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Curley makes his move


[photo of Curley Tait in the parlor]Curley Tait relaxes in the parlor of Curley's Bar and Grill
in the renovated Victorian Inn in Ferndale.

THE OLD VICTORIAN INN IN Ferndale, inhabited with more ghosts than a Halloween house party, stands at the corner of Main and Ocean with a garishly sassy attitude all of a sudden. Her window boxes planted, signs painted in period taffy colors and sounds of clinking glass and laughter leaking through the century-old front doors tease us near. The old lady is lit up like a June bug. Can it be that after a century of owners, lessees, failed businesses, rumors of an old Portuguese curse and dozens of decimated restaurateurs -- the old barn has finally found its savior?

Curley Tait is a piece of work. At 67, he has a full head of silver curls, a body that most men lose at 30 and a devastatingly wicked smile that can have you stuttering in less than 30 seconds. You might have his undivided attention for the next 30, but then you'll see his peripheral vision kick in. The radar and night scope are going. "Need water on 13. Kitchen is backing up. Where's Holly?" Then suddenly he's back, the smile going up a few watts and reflecting off the menus. He's got you.

Curley Tait has had more entertainment lives than Morris the Cat. Born in the heartland of Evanston, Ill., he started at age 10 washing glasses and making salads in local restaurants. He was the penultimate Midwestern golden boy (Niles Township High, University of Illinois),the U.S. Army called -- Korean War. Well, almost.

"Dwight Eisenhower saved my life. He called the truce while our troopship sat outside in the harbor. Some of us never even got off the boat," Curley mused with the look of a saved man.

He returned unscathed to work in the family restaurant and finish college, earning extra money as a professional model and actor. In 1963 he ran into an old friend, Lorraine Blue. It was her father who had given him his first job at 10. They formed a partnership that was to take his dreams farther than even he had imagined. Together, in the throbbing throes of the '60s, they launched the folk nightclub "Mother Blue's" in Old Town Chicago. Finally, Curley Tait was in his element.

[photo of Curley as model] Tait made extra money during college as a professional model and actor.

They needed an opening act for folk legend Bob Gibson one week. He had known Spanky McFarlane for a while. She sang off and on with a rowdy Irish group called the "New Wine Singers." In short order, they threw together a rhythm guitar and bass by the names of Nigel and Oz. Spanky put on a ball cap and knickers, played the kazoo, the washboard and sang like an angel. Spanky and Our Gang was born.

Curley leans back in his old oak bookkeeping chair looking off into space.

"I just fell in love with them. I told Spanky, `I gotta manage you guys,' but I didn't have a clue what was involved."

He found out in record time. Within weeks, they were playing all over Chicago -- hot spots like Mr. Kelly's and the Gate of Horn. Mercury Records President Irwin Steinberg wandered in one night and signed them on sight. They headed for New York.

As they caught fire on the New York club scene, the group grew to five and recorded its first album for Mercury Records. Their first hit record, "Sunday Will Never Be the Same," hit the charts in New York, climbing to No. 9 in a few short weeks.

From there, their lives took on spin -- the college concert scene, a promotional tour in Europe, Ed Sullivan, the Tonight Show, Merv Griffin and a move to L.A. For three years, Curley, Spanky and the Gang rode the record industry roller coaster with more hits like "I'd Like to Get to Know You." Then Spanky put her feet down, getting married and producing two children. Nigel and Oz went their own way and started another group. Curley took over management of a hot new rocker, Steve Miller. Burnout was not slow to follow.

[photo of Spanky and Our Gang] Curley rode the record industry rollercoaster managing Spanky and Our Gang.

"He was a wild man." Curley's marriage was going south after his years on the road. He took son Adam, age 5, and headed north, up California Highway 101.

He and Adam wandered off at Fernbridge, pulled into Ferndale and met Jim and Penny Ferry of Abraxas within minutes. They found out he had been in the restaurant business and told him about the empty Victorian Inn. The late Viola McBride, a landowner, artist and promoter, offered to lease it to him for $300 a month, fully equipped. Curley Tait opened his first restaurant in Ferndale in 1970. The rest is history and he smiles when he talks about it.

"I had just come from L.A. I had an afro out to here (his hands make a basketball hoop over his head) and a goatee. The carpenter working on the little house I rented took one look at me and ran. I thought I looked pretty hip, but he never came back to finish." His smile fades a little, but not completely. The restaurant lasted about a year.

"We were ahead of our time, to say the least."

With no work in Ferndale, Curley returned to Chicago. He began managing The Brewery and opened a French seafood restaurant called "Tango." It was here he met Chris Smith, the man who came west and went on to make the Jacoby Storehouse's Abruzzi/Plaza Grill a Humboldt County landmark catering and restaurant business.

Curley hired Chris to manage Tango, then went on to open two more restaurants in the Chicago area. He and Chris returned to Humboldt County within months of each other and together opened the Vance Log Cabin in Eureka. Then he dropped out.

For the next five years, he bought, sold, bred, raised, trained and showed championship Arabian horses from a ranch on Centerville Road while his restaurant career snoozed in a hammock off the back porch. When the bottom fell out of the Arabian horse market he started back at Youngberg's Restaurant in Arcata, waiting tables a few nights a week. It wasn't long before Chris Smith came after him to help with a new restaurant called "Abruzzi."

"I'll help wait tables a couple nights a week. That's it."

Within weeks he was headwaiter, manager and voted most popular waiter in Humboldt County. He went on to manage the Plaza Grill upstairs as well. When he finally left to go for his own brass ring, Smith thanked him for putting his restaurants "on the map."

In 1995, Curley Tait and longtime friends Jim and Penny Ferry opened Curley's Grill in an old storefront on Main Street in Ferndale. Home to a restaurant called Bibo and Bear for three years, the building looked dull and uninteresting to Curley at first.

[photo of Curley and Penny Ferry] Curley Tait and Penny Ferry who told him about the Victorian Inn.

"It was just a little box of a room." Jim and Penny walked him over an old boardwalk alongside the building to a little enclosed garden at the back. The word "patio" lit up in neon in his brain and Curley got his vision.

They opened the doors on April 20, 1995. Ferndale and Humboldt County embraced it immediately. It was small, simple, classically trimmed. It had art, attitude and the food was fresh and fun. Restaurant critics, food and travel writers loved it. The San Jose Mercury News and Glamour Magazine jumped on it. It went into Fodor's, Fromer's and Best Places in Northern California. It was even listed in the Best Places to Kiss.

The Grill's menu got its spark from grilled meats, steaks, seafood and lots of fresh vegetables. It featured pasta specials and original soups every day and offered stir-frys with tofu, grilled veggie sandwiches, tiramisu, liquor-laced bread pudding, espresso and Bass Ale on tap. The wine list offered a selection of some of California's best along with several imported ports and dessert wines.

The ambience was intimate yet whimsical, from the collection of character salt and pepper shakers to Curley's impressive collection of Marilyn Monroe photographs and Marilynabilia. Then, of course, there was that 1,000-watt smile. It hooked locals and visitors alike. The business took off like a rocket that first year and kept on going.

Tait credits his staff with the continued success of the California-style grill. Executive Chef Doug Hendricks, who worked with Curley at Abruzzi, created the menu with him.

"Doug's strengths are creativity, consistency and great kitchen and inventory management skills. He's my Rock of Gibraltar."

Young chefs like California Culinary Academy grad Andy Losh, Thad Eskra and Sean Marsh also get a lot of credit from Tait for his success. Hostess, waitress, salad chef, artist-in-residence, curator of exhibits and head cheerleader Holly Garbutt has been there since the beginning as well.

[photo of Curley in bar of Curley's] Curley at the Bar of Curley's Bar and Grill in Ferndale.

"Her art, her confidence, composure and sweetness bring so much to the quality of the restaurant," he says of her. Mary Nelson and Vanessa Loverti have been with the restaurant for five years and Curley's right-hand man Allen Meitner is "the only one who knows where everything is." Tait's philosophy of "Put your heart in it, it shows," definitely has.

After five years of success, an ambitious but short resurrection of the Bay City Grill in Eureka, and a couple of fancy arterial medical procedures -- Curley surprised everyone and went for the brass ring one more time. The Victorian Inn, that bedeviled old barn at the foot of Main Street Ferndale had just roped in a couple of new owners. Sutter Creek jeweler Lowell Daniels and partner Jenny Oaks had finally purchased the financially entangled building outright with a plan to lease the restaurant space for a professional restaurateur. Curley made his move.

To say that the man moved fast is to sugarcoat the story. Fearlessly facing the dragon that had chewed him up and spit him out 30 years before, he hired local master craftsman/carpenter Marc Daniels to design booths, completely redo the dining room and convert the old garage at the back into a banquet facility. It was completed in record time with Daniels and his crew working around the clock.

The overnight move from the old location to the inn last October went off without so much as a sneeze. Lunch was served in the newly relit, reheated and restyled dining room with style and panache the very next day. The extraordinary oils and watercolors of Steve Porter filled the space with beauty and grace. Blacksmith Shop owner Joe Koches' hand-selected, sensual art deco lamps lighted each diner's table with a different dance. Fettucine was the best ever that day, service was smartly and cheerfully executed, and Curley Tait was relaxed and grinning like a Cheshire cat.

The grand opening of Curley's Bar and Grill at the Victorian Inn a week later began with a blessing by Ferndale's beloved Father Denis Doyle. It seems like a century-old curse has been lifted at last. The place literally glows with life and warmth. It exudes a feeling of class and grace once only aspired to. It seems Curley Tait has exorcised all the ghosts of restaurants past and has given the Victorian Inn a new lease on life. He's made a personal 30-year-old dream come true.

"Following your dreams is what makes life worth living," he says, almost to himself. For someone who has made as many dreams come true as he has, while making others' real as well, you wouldn't think he had another thought in his head for the next century.

Never underestimate the power of a dreamer, at least not this one.

Kathy Major, a retired high-tech management executive and current manager of the Pacific Flavors Cooking School, writes for the Humboldt Beacon, the Ferndale Enterpriseunder the name Humboldt Jones.

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