Tahoe’s fabled Bacchi’s Inn quietly closes after 90 years

Bacchi’s Inn, a favorite for generations of Tahoe families, including mine, is no more.

With one last service to a full house of mostly locals there to pay homage, the restaurant — which had just celebrated its 90th birthday — quietly shut its doors on Sept. 11 for good.

Set back from a little inlet in a neighborhood called Lake Forest, the fabled Italian restaurant came to life on the lake’s North Shore, starting as a summer haunt during the basin’s rise to prominence as a destination.

Throughout the years, the many patrons of Bacchi’s, along with the family itself, gave Tahoe some of its most memorable sightings and stories.

On-again, off-again Hollywood couple Al Pacino and Diane Keaton were spotted dining there multiple times in 1973 during the filming of “The Godfather Part II” on the West Shore, along with the crew of that movie. Rumor has it that the dark-hued study of Michael Corleone, juxtaposed with the shimmering blue lake in the backdrop, was, in part, inspired by the dark, rustic interiors of Bacchi’s.

Al Pacino in “The Godfather Part II.”

Paramount Home Entertainment

More recently, the restaurant made headlines in the wake of a 2010 bear encounter when its owner shot and killed a 500-pound black bear that was making Bacchi’s dining room his winter home.

For Tahoe’s locals, Bacchi’s was the place to go to mark our most important events: anniversaries, graduations, celebrations. My own family counted itself among the restaurant’s regulars — my first memory of being dressed up, and itchy, for a fancy restaurant dinner was at Bacchi’s Inn.

The restaurant was instantly movie-theater dark as we would duck in from the long Tahoe summer afternoon. Once we stepped across the threshold, we were transported to dine among generations of Tahoe’s finest, past and present. But all things, even lingering Italian dinners, eventually come to an end.

William Hunter sits inside his restaurant, Bacchi's Inn, which closed for good on Sept.  11 after 90 years of serving residents and visitors to Lake Tahoe's North Shore.

William Hunter sits inside his restaurant, Bacchi’s Inn, which closed for good on Sept. 11 after 90 years of serving residents and visitors to Lake Tahoe’s North Shore.

Brian Baer/Special to the Chronicle

“We’re done,” William “Pops” Hunter, the maternal grandson of founders George and Josephine Bacchi, who opened the restaurant in 1932, told SFGATE. “Basically, I’m the chef, and I’m 78 years old. I’ve been doing it for 65 years. It was just time.”

Prior to closing, Hunter’s son, Everett, the fourth-generation co-owner, was splitting time between waiting tables, running the front door, working the cash register and bar and another full-time job while his dad ran the kitchen. “It was too hard on all of us,” Hunter said. “Nobody up here you can hire to work. We were turning away 50, 60 people a night. We couldn’t seat them.”

The restaurant began when the Bacchis — immigrants from Sicily who had arrived at Ellis Island in 1905 and were living in Sacramento — would cook large Italian meals for workers, families and friends at the lake.

Josephine’s dishes caught the eye of heiress and philanthropist Lora J. Knight, most famous for her funding of Charles Lindbergh’s record-setting trans-Atlantic flight. Knight was also the woman behind Vikingsholm castle in Emerald Bay, and the Bacchis were her go-to caterer. In time, she encouraged the family to open a business of their own.

The Bacchis bought a plot, built a half-dozen cabins and a small roadhouse with an apartment unit on top, then painted it all fire-engine red. As nearby lots began to see more development, the couple fed construction workers three meals a day. Once the neighborhood took shape, they remained open for family-style Italian dinners during the summer months.

The restaurant gained a reputation as a destination before Highway 28 encircled the lake or Interstate 80 brought visitors here. For decades, it was the “only show in town,” according to Hunter.

William Hunter closes the shutters at Bacchi's Inn.

William Hunter closes the shutters at Bacchi’s Inn.

Brian Baer/Special to the Chronicle

Highway 28 would eventually hide Bacchi’s from view, beginning in the 1950s. Still, the restaurant became a Tahoe icon — not only for its mountain-hewn take on the traditional Italian meal but for its refusal to be anything but the accessible, lived-in joint that had opened during the apex of the Depression.

The dim lighting, the wood paneling, the dark beams on the ceiling, the comfy red leather chair in the corner of the bar that a kid could get lost in… it was all mixed with big band sounds or Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett to kick off the special night ahead.

Growing up, while waiting in the bar area for a table, an adult would hand me a Shirley Temple. The bartender would mix drinks and make small talk about the state of the lake that day with my dad and grandpa. I’d stand between them, on my tiptoes, to catch a glimpse of the game on TV or the various black-and-white photos displayed behind the bar.

True to Italian traditions, the insanely languid meal to follow would take for-e-ver (at least two hours). Bacchi’s signature was the cena, a traditional Italian dinner served family style on red-and-white gingham tablecloths: courses upon courses of healthy portions of salami, beets, chickpeas and pepperoncini, olives, pickles and celery. Then came the minestrone, presented in a giant stainless silver bowl with a ladle sticking out.

Historical photos of the glory days of Bacchi's Inn, including feeding the Italian Olympic team during the 1960 Games hosted nearby at what is now Palisades Tahoe.

Historical photos of the glory days of Bacchi’s Inn, including feeding the Italian Olympic team during the 1960 Games hosted nearby at what is now Palisades Tahoe.

Photo Courtesy of William Hunter and the Gatekeeper’s Museum

Along with the soup, there were frequently swapped-out baskets of fresh-baked bread, heat rising after tearing. All of this was before the spaghetti or ravioli, salad or even the entree: steak, veal, chicken parmesan or cacciatore. Plate after plate, dishes piled on one another whisked away by servers in red coats (and later red aprons) before they brought out something bigger, more delicious, than the thing before.

I’d never eaten so much — nor had so many Shirley Temples. I’d never experienced the feeling of the lights dimming and the voices rising and the air getting thick and hot with the hum of service in a packed room like this. Nothing since has ever felt so grand or lives in memory as a more important occasion.

“You know, we always had, always to the last day, a lot of wonderful people,” Hunter says. “You’ve always got the oddball jerk, but 90%, 95% of the customers enjoyed themselves. I watched kids turn to grandfathers bringing in their grandchildren. It’s kind of sad. I’m going to miss a lot of these people. But that’s the way it is. Tahoe is not a place to be now.”

In spite of regular business from its most loyal patrons, attitudes and habits and demographics shifted over the last decade, Hunter says, noting that the restaurant has “watched its time come and go.”

“It’s not viable as a restaurant anymore,” he explains. “The [summer and winter] seasons are so short now. And basically, you know, the 20- to 40-year-old individual doesn’t really dine out. It’s ‘let’s go grab a burger and a beer, and go party somewhere.’ They don’t eat.

“Sixty years ago, you didn’t go out to dinner without a coat and tie,” he continued. “Now you have trouble seating people with wifebeaters on. It’s a sad thing.”

Beyond changes in dining habits, the day-to-day didn’t pencil out for Bacchi’s either, Hunter says. One major aspect is how Tahoe’s dire housing crisis has affected its small businesses.

After four generations of family ownership in the Lake Forest neighborhood just east of Tahoe City, Bacchi's Inn, which served Italian family-style meals to generations of Tahoe residents and visitors, is no more.

After four generations of family ownership in the Lake Forest neighborhood just east of Tahoe City, Bacchi’s Inn, which served Italian family-style meals to generations of Tahoe residents and visitors, is no more.

Photo Courtesy of William Hunter and the Gatekeeper’s Museum

“There’s no housing,” he says. “Basically, the housing workers used to rent, they’re turning them into Airbnb. There’s no place to live, no housing.”

As for the fate of Bacchi’s, Hunter, who lives in the apartment above the restaurant, says he’s preparing the restaurant for an estate sale. Then, he’ll put it on the market.

Even after a lifetime of working there, he too can no longer afford to remain in Tahoe.

“That’s where all my retirement money is; I can probably buy something else, but then I can’t afford to live,” Hunter says of the building, noting many of the restaurant’s historical photos and artifacts have already been sent to the Gatekeeper’s Museum and Watson Cabin in Tahoe City. “It’s unfortunate, but I hope part of us [family] legacy remains there. We’re going to be put on a display, and that’s that.”

“It’s just a changing of the guard,” Susan Winter, director of the Gatekeeper’s Museum, told SFGATE. “The new tech money has come in, the workforce is hard to obtain and keep, and all the Tahoe old nostalgia restaurants can’t survive.

“We’ve lost the Pfeifer House and Blue Agave recently, but Bacchi’s is the oldest of them. Ninety years is a whole lot of history there.”

As Bacchi’s closes, its memories remain. In the early 2000s, my father moved his office to Lake Forest. It wasn’t because of convenience. It was because the location was closest to the spot he loved most in Tahoe.

On Friday evenings, he’d cruise down to Bacchi’s, have a little conversation at the bar and sneak in an early supper. When I joined him, it was clear the place was in decline from its 20th-century heyday, but even then it still felt good, weighty — and permanent.

But time stops for no one. When my father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer in the spring of 2013 and forced to move “down the hill” to receive treatment, his main request was to dine at Bacchi’s one last time. We did.

That night, I didn’t want it to end.

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