If you’re like me, Vanessie conjures images of overpriced steaks and a stuffy, pseudo cabaret. Indeed, for 29 years, it has played host to a smattering of pianists who perform what we in the biz refer to as “background music.” The downtown restaurant’s new entertainment and marketing director, RJ Laino, hopes to alter those very perceptions while opening the space’s schedule to attract a wider audience.

Now, I’m not saying you can’t enjoy a talented cast of pianists quietly rattling off selections from the Great American Songbook. Rather, I’m suggesting that Vanessie has never once been considered a musical hotspot. 

The piano rule at Vanessie has a few exceptions, but performances from the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Singers and the annual April in Paris show are few and far between. Vanessie has long remained a mild and inoffensive offering. Your grandmother would probably love it. 

Furthermore, the restaurant suffers from the perhaps well-deserved reputation that it serves a certain demographic (read: older people with plenty of money), which just doesn’t scream fun to Santa Feans looking for a night of booze and music. 

Laino cut his teeth on the University of New Mexico’s Popular Entertainment Committee and has been promoting concerts and events since the 1970s. In the ’80s, he founded Santa Fe ad agency Laino-Ludwig, and worked with countless politicians, businesses and tourism industry leaders. In other words, he is familiar with our town’s fickle nature, and has decades of experience to inform his plans for Vanessie. 

“I feel I have a good vision for the evolution of [Vanessie],” Laino says. “I don’t want to come in and change the way they do everything, but I think I can help it to grow into the full-scale cabaret and venue it could be.” 

Stalwart pianists like Doug Montgomery will still take the Vanessie stage, though Laino envisions adding singer-songwriter nights featuring locals Jono Manson, Boris McCutcheon and others, as well as jazzy events with the Bert Dalton Trio and soulful nights with Hillary Smith and Soul Kitchen. Some big-name artists such as Van Morrison and Bette Midler are even in the idea box, but the space just doesn’t feel ready yet.

These changes will take some time to sink in, but Laino believes in Vanessie’s future. 

“There is a big pocket of people that don’t go out in Santa Fe, not because they don’t like the music, but because they don’t like where the music is located,” he says. “Some people want a classy evening that’s a little nicer but, at the same time, isn’t uptight or boring, and these are the people that will be interested in our new direction.”

The crowd Laino has in mind can remain cautiously optimistic, but this evolution must be finely tuned before it becomes a truly viable option. We’re talking about a space that, while beautiful and inviting, has long been known as a fine dining establishment, and to attempt a sudden transition to cabaret or nightclub after nearly 30 years won’t happen easily. Santa Feans fear change and seem to unwittingly punish any venue that tries to break their routine. Ultimately, the public reaction to Vanessie’s new form will be interesting to watch, and I congratulate the 40-plus set on having yet another music venue catered to their specific needs. Still, Laino insists Vanessie will not be exclusionary. 

“There is no reason why our crowds can’t be a mixed bag of locals who want to come out to a nice club and enjoy some world-class music,” Laino says hopefully. “I want to set the bar at excellence again and bring us back to a time when Santa Fe was a vibrant and positive place for music.”

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