Opening a new restaurant is an exciting and risky endeavor everyone wants to keep hearing about. But what if you have a stable restaurant that happens to be 13 years old? A restaurateur could move on to something new or freshen things up. Bill Higgins, the owner of Mill Valley’s Bungalow 44 chose the latter, and as of last month, “the old bungalow,” as Higgins calls it, is new again.
The renewal happened on all fronts. “The look was getting a little old-fashioned, a little too brown, so we modernized it to look a bit more exciting and sexier,” says Higgins, who hired designer Doug Washington for the task of adding color accents, modifying the lighting and updating the sitting situation, as well as updating the Bungalow’s patio.
On the menu, a complete reboot was the mission of chef Gabe Charpentier, a new recruit with past stints at Chicago’s lauded Aviary and Jean Georges’ now-closed Chambers Kitchen in Minneapolis. Adding “fresher, lighter vegetable and raw fish dishes,” according to Higgins, Charpentier adorned the current menu with Asian and Californian touches, like hamachi crudo with avocado and crispy rice cake, appetizers like beets and blackberries with beet hummus and amaranth, and green onion tempura, and mains such as a fresh shrimp tagliatelle with tomatoes and caviar cream and a hoisin-doused short rib.
“The menu was getting kind of heavy,” says Higgins, “Now we have much more interesting salads and vegetarian offerings.”
The format has changed, too. Higgins recently celebrated 40 years in the restaurant business and still remembers the time of a regimented meal with a main and a soup course. Now, he says, “people are sharing their dishes more and enjoying smaller portions and tasting everything at the table. The customer these days is much more sophisticated and fastidious.” Some classics, like the hamburger, grilled octopus and steak-frites, however, stayed put.
On the drinks side, Bungalow 44 added a must-have item to the mix, a mixologist, Jason Sims. Sims reinvigorated the bar program and included a selection of signature cocktails with on-trend ingredients like mezcal, Aperol and aquafaba, the gelatinous cooking water of fava beans, which makes for thicker, frothier drinks. The prices of the menu items and the cocktails were adjusted to modern times as well. While there has been some online grumbling, as co-owner of Real Restaurants group, responsible for Marin go-to’s like Picco and Buckeye Roadhouse, Higgins isn’t too worried. Making changes at a beloved restaurant won’t make everyone happy.
“Any time you change something that’s been around for 10-plus years, you’re going to get feedback,” Higgins says. “After all these years we felt it was time, and so did many of our customers.”
Bungalow 44, 44 E. Blithedale Ave., Mill Valley. 415.381.2500.