Restaurateur back in business

Pantuso cover
Chris Blackburn returns to the restaurant industry as owner of Pantuso’s Ristorante at the Grand Junction Clarion Inn.

Chris Blackburn finds himself in a familiar territory of checkered tablecloths, terry cloth napkins and red glass candle holders. Framed black and white photographs cover the walls. And from somewhere in the background comes the unmistakable crooning of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin.

It’s no coincidence Blackburn has recreated the comfortable ambiance of a venerable Grand Junction restaurant in opening the latest incarnation of Pantuso’s Ristorante. The location and some aspects of the business are different in operating at the Clarion Inn. But Blackburn expects the food, service and that atmosphere to bring back customers who made Pantuso’s a popular eatery for more than 50 years. “I’ve been excited to bring Pantuso’s back, and I’ve had an overwhelming response from the community.”

Count Lynne Sorlye among the faithful. Sorlye recalls that she went on her first date with the man who would become her husband at Pantuso’s back in 1981. Now the restaurant awaits at the end of a short walk down a hall from the office where Sorlye works as general manager of the Clarion Inn.

Sorlye says she’s excited about the prospects of bringing together two long-time businesses in Grand Junction. “We see it as a really good match.”

So does Blackburn. “I think it’s going to be a pretty beneficial thing for both of us.”

Pantuso’s opened at the Clarion Inn on Horizon Drive in early November following about six weeks worth of remodeling and cleaning at what formerly was Coco’s Bakery Restaurant.

Blackburn says a contract to lease the space for Pantuso’s was completed quickly after he met with Sorlye and the owner of the hotel property.

Sorlye says a number of parties were interested in the space, but she was looking for a local owner and operator who’d work onsite.

Blackburn’s plans to reopen Pantuso’s added further appeal to the deal, she adds.

The deal brought Blackburn back to the restaurant industry after a three-year hiatus. At one time, Blackburn owned and operated three of the most popular restaurants in Grand Junction. He ran Pantuso’s from 1996 to 2007 at two locations, one on Crossroads Boulevard and a second in a larger facility he constructed on Horizon Drive.

Blackburn also ran what was known at the time as G.B. Gladstone’s from 1999 to 2004 as well as the Winery from 2001 to 2005.

Blackburn grew up in the Grand Valley and attended Grand Junction High School. A gifted soccer player, he attended college on a soccer scholarship and was selected as an alternate to the 1992 U.S. Olympic soccer team.

Blackburn studied political science and international policy at college and worked for awhile for an international money management company. He was in the process of interviewing for a job in Italy when the opportunity arose to purchase Pantuso’s and he returned to the Grand Valley.

Fourteen years after he first purchased Pantuso’s, Blackburn has resurrected the restaurant at the Clarion Inn. He has brought back a lot of the look and feel of the Pantuso’s on Crossroads Boulevard with the checkered tablecloths and red terry cloth napkins. He says he wants to evoke a comfortable and casual atmosphere were families feel welcome.

Much of the menu is the same as well, including spaghetti, calzones and pizza — not to mention sandwiches named after customers.

Blackburn also expects to bring back a popular Greek night, probably on Mondays. One addition is a half-pound hamburger made from Angus beef and served with fresh-cut french fries.

Blackburn says his own two children — 11-year-old Sofia and 9-year-old Michael — helped him develop and test a special menu for kids.

All of the food is prepared fresh onsite with the best ingredients, he says. The fare is affordable, too, he adds, with spaghetti and marina sauce served with soup, salad and bread for $8.95.

There are some old faces in new places as well. Blackburn says a number of long-time Pantuso’s employees are back on staff, including David Madison, the production chef, and Donna Ray, the bartender.

The operation is different, though, in that with its location in a hotel, the restaurant provides room service to guests as well as caters banquets, meetings and other events. Blackburn says he’s in the processing of preparing catering menus that feature different types of cuisine in addition to Italian.

Sorlye says guests consider the restaurant an extension of the hotel and expect seamless service — and Blackburn will take good care of them.

Blackburn and Sorlye agree operating a restaurant in the largest hotel in Grand Junction offers an advantage with a built-in base of customers.

Pantuso’s serves dinner from 4 to 10 p.m. daily. Sometime in early January, Blackburn plans to extend those hours to serve lunch from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. weekdays.

Other changes could be in store. But for now, Blackburn is just getting settled, albeit in familiar territory. “It’s nice to be back, and the community has been very welcoming.”