MERCED — The rustic wooden bar is still there. So are the mounted deer heads that adorn the wall.
Although slightly worn around the edges, the sign that proudly hangs above the bar is still giving customers a chuckle: “When you’re out of Dinero, you’re out of Reinero’s.”
Though it’s been closed for nearly a decade, the classic restaurant, a Merced favorite since the mid-1940s, reopened its doors for business last month. The smell of dust was replaced by that of familiar Italian concoctions from the kitchen thanks to Reinero’s new owner, Steve Miller of Dos Palos.
Miller, 66, presented the idea of reopening the restaurant to his longtime friend and building owner, Phil Reinero, who took over the family business in 1988.
“When he thought about it, he said OK,” Miller recalled. “All it is, is another choice for the people of Merced.”
Miller leased the building from Reinero and spent 13 months cleaning, replacing and upgrading the inside of the restaurant. Despite a few small changes, the beloved old-style décor is exactly the same.
“Everything was here, but the building had been shut down for all those years,” said Miller, a retired farmer. “We basically gutted it and gave it a face-lift. It’s new, but yet it’s old.”
Relying on no advertising other than word of mouth, the Italian restaurant opened on Nov. 11 and business has been booming. On a sunny Friday afternoon last week, there wasn’t a single open table at the classic eatery.
“It’s always had a reputation for good food so I decided I’d give it a try,” said Miller, adding that the menu is exactly as longtime Mercedians might remember, with a few new twists such as a salad bar. “With food, your first impression is a lasting impression.”
An expanded dinner menu will be rolled out later in the month, Miller said, with the introduction of meat dishes including lamb, steak and pork. The name sign on the outside of the restaurant will remain the same, but a new sign inside will read “Miller’s-Reinero’s.”
In a tough economic climate that’s caused countless Merced restaurants and businesses to close their doors, Miller said he’s hopeful about Reinero’s future.
“Everybody talks about the risk factor, but you can get run over by a car. Everything in life is a risk,” Miller said Wednesday, seated at a small red-and-white checkered table near the oversized bar. “I just felt it was successful before, it could be successful again.”
Miller knows many of his customers by name and is often seen giving them a warm welcome. “I want the people of Merced to think of this as their place,” he said. “They can relax, have a good meal, have a cocktail if they so desire. It’s another choice for Merced.”
Many longtime residents said they remember Reinero’s from many years ago. Diane Freitas, 67, of Atwater, said she remembers coming to Reinero’s in the 1960s.
“The reason we come to Reinero’s is the clam chowder, it’s one of the primary reasons to come here,” Freitas said. “I was born and raised here, so it’s good to see it back.”
For employee Tony Rosales, the restaurant is more than a job, it’s a place to reminisce.
“I like the aura of the whole place. It has history; it has charm and character,” Rosales said, before turning his gaze to Miller. “I’m glad you gave us a job. I’m just happy to be here, and it’s a godsend.”
Miller, an Army veteran and father of two boys, said he won’t take credit for the restaurant’s rebirth. “I’m not the kind of guy who goes around slapping myself on the back,” Miller said. “We want people to have a good meal, nice service and feel like they’re coming home.”
Reinero’s Italian Restaurant is located at 640 W. Main St. in downtown Merced.