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‘Captain’ of Hotel Mac preserves 100 year tradition of flavor

on October 31, 2018

Instead of calling herself owner of Hotel Mac, Lara Cho calls herself “captain.” Her employees playfully call her “Momma.”

In the mornings, she comes in several hours before opening at 11:30 a.m. She does a sweep through the restaurant to make sure things are in order, such as turning on the lights. She boots up the computer systems and makes sure the fridges and water are running at the correct temperatures.

Lara is the fourth generation of captains of Hotel Mac, one of Richmond’s historic restaurants. It opened in 1911, and Lara stepped out of her retirement and into the business six years ago to save it from going under.

Lara isn’t one to shy away from her business. You’ll find her in the middle of the various dining rooms enjoying the space with everyone who comes in, quietly floating about and chatting with her employees and customers. She wants Hotel Mac not to just be a restaurant but a second home for all who decide to dine there.

On this day, she’s gotten in a bit late. She went to a meeting at her church about the Kavanaugh hearings. She looks a bit rushed and worried, but immediately, she radiates a welcoming warmth. When she smiles, the gold shimmer in her orange lipstick shines in the light.

Lara is the fourth generation of captains of Hotel Mac, one of Richmond’s historic restaurants. It opened in 1911, and Lara stepped out of her retirement and into the business six years ago to save it from going under.

Lara’s the kind of woman who radiates joy. She’s nearly 70 now, and you can hardly tell as she excitedly tells story after story. As we ate lunch together, she told me of her former employees and how she even became a godmother to one couple. She smiles widely as she talks about hosting their baby shower, showing me pictures from the event in her home. Over and over, she says it was beautiful. She tells me about her morning routine, and how she loves to sing. Spontaneously, she breaks out into a throaty melody in Korean, her native language.

At the heart of Lara’s efforts as captain is a dedication to Richmond’s community. Once a month, the restaurant hosts charitable wine tastings featuring local wineries. The proceeds from this go toward the Richmond Police Action League, a nonprofit that provides programs and activities for Richmond’s youth, such as tutoring, food or a safe place to be after school. The wine tastings are casual and fun for the adults, but Richmond’s mature audience isn’t the only group of people Lara’s hoping to reach.

Once a year, Hotel Mac also hosts an etiquette dinner for the youth of Richmond. According to Lara, for many of those who come, it’s their first time ever eating a five-course meal.

Born in South Korea and an immigrant to the U.S., Lara speaks a lot about privilege, especially when she’s with young people. When she does, she gets a soft and pained look in her eyes. Her voice gets quiet and quivers gently, but she has a certain determination. The way she speaks from her heart shows she’s grateful for the struggle she endured to be able to say what she needs to say today.

“I told them, ‘You are wonderful people. You have something that I don’t have, and I envy all of you.’ And they roll their eyes and say, ‘Why, she looks fine? She has everything.’”

“So, I say, ‘Listen, have any of you ever thought that you weren’t born with a silver spoon?’”

Very quietly, one person usually raises their hand, shyly, and the other ones do, too, she says. “Soon everybody raises their hand. So, I say, ‘O.K., got it. You don’t need a silver spoon because you have a diamond spoon in your mouth. That’s why you don’t have a silver spoon.’”

“They think that I am joking. I say ‘Look at me. I was born in Korea. My mother tongue is Korean. You were born in your right state. Your mother tongue is English; you guys don’t know how powerful that language is. Anyone who came from out of the country, they know the barrier of English. And you’re just born with that language! And that’s not a gold spoon or a silver spoon, but a diamond spoon.’”

“So, I say, ‘Listen, have any of you ever thought that you weren’t born with a silver spoon?’”

– Lara Cho

For the most part, Hotel Mac hasn’t changed drastically since it opened. She didn’t want it to, and when she came in, she didn’t let anyone go. The original bar now has some brass finishings on it to hide the wood’s decay, and the stained glass that was installed after a fire in the 70s still remains today.

The hotel smells of dust and musk in some areas, but for the most part, you can hardly tell the place is over 105 years old. The stairs don’t creak; the railings are still a rich, deep chocolate color; the wine cellar had pieces replaced, but it’s still cozy and romantic, surrounding its diners with a hazy, decadent atmosphere of brick walls, glassy bottles of wine, and light wooden boxes. Well, at least until the eyes fall upon a piece of technology that looks like some sort of modem and isn’t very well concealed.

But the changes that have been made over the years include replacing some paintings. Lara says when she came in, there were several duck pieces, with a few of them being hunted and killed by dogs. She didn’t think that was very homey. One piece, in the back right of the lounge, is by a local artist. Another, on the right side of the bar, is from Lara’s living room. She’s also responsible for the grand piano in the lounge.

One piece of the history that doesn’t remain today, however, are menus from the past. For some time, the former owners had old, aged copies of the menus that they’d show customers. The menu hasn’t changed drastically over the years, but the prices have. From memory, Lara says there were $2 lobster rolls. Unfortunately, those menus were stolen a while back.

At least there are some pieces of written media from the past still intact today that paint a picture of the restaurant’s legacy. The Richmond Museum of History only had two articles about Hotel Mac in its archives.

The first of the two doesn’t have an identified publication. It just says “Independent,” penciled in the margins. It was written September 15, 1949, and doesn’t have a credited byline.

The article, simply headlined, “Mac Hotel Serves Delicious Food,” is very brief. “Mrs. Leon Beckett is justifiably proud of the reputation for excellence enjoyed by the Hotel Mac. Famous throughout the east bay for the fine food, well prepared and sensibly priced, this old Point Richmond hotel, with beautiful stained glass windows in the dining room, need to take a back seat to no one in regards to good food.”

A newspaper clipping on Hotel Mac from 1949. Courtesy of the Richmond Museum of History.

The second is a longer, more traditional newspaper feature from The Times, talking about the owners and the food. “Hotel Mac a Charming Classic,” written February 5, 1999, by Deborah Byrd, talks about the restaurant a little more descriptively. “On a chilly winter night–or almost any night for that matter–the Hotel Mac is practically irresistible,” reads the lede.

A newspaper clipping about Hotel Mac by Deborah Bryd in The Times from 1999. Courtesy of the Richmond Museum of History.

“Not many changes in ownership means they (the owners) came in, if they stayed 30 years, 40 years, 35 years, means they gave their lives to this place. They gave their heart,” the article continues.

“This place has been cared for by the owners with their heart.”

Lara is, without doubt, continuing in the very same tradition at Hotel Mac.

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