Restaurant Impossible: A Frenzied Two-Day Makeover At Pappas Restaurant

But there were moments of calm and pride in the eye of the storm.

A friend at asked me to bring some workmates for a ‘very fun and unbelievable’ covert job. How could I resist, in the quiet of January?  Pappas was packed for days when the make-over was announced, making it hard to get in.  But here we were, a few days later, welcomed through the pearly gates by an upbeat production crew.  

Wearing work clothes in the parking lot, we waited to be chosen as if at a middle school dance. I was nervous because I’m clumsy.  I knew I’d be the one to step on a power tool and shoot a stray staple into someone’s forehead.  However, I’m a good scrubber.  I also brought friends who could use a spray gun and they had plenty of charisma. 

We approached the zone of tents and were taken to different areas to paint and clean items. Things were evacuated from the restaurant and we wondered their fate as they were paraded in front of the design team.  Would it be gutted, primed, torched or reassembled?  We watched Tom Bury, the Designer/Builder, look at a rusty roasting pan after it was surgically scrubbed on the inside.  Tom looked at the shabby outside; it struck his fancy and so it became a wall hanging in the bar.  Everything was getting a second chance. 

The stealthy camera crew would weave their way among the volunteers, catching good comments or edgy moments.  I had no intention of being filmed; after all, my friends were the ones with charm.  The 1900’s cash register was being cleaned, and someone mentioned it was used in the family’s store where they sold cider and spirits.  Something to the effect of, “Spirits?  Like in booze or ghosts?” just shot from my mouth as I had my table of volunteers in stitches.  Only, they were laughing because at that precise moment, a camera was laser aimed at me, recording my moment. Please, not this.  This can’t be my moment. 

Pappas’ staff was sequestered indoors, and poked their heads through the front door like little birds, blinking in the sunlight after being put through the fire.  They were undergoing a very intense and painful birthing process, and they looked upset.  We threw many smiles their way which told them it was going to be okay with star of the show.  Speaking of The Force, if we used the restroom indoors, we were told to avert our eyes and avoid any glance at the filming.  We were not to set our eyes on Mr. Irvine.  He was right there, fifteen feet away, and even when we tried to peek, there was no sighting whatsoever.  However, we heard there was a dramatic moment where a table got heaved upwards, with dishes and food getting a rough landing.  This promised to be interesting. 

Very polite but were keeping tight control of the day, while designers and carpenters all worked as one.  There was a master plan, but little details were decided and changed quickly, depending on color, mood and when the FedEx folks arrived with mystic packages.  We saw there were less than 30 hours to do what looked like a month’s worth of work.  It just didn’t look possible.  

Many of us had just met for the first time, and after a few hours, I was fascinated.  So much progress was being made with a random, sporadic and unknown quantity of unskilled volunteers who only brought their heart and homespun talent.  This was daunting and overwhelming work; a deal breaker even with a paid, trained and committed staff.  Almost like rollers that move a boulder across the desert so that no one person is burdened, the project moved through the hours on the hands of the people who just wanted to see this restaurant succeed.  The energy level was high; but the mood was cheerful.  People were having fun

The production staff was gracious and they made us feel cherished.  We were fed often, and thanked even more.  No one walked around with the “Don’t you know who I AM?” persona.  My friends and I had never seen the show and didn’t know that half the time, we were casually joking with an actual member of the cast.   In fact, my friend was ‘promoted’ indoors to do some upholstering in the Big House, and turned to a ‘volunteer’ to request his help in filling the staple gun.  It was THE Robert Irvine and she didn’t know it until someone jumped in to beg him for a photo. 

Every day, after getting filthy, we’d see many friends had posted Facebook pictures of their successful and coveted moment with Chef Robert Irvine, because their timing was perfect.  We were in the bowels of the ship for two days, but the lucky townspeople happened to run into him up on deck, just by merely standing at the fence.  I’m sure they smelled better than we did.

The film crew loved Benicia.  I was so proud of my town, because our people made a great impression.  The volunteers were just as pleasantly surprised how down-to-earth the film crew was.  All preconceived notions collided in the air, making us realize we were just parents, friends, sons or daughters, making a regular living.  My friend said she would have done this for any business in town, with no cameras needed.  I think we all would agree.  Many volunteers had never watched the show, but just felt invested in Benicia.  They, along with the people who dined at the Debut and the people who watched from the fence; sent their positive energy across the lot, so their town and a family restaurant could come out the better for it all. 

Pappa made a cake for the production team , because he was grateful.  The crew said this was a first.   It truly seemed in keeping with the hospitable nature of his family.

When I shot the interior photos for their upcoming website, the place felt like a younger and energetic version of itself.  It was the first time I saw all the items we had touched, cut and painted.  They had been in the spin cycle of upheaval but were now settled quietly, asking, “How do you like me now?”  The blue bottles at the cash register were found at a collector’s shop in New York and were hand carried here by one of the designers.  They pose as if they’ve lived here forever. 

The producers have been in touch constantly, because they too are invested in the outcome.  Pappa is hoping for continued success.  He told me May 9th is significant for three reasons and it could be a possible good omen.  It is the 16th anniversary of their location opening; the date of the airing of the ‘new-chance-at-life” episode, and the birthday of his mother.

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