Bethany Clough

Eating Out: New restaurant The Republican takes over The Downtown Club

Downtown Fresno is changing and a longtime icon in the heart of it is evolving, too.

The Downtown Club at 2120 Kern St. has a new name, a new menu and new people behind it. And they’ve got big plans for parts of the historic building people may not have seen before.

It’s now called The Republican – I’ll explain the name in a minute – and is open for lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday. Once the liquor license is finalized in a month or so, dinner service will start Thursday through Saturday.

But the part that really puts the gleam in the owners’ eyes is the craft cocktail bar that’s in the works. They envision classic cocktails with high-end spirits customers may not have heard of before. There will also be creative cocktails made by mixologists from ingredients picked up at the farmers market that day. They want to be a part of the growing trend of applying the same culinary attention to drinks that restaurants do to food – “really just taking the craft cocktail movement and taking it to the next level,” says Ephiram Bosse, who has partnered with Kate McKnight to run The Republican.

Running the cocktail bar alone was the pair’s goal from the beginning, but when the restaurant side of things became available, they decided to take that on, too. (Originally, they had wanted to open a spot in the historic Theatre 3 on Fulton Street, but that didn’t pan out.)

The 96-year-old Downtown Club building has its own history. It was home to the commercial printing arm of the Fresno Morning Republican newspaper – hence the giant printing press still in the corner of the dining room. It became home to the members-only Downtown Club in 1982, a restaurant and special events venue.

The club suffered an abrupt death in 2013 due to slumping membership and rising debts.

New owners took over the building later that year, opening the restaurant to the public. But it never quite to become the happening evening place the owners had hoped for.

Will the new blood taking over the business have better luck?

Only time will tell.

The Republican’s owners are quick to point out what they’re doing different – like the name.

“We had to change the name,” says McKnight. “We don’t want people to think it’s the club.”

The name is a reference to the Fresno Morning Republican newspaper (“Fresno Republican” is engraved on the outside of the building).

The name has caused a little controversy already, with some people vowing not to to go there because of a perceived association with the political party.

Not the case, say McKnight and Bosse.

The name has nothing to do with politics. Many newspapers historically had Republican in their name, a reference to the republic – a country governed by elected leaders instead of kings and queens.

The owners have also brought in new workers to staff The Republican. General manager Bethany James comes from Eureka! restaurant and the restaurant group that includes Pismo’s Coastal Grill and Westwoods BBQ.

Chef Dawn Gray comes from a top-rated resort in Washington (and is Bosse’s sister). She likes to make almost everything from scratch and is a hunter and a fisher who’s not afraid to put unusual meats on the menu.

Prices at The Republican range from $10 for a sandwich to $22 for New York steak.

Owners McKnight and Bosse bring their own backgrounds that are steeped in downtown to the project, too. Many may know Bosse as the founder of the former Fresno Brewing Co. (which later became Peeve’s) on the Fulton Mall, Cafe Van Ness coffee shop at Gazebo Gardens nursery and the newly opened Goldstein’s Mortuary & Delicatessen craft beer bar in the Tower. All those will remain open.

McKnight is a local actor and educator who once managed a multimillion-dollar budget as the head of Fresno Unified School District’s music and arts program. She’s also passionate about downtown and active in the effort to save the Fulton Mall.

The pair hope those connections to downtown mean they can give it what it wants and needs.

“I know the crowd. I know half the people down here,” Bosse says.

And it comes at a time when the downtown scene is different than in years past: More people are living there, lots more development of offices and places to live is happening, the Fulton Mall will soon open to cars and high-speed rail is coming.

Longterm, McKnight and Bosse have even more plans for The Republican space.

They want to open up a mezzanine with wooden staircases – unseen from the dining room – that overlooks Kern Street and once held the print shop’s offices for more dining and possibly its own little bar.

And they’d like to turn the huge basement into a “wine cave” that can host special events centered around wine tasting, especially with local wineries

An empty storefront in the same building is getting interest from renters and may soon be home to another business. That’s the space that used to house Mabel’s Kitchen, which is moving to Bitwise South Stadium at Van Ness Avenue and Mono Street.

And someday, the owners of The Republican say they’d hopefully like to buy the building they’re now leasing.

Bethany Clough: 559-441-6431, @BethanyClough