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The remains of a social house

Tom Pfingsten Special to the Village News

On a Wednesday night in early April, Faro Trupiano climbed into his car outside 127 West Social House, the restaurant he’d opened a year earlier inside a relatively ancient building on the corner of Main and Elder, and drove home.

He’d spent the evening at his other place, Trupiano’s Italian Bistro, and on his way out of town, he noticed the lights were still on at 127 West, which he refers to by the digits “one-two-seven,” as if by a call sign. Inside, the bartender and busser were almost done with their closing duties, wiping clean the residue of a weeknight in one of Fallbrook’s most beloved establishments, a business that by many accounts had lived up to its title as the Social House.

Trupiano thought nothing of stopping in. He didn’t really take special notice of the way the light spilled into the street or breathe in the pride of creating a place where people didn’t just enjoy the food, but where they were constantly reminded of how much they enjoyed being together.

“I just came to say what’s up,” he told the last two employees to work for him there, and then left.

The next time he would see the restaurant, six hours later, it was the scene of a raging battle between a fire that had sparked in the kitchen long after the doors were locked and dozens of firefighters.

Trupiano was awakened by the alarm company around 3:30 a.m. with the odd message that the restaurant’s interior security sensors were being tampered with. His remote surveillance feed was offline, and a few minutes later the company called again to inform him that the Social House was on fire.

The first three firemen through the door were engulfed by thick smoke and heat so intense that their thermal imaging cameras betrayed them, sending them left through the dining room in the opposite direction as the flames. One of them tried crawling in and ran headfirst into the hostess station.

If they could have seen more than six inches, they would have noticed the blades of the ceiling fans melting, the speakers in the lobby melting, the soot thickening on every surface.

Outside, they were vaguely aware of a young man with a dark complexion standing nearby and watching their battle unfold. But the captain of the crew inside the building was even more mindful of a growing concern, which was keeping their fight on the offensive, containing the fire before it spread out of control.

As much as Trupiano stood hoping that there would be something left of his restaurant, the young captain and the two others with him were determined that the historic Elder House would still be standing at sunrise.

If they began to lose the battle in the kitchen, they knew, the chief would call them out and they could all watch it burn together.

When $3,000 would buy 133 years of history

The last time firefighters “switched to defensive” and watched a fire run its course through one of Fallbrook’s historic buildings was 26 years ago, when the Lemon Twist packing plant burned more or less to the ground. Nearly 20 years would pass before the hulking shell of that building was reborn with self-storage units and office space.

North County Fire Protection District firefighter John Buchanan, who serves as the district’s media liaison, was one of about 50 firefighters on the Lemon Twist call in 1990, and he was the first one through the door at 127 West on April 7.

The captain of the three-man crew, Ryan Garing, told me that even as they were fighting the Social House fire, “It was tough, thinking about how many people couldn’t come in to work that night.”

“The people who prep the food, the bussers, the servers,” Buchanan added.

Trupiano will never forget the exact number who were suddenly unemployed: 26. That included his chef, whom Trupiano had gone out of his way to recruit.

“I’ve never done anything other than Italian food, so from a culinary standpoint, (the Social House menu) was definitely outside my comfort zone,” he told me. “It was the first restaurant where I actually hired an executive chef with real culinary training. That kind of restaurant, the building, everything we created – it merited a special cuisine, you know? It had to be unique.”

Trupiano comes from a Sicilian family of restaurateurs. Throughout childhood, he was working in the family kitchen, and he opened his first restaurant in Oceanside at the age of 25. In 2004, after opening Trupiano’s on Main Avenue, he sensed that he’d found his niche and soon learned what people in Fallbrook wanted in a restaurant.

He brought all of that experience and intuition to bear in 127 West, which he called “my biggest investment, financially and time-wise.” The costs and creativity required to convert a former newspaper office also made it his riskiest venture to date. In the meantime, he had acquired the former Caffe Primo, renaming it the Espresso Lounge, in a turnkey deal that also enabled him to open the adjoining Juice Vault.

If his eponymous Main Avenue restaurant was Trupiano’s flagship, and Espresso Lounge the next logical step, then 127 West was a declaration. Whether or not he set out to prove himself, in the Social House, that’s exactly what he’d done.

The Elder House had its own legend long before Trupiano ever laid eyes on its stately lines and angles, or set his heart to creating something special within. Built in 1883 as part of a competition between three friends to see who could build the best home on a budget of $3,000, it had housed two schools, a previous restaurant and, most recently, the offices of this newspaper. Elmore Shipley, who built the Elder House, did not win the contest – but of the three competing houses, only Shipley’s remains.

What remained on the morning of the fire, however, was simply the structure of Shipley’s house. Save for the exterior improvements, the restaurant was a total loss. What the flames didn’t burn, the heat melted and the smoke infused with a sickly sweet stench.

“It really wasn’t until the fire was out that I got to get up close and look,” Trupiano recalled. “That’s when it really set in – this is really bad."

“It was kind of surreal – if you can imagine walking through a bad dream, you look around and it’s … almost like a death,” he added. “The sadness. Everybody offering condolences.”

Julia Reyes was there with the couple’s baby daughter. His parents were there. Across 45 years and 22 restaurants, there had never been a fire in a Trupiano establishment.

His mother said, “Faro, it’s just material stuff. Nobody was hurt. You still have your family.”

His father said, “I know you, son. You’ll overcome this and rebuild.”

While the blackened insides of 127 West were still smoldering, another of Fallbrook’s restaurateurs set up a relief fund for Trupiano’s employees, and he also saw an immediate uptick in business at his other locations.

The outpouring of sympathy was swift and unabridged—hundreds of comments pouring in on various social media feeds. Patrons seemed to be mourning the Social House as much as they were feeling sorry for its owner.

Trupiano appreciated the support, but at the same time he was trying to keep up with the formalities that only those who have been through a fire know.

What he didn’t anticipate were the emotions that would wash over him when he sat down to watch the surveillance footage for the first time.

“I didn’t know what I was going to see,” he told me. “We started (the footage) during business hours, so you see employee activity, then you see everybody doing their closing duties, then you see those last two guys leave and you think, ‘Am I going to see something that I can’t unsee? Or is it going to be on me – something I didn’t do? Something negligent?’ All of these thoughts are in your head. ‘Was anyone responsible? Was I responsible?’”

But those who investigate fires and other tragedies know that the truth is rarely as theatrical as the television dramas would suggest. As they closed in on a unified theory of what happened that night at 127 West, their investigation narrowed and the suspect came plainly into focus:

An ice machine.

When Trupiano told me this, there was a thinly veiled note of loathing in his voice. That machine had always been finicky, he said. Never made enough ice. Sometimes the servers at 127 West had to walk over to the Espresso Lounge and carry buckets of ice back to the restaurant.

The irony of an ice machine starting a fire was not lost on Trupiano, but it didn’t make anything better, either.

April '17: Resurrection

There were a lot of things about opening 127 West that Trupiano was glad were behind him, chief of which was dealing with the county’s permitting system. Now he’ll be on a first-name basis with county staff again, and the first permit he would need, in a cruel twist, was for demolition.

His landlord’s insurance covers the structure, and Trupiano said that should pay for restoring the building to where it was when he’d begun: studs, drywall, ceiling. Trupiano’s insurance will cover his tenant improvements—the craftsmanship that went into creating the charming ambience.

The kitchen, where the actual flames were contained, is a wreck, and everything else “needs to be brought back to studs, completely stripped, because of the extensive heat, smoke and water damage,” he said. “They have to get into the framework so they can seal all the wood. They’re saying that, if you don’t, your first hot day, it could smell like a campfire in there."

"At least at this point, we’ve eliminated the guesswork of what it’s going to be,” he said. “We know what the end result looks like. As far as the customer is concerned, everything is going to look the same.”

That should be welcome news to the die-hard patrons whose hearts dropped at the sight of caution tape in the parking lot.

What’s less palatable – both to Trupiano and his fans – is the projected timeline. He figures it will take a year to reopen. The earliest anyone will belly up to the reclaimed wood bar at 127 West will be April 2017.

What that means for the former staff is anybody’s guess.

“A year is a long time,” Trupiano admitted, citing special concern for the fate of his chef. “There’s no contract. It’s just pretty much him saying, ‘Hey boss, I’m just going to keep myself busy for the next year.’ As far as I know, he has every intention of returning."

“I hope all my staff come back,” he added. “I just know that’s not realistic. The majority of them have already found other jobs – some temporary, some permanent. Some have gone into other industries.”

Trupiano asked if I wanted to venture inside the smoky restaurant with him, and soon we were on the front porch. I could see a coating of soot on the inside of the glass door. Trupiano reached for a combination lock behind which the contents of his restaurant sat untouched by human hands.

It must have smarted to enter his own dining room by combination. On the deck I noticed the deadbolt lying where the firemen had dropped it after splintering the doorjamb that night.

Out of the frying pan

When the door swung back and they stepped in, Ryan Garing and his crew noticed two things: extraordinary heat and impossibly thick smoke. None of them had ever been inside the Social House before.

“The smoke was down to the ground, and you couldn’t see your hand in front of your face,” Buchanan recalled. “I haven’t been on <a call> in quite a while where the smoke was on the ground.”

Paul Moritz was starting to wish he had eaten here, at least once. It sounded like his kind of place. He was in charge of the firehose, and once they had pulled enough in, they started trying to find their way.

Garing, the crew captain, switched on his thermal camera, but it was so hot that the imaging was askew, indicating that they had stepped into a small room when in fact they were in a lobby from which one could walk in several directions. The kitchen was to the right.

They turned left. They still hadn’t seen a single flame. Buchanan started to wonder how many additions had been built into the place since the last time he was here.

“That’s what I was worried about, as well,” Garing confessed. “Once we got pretty deep in there and the thermal imager went out, if we kept trying to go further in blindly, in this old building with all these add-ons with no rhyme or reason."

“I’ve been on three (structure fires), and that was easily the hottest,” he said.

He took the crew back outside and found a firefighter who had eaten at 127 West. He told them the way to the kitchen. Meanwhile, the exterior crew was making progress fighting from the top, where a section of roof gave way, venting heat and smoke.

Garing, Buchanan and Moritz went back in, this time heading straight to the seat of the fire. The incident had been elevated to two alarms, drawing engines from Oceanside, Camp Pendleton and Cal Fire, and it was only a matter of time before the flames were subdued.

As it turns out, hope is something that registers deeply with firefighters in the throes of a battle. “You want to keep some type of hope for saving the structure – that we’re not going to give it back to them as the worst-case scenario,” Garing said.

By sunrise, the trio was able to walk away with their heads held high. The Elder House had survived.

But 127 West Social House had not. It was never going to. What the firefighters gave back to Trupiano that morning was simply the opportunity to rebuild.

A month later, stepping over the threshold, he grew quiet.

When he spoke, he pointed to the wine rack above the bar and explained how all of the corks had come out because of the heat. “It smells,” he said. “Look at the heat. Look at the ceiling fans. That’s a speaker.”

He showed me the remains of the kitchen, then stepped back outside.

After a few minutes, I joined him on the porch.

“I need to see progress,” Trupiano told me. “I would rather just see bare studs than all of the effects of the fire. I want to get to that stage. Not remembering.”

The last time I sat down with Trupiano, in the summer of 2014, he said cheerfully, “That place has such a story to tell.” He knew what he had – and he also had enough experience as an entrepreneur to know exactly where he was taking the history that had been placed in his hands.

Years from now, when he tells the story of the Elder House to a patron in his rebuilt restaurant, an entirely different set of images will flash through his mind.

He’ll tell them about building everything twice.

About the loathsome ice machine.

About the beer kegs that were still cold to the touch in the refrigerator afterward.

And about the table settings – the forks and knives situated neatly on their napkins, right where the last person to leave that night had left them.


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