story and photos by Mary Beth Roach
“I eat, sleep and breathe restaurants,” said Christopher VanEpps, owner of the Maitre D’ at Trombino’s restaurant in Lyons. It’s this passion – and 18 years of experience in the restaurant business – that VanEpps brings to the establishment he opened a year ago; starting a new chapter in the building’s rich history.
According to A Look at Lyons, by Andrea Evangelist, the building at 12 Pearl Street housed a livery barn, the Westfall Bank, the Park Hotel and the Regent Theatre before Sam Trombino bought it in 1947. He remodeled it into the iconic Trombino’s restaurant. It remained open until 2011; its last owners being the Santelli brothers. Once it closed, the space sat dormant until it was purchased by local businessman Sean Dobbins in 2016. Talks started with VanEpps to reopen it as a restaurant.
How VanEpps – a Caledonia native and SUNY Oswego grad who had worked in Brighton and Pittsford eateries – came to the Lyons area is a story that began several years ago.
“When I reached my 30s, I had an awakening,” said Van Epps, now 38. “I needed to get back in touch with my personal roots.”
Growing up in the Conesus-Lake area, he was looking to return to the small-town atmosphere. He had been living in Pittsford, and working at Label 7 Eatery and Bar there, but he wanted to find a home that he could retreat to after his long shifts at the restaurant. He had rented a cobblestone just outside of Lyons before eventually purchasing a home in Palmyra.
At about this same time, he was ready to take that next step professionally. Van Epps was planning to go with the owner of Label 7 who was moving on to a second location. But then he met Dobbins through a mutual friend, Mary Tatem, and everything changed.
By the time Dobbins bought the site, Trombino’s restaurant had been gone for several years. Many wanted to see it return.
Dobbins asked VanEpps to take a look at the space and make some recommendations. He offered some advice, which he admitted was “pretty stern,” but told Dobbins he had no interest in opening a new restaurant in that space. Following more conversations, Dobbins and VanEpps finally worked out a deal, and VanEpps moved in Memorial Day weekend of 2017.
While he wanted to honor the legacy of Trombino’s, he believed that the place needed a new look and menu. What he created accentuates a lot of the building’s history, but with a new flair.
The Trombino’s sign on the building remains, as does the long, curved bar inside. However, there is new lighting and upholstered blue bar seats that look like they came from a 1940s movie set. Along one side of the bar area is banquette seating, and suspended over the tables are mini-chandeliers representing an old theater’s chandeliers. Also, in some of the windows in the bar area, are blue bottles that had been used to hold the famous H.G. Hotchkiss Peppermint Oil produced at one time in Lyons, and exported internationally. VanEpps has chosen cobalt-blue drinking glasses to play off those bottles.
In creating some of the décor, he turned to the internet where he met artist Molly Miller from Utah. He gave her a brief history of the building. She came upon some old props and costumes from an abandoned opera house and created several unique characters for the walls.
The menu, too, reflects its theatrical history, with its various categories referred to not as “appetizers,” “salads” and “entrees,” but as “overtures,” “interludes” and “finales.” The restaurant’s new age American fare offers a range from salads, fish tacos, pizzas and burgers to high-end steaks, chops and seafood, and both vegetarian and gluten-free dishes. VanEpps is striving to locally source many of the menu’s ingredients and beers; visiting local farmers and craft brewers.
The name – Maitre d’ at Trombino’s – is a nod to the Trombino and Santelli families, but it also reflects the role that VanEpps has learned over the years in the business, and the relationship he’s building with his patrons. It’s reaching into every guest’s life and learning what they’re enjoying, making them feel welcome from the moment they walk in the door, he said.
As he wraps up his first year, VanEpps realizes he had taken a chance. “It was a risk I wanted to take because I was going back to my roots,” he said. “I was continuing the path I had started when I first moved out this way. The small town. Everyone reaching out to everyone. Everyone helping each other. Everyone lending a hand. Everyone working together. More importantly, being that neighbor.”