"We're doing an interview!" Opuntia co-owner Jeanna Gienke shouts from the second story balcony to a friend on the Railyard street below. Said friend is asking about Gienke and partner Todd Spitzer's timeline for re-opening the restaurant. I've just learned they're aiming for sometime this week, maybe next week. "We'll talk soon," Gienke shouts down.
On this particular day, at mid-morning, the outdoor scene is one of crisp and refreshing coolness. The sun shines, the mountains carve the horizon in the distance, and though visibly tired, Gienke and Spitzer exude a certain sense of satisfaction. They're nearing the finish line after months and untold hours of work.
It's been nearly a year since Opuntia (1607 Alcaldesa St., upstairs, 780-5796) as we know it has existed. After leaving their original location in the Baca Street Railyard (Cafecito now occupies the building) in search of a larger floor plan, Gienke and Spitzer briefly ran a temp Opuntia in an adorable and welcoming tent-like space in the courtyard of the El Rey Court. But they've had their eye on the sprawling spot that once housed the mythical Railyard bowling alley even longer than you'd think. They were, in fact, barreling down on a much earlier opening date.
"We wanted to open by April 15," Spitzer tells SFR. "We wanted to open sooner—that was the original goal, with Bosque Brewing and some other businesses all trying to open at the same time—but we had to gut [the space]…"
"And then COVID hit," Gienke interjects. "The whole collective slow-down…there was kind of a reconfiguring of timelines, we slowed down. But Todd and I are pretty DIY people and ended up doing a lot of the construction ourselves. If anything, I think we've really learned how to adapt."
Spitzer says the extra time allowed him and Gienke to take stock of what they really wanted to present aesthetically. Without a construction crew to worry about, they began adding touches that are sure to make a big impact.
The new Opuntia, for example, boasts a koi pond in the center of the room. Spiraling out from there are dozens of plants curated by Gienke and sold through the business. In the previous location, space was at a premium—at the new Opuntia, Gienke can offer a wider array of flora from all sizes and price points. Seating areas dot the room, in open spots for extroverts and, according to Gienke, a row of booths for introverts, all closed off from one another and featuring light boxes installed against the wall that frame outdoor shots (think trees) by local photographer Janet Russek. The effect creates faux windows, as it's one of the only walls at Opuntia without them, and that is both clever and sure to be appreciated by folks who like dining incognito without giving up light.
The menu, meanwhile, is still being developed in-house by Spitzer and longtime Opuntia collaborator Kim Müller, formerly of Izanami, to take advantage of the larger kitchen space.
"We're starting off with the hits off the original menu, and we're starting limited," Spitzer says, explaining that offering a robust but well-packaged to-go program is of the utmost importance right now. "Kim has designed an expanded dinner menu, though, because we're in an actual kitchen now, so we'll have more bowls—like, we're adding a Middle Eastern bowl—and things like falafel and kebabs. We'll be baking our own bread from scratch."
"Our toast will be over the top," Gienke adds with a laugh.
"Then for dinner, we'll have more dinner-type entrees," Spitzer continues. "Flat breads and all sort of goodies. Same concept, but expanded, and still affordable."
Gienke and Spitzer also brought back pastry chef Kim Frick for a wider array of dessert options. The menu hasn't been nailed down completely just yet, but we can reportedly expect another greatest hits list as well as some creative entries like a matcha tea cake or Earl Grey tea cake that are sure to evolve over time.
"We never really had the equipment to let her show off," Gienke explains, "and we're excited for the tea-inspired desserts."
Opuntia's tea selection is still under review as well, but Spitzer says the list will be broad without becoming overwhelming. Same goes for coffee. Spitzer sprang for a Modbar in-counter espresso machine, which is operated with what looks like a super computer just below its nozzles.
"It's pretty ridicuous," he says jokingly, "but we have really amazing baristas, and they'll have really amazing equipment."
Most of those will be rehired, by the way, as will the original kitchen staff (Full disclosure: my brother has worked for Opuntia off and on for some time). Given COVID-19, Gienke says, it was important to stay faithful to workers who've stood by the restaurant, especially during the transition between buildings. This will possibly even include a bicycle delivery person (I saw the bike—it's awesome), but Gienke says she likes to "imagine friends meeting in the Railyard and us bringing them down food."
With a redesigned to-go program created to cut down on waste and also keep the food as hot and presentable as possible, though, you won't necessarily have to sit in the Railyard to expect a fresh meal. Still, the new Opuntia feels like a turning point for the downtown public plaza. Second Street Brewery and the temporarily closed Violet Crown Cinema have long anchored the gathering space, but with Bosque Brewing open and the upcoming inaugural day for Opuntia, it's finally becoming what it was envisioned to be all along.
"We like to think it's like throwing a party and inviting everybody," Gienke says, pointing out COVID-Safe Practices will be staunchly observed. "Watch our Facebook page for announcements. Find us upstairs. Take the elevator."