He's occupied a humble condo in south Turnagain almost since he got here. "My hobbies are cheap. I like to read, hike and play the guitar. I have no family."

But he has found something like a family at Villa Nova. Chrimat followed the tradition of having staff join in a family-style meal at the end of the day. This was not to finish the leftovers, Lyons said. "George always made everything fresh for us."

The custom, in which Lyons partook on nights when he performed, saved him the expense of dinner several nights each week.

An inevitable bonding occurs when you sit and eat with someone for 28 years in a row.

"We're all like family," Lyons said. "I think George handpicked me to be the successor. I'm carrying on his legacy."

Reach Mike Dunham at mdunham@adn.com or 257-4332.

___

(c)2014 the Anchorage Daily News (Anchorage, Alaska)

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