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Elks Tower cafe, bar and chocolates with a view

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A dusty corner of the historic Elks Tower containing a pool hidden for decades will soon get a second life when a Euro-style cafe, bar and chocolatier open next year.

The Ayers family has begun renovating a bi-level corner of the 1926 building designed by architect Leonard J. Starks to incorporate a pool where club members swam for 50 years. The pool hasn’t been used since about the early 1980s.

Building owner Steve Ayers, his daughter Katharine (Ayers) Gelber and her husband, Michael Gelber, are partnering to open Rail Bridge Wine and Spirits in the front corner of the building at 921 11th St. The other corner is anchored by McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant.

The bar, small cafe and chocolatier will share a ground-floor, L-shaped space that overlooks the empty basement pool after walls blocking the view were removed in mid-2010, Michael Gelber said.

"When it opened, this building and The Citizen Hotel were considered the jewels on J Street," he said, referring to the Cal Western Life building that also opened in 1926. "You won’t find anything (else) like this."

The space will hold a chocolatier called Hanzel & Pretzel and a small, attached kitchen serving desserts, small plates, specialty coffees and hot chocolate. Fed Ex operated an office there until December 2009.

Most of the chocolates will be imported from Switzerland, France and other countries. Chocolate-covered pretzels, chocolates, desserts and other fare will be made on-site. The family is searching for a chef and a chocolatier for its new Hanzel & Pretzel concept. The menu has not been planned, but may include stuffed potatoes.

The anchor business will be a full bar featuring wines from Sacramento’s first urban winery – Rail Bridge Cellars at 400 N. 16th St., which the Gelbers own under Alexis Ventures. The company also owns Strings Express, at 431 I St., where Gelber is the managing partner.

The bar will also carry spirits and wines from other wineries.

A custom-made rack with port wines from around the world will hold a prominent spot tying the chocolatier and bar together.

"You’ve got to make money on the bar," he said. "You’re not going to make it on the chocolate."

But the visual focus will be the cavernous basement pool room, with its pale blue walls and vaulted ceiling at least 32 feet high. A row of tables and couches will overlook the pool behind a glass partition. Silent films reminiscent of the building’s era may play on the back wall behind the pool.

The renovation will leave most of the historic building’s character intact. Exposed brick walls, the original concrete floor and peeling paint will be left to express the building’s venerable history, Gelber said.

The renovation is expected to cost about $200,000. The family is also opening the Elks Tower Penthouse Lounge on the 14th floor, which can be rented for wine tastings, private parties and meetings, in two weeks. Windows on three sides offer views of the Capitol, City Hall, the railyards and the Sierra Nevada mountains.

That 1,000-square-foot space was recently outfitted with $10,000 in new furnishings such as couches, a long table and a big-screen TV. The penthouse will also serve as an off-site tasting room for Rail Bridge Cellars, Gelber said.

Plans will be submitted to the Sacramento Community Development Department’s Planning Division in one to two weeks, he said.

Michael Chandler, who handles brand development for the winery, is expected to oversee retail sales. Gelber will oversee daily operations.

The business is being built in phases because of the economy. If the concept proves successful, the family expects to open a full restaurant and second bar in the basement. Customers would sit at tables on Plexiglas over the pool, possibly in three years.

"This would have to go really well – the economy would have to turn for that to happen," he said. 


Suzanne Hurt is a staff reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @SuzanneHurt.

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