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New owner at Araxi, Citta' closing for good

Big changes announced this week in the Whistler restaurant scene



The flavour of Village Square may be in for a shakeup with the news this week that Citta' is closing its doors, and Araxi is sold.

Both well-loved establishments, anchors of the square's vibe for more than 30 years, are part of the lore of the resort — everyone has a story about glasses raised inside and on the patios, which have come to define the area's stroll experience.

Araxi Restaurant + Bar was opened Halloween night in 1981 by Jack Evrensel, who grew his love of dinning into the Toptable Group as it is today, a home for multi-award winning chefs and sommeliers. Considered a renowned restaurateur, on Tuesday, March 17, he announced that he had sold Toptable to the Aquilini Group.

Evrensel is going to continue to be involved as a consultant and operations will remain unchanged.

"Our team has never been stronger, nor this rich in talent, and this is due to the commitment and passion of our award-winning chefs, renowned restaurant and wine directors, and dedicated employees," said Evrensel.

"I'm proud of the three-decade reputation Toptable Group has established, which is built on the foundation of pursuing excellence without compromise, a generosity of spirit, and a love of food and wine. I'm pleased that Toptable will continue on the same path that acknowledges these founding principles.

"I am also very pleased that the Aquilinis will bring their passion for hospitality to Toptable. This is a very positive alignment that will ensure the continuity of all Toptable properties."

Along with Araxi (which offered up a chef position as the prize for the winner of Gordon Ramsay's Hell's Kitchen in 2009), the Toptable Group's Vancouver operations include; CinCin, West and the Blue Water Café along with Thierry, a chocolaterie, patisserie and café.

The Aquilini Group holdings include the Vancouver Canucks, a share in the Garibaldi at Squamish four-season resort proposal for Brohm Ridge and companies involved in real estate, property development, construction, farming and the hotel industry.

Evrensel has risen to the upper echelon of the restaurant industry over the course of his career capturing accolades along the way. They include being named Restaurateur of the Year by the Canada Food Service and Hospitality Magazine in 2006, then in 2009 the Whistler Chamber of Commerce declared him the Business Person of the Year and in 2011 he was the recipient of the 2011 Lifetime Achievement Award by Vancouver Magazine.

Brenton Smith, co-president of the Whistler Restaurant Association has high regard for Evrensel's accomplishments.

"I have several employees that have worked with him and from what I understand he's a very hands-on owner, and his dedication to detail is what made him so successful," said Smith.

News of Citta's closure May 31 was greeted with sadness throughout the resort this week.

"(We are) feeling pretty gutted," said Citta's general manager Scott Gadsby.

"We're getting moved out. We didn't want to go — they're just making us move out," he said.

Former Citta' manager Jorge Alvarez has memories to fill a book from the single year he worked there.

When he was in charge in 1986 Citta' was the place the locals loved to drop into after work and unwind. Almost 25 years later, it's still popular with residents and visitors alike looking for a place to chill and watch the world go by from the ever-popular patio.

"Citta's was the first place I ever walked into," recalled Alvarez this week explaining that the space opened in the 1980s as a discothèque.

A few years later, he would become the Citta' manager.

Top amongst Alvarez's fondest Citta' memories is the night he hired a comedian to perform on the new patio, which wasn't raised up above the Village Stroll at that time.

"The whole Village Square migrated over to the Citta' patio," said Alvarez. "(The comedian) was using the F-word quite often."

A bylaw officer came and demanded the show be stopped, said Alvarez, adding that the comedian then riled the big crowd against the lone bylaw officer.

"We were the fun place to go and hang out," he said.

Ian Lowe, general manager of the Crystal Lodge and Suites explained that Citta's lease agreement with building owner the Burrard Group, a family-owned company based in Vancouver, is not being renewed. The plan, he said, is for the owners to renovate then open their own neighbourhood pub.

According to Lowe, Citta' employees will be given priority consideration when hiring for the new pub, as yet unnamed.

Changes at the square are not the only ones in the restaurant scene in Whistler. May will see the opening of BOOMburger next to Billabong in the Bear Lodge. The eatery is owned by and Peter MacSwain and partners of the popular COWS brand.

Wild Wing, a restaurant specializing in chicken wings, opened this week where La Rua used to operate in the upper village.