‘Northampton’s Cheers’: The Sierra Grille closing its doors  

  • The Sierra Grille on Strong Avenue in Northampton. STAFF PHOTO/GRETA JOCHEM

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2020 8:11:37 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The Sierra Grille announced it will be closing this weekend as a result of the economic hardship brought on by the pandemic. Saturday will be its last day after 14 years on Strong Avenue.

“I really thought in the beginning, March 18 when we did our last service … I really thought, ‘God, this can’t be more than a couple of months,’” said O’Brian Tomalin, who owns the downtown restaurant.

Tomalin got a Paycheck Protection Program loan and shifted the menu to be more takeout-friendly, but takeout only made up about 2 or 3% of the restaurant’s business before the pandemic.

“To pivot that into 100% and then eventually a little less was difficult,” he said in an interview Thursday.

Sales in September, for example, were not enough to cover the rent, he said. The restaurant did some outdoor dining and no indoor service, and Tomalin said he wouldn’t have been able to fit many people into the restaurant with distancing for it to make sense.

“I wanted the people who come in there and my family to be safe,” he said. “I don’t want to go home every night feeling like I need to leave my clothes on the front porch.”

The restaurant was meant to be a hub, Tomalin said.

“Sierra Grille was a gathering place — that was a big part of it,” said Tomalin, whose sister is actress Susan Sarandon. “Without the ability to [gather], you really take out the biggest component, no matter how much you pivot ... That was the ingredient that was missing.”

When it became clear no more federal aid was coming anytime soon, and with winter looming, he decided to close.

“As much as you love something, you got to let it go at some point,” Tomalin said.

He expressed frustration with how the federal government has handled the pandemic. “I do blame it on our federal government to some extent,” he said. “It is the theater of the absurd when you think about how poorly it was handled.”

He also worries about what the winter holds for restaurants. “I honestly can’t imagine what’s going to happen to the restaurant industry this winter. It’s going to be crushing.”

City resident Chelsea Kline, a regular customer, is mourning the loss of the restaurant. She described it as “Northampton’s Cheers.”

“I have been going there for well over a decade,” she said. “A lot of my friends either I had met because of the Grille or they were already regulars or brought people into the fold. My husband and I, we live walking distance, and we would walk there in blizzards … drink a beer and trudge home in the snow.”

She remembers seeing a lot of live music, like a Home Body show, there. “And of course, the food was ridiculously good,” she said, adding that the fries are the best in western Massachusetts. “I’m going to miss the fries more than anything.”

Max Germer is a musician who both played at the grille and saw shows there. “On Thursday nights you could walk in, pay a cheap cover, eat some delicious fries and watch an eclectic night of music,” Germer recalled in a message to the Gazette. “Who knows what the live music scene will be like in a few years, but without the Sierra Grille it will be much less vibrant.”

In a post on the Sierra Grille’s Facebook page Wednesday, Tomalin acknowledged his customers with the news.

“I sit here and try to bring words to the page to describe the complexity of the situation; but at this moment all I can say is a heartfelt thank you to everyone who was a part of this thing I started in the summer of 2006,” it reads. “At some point we will have a proper send off with food, music, and drinks. Somewhere outside.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.
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