Last February, Mimi Rasmussen stood in front of the condemned windmill built by her grandfather, Borge Andresen, in 1963. The iconic structure was in need of expensive seismic retrofitting and hadn’t been rented in two years. Financially, her best option was to tear it down. Steve Renfrow was walking his dog along Mission Street that day. He had been searching for the right building to house the business he had dreamt about for years: a brewery. He and Mimi Rasmussen struck a deal, and the Solvang Brewing Company started to become a reality.
It was only a matter of time before Renfrow learned that the biggest challenge in taking over an old building isn’t in renovating, retrofitting, or replacing ancient pipes. “The last thing you want is a local coming in, looking around, and saying, ‘You ruined it!’” said Renfrow.
And they were watching, for each day people stopped by to check on their progress. “This place is such a part of the community and its history,” Renfrow explained. Cari, his wife and the general manager, has her own memories of the Danish Inn: “We remember our grandparents coming here, and it’s nostalgic to us because we have that feeling of family.” She traces her Solvang roots to her grandfather’s Danish uncle, who arrived in 1911.
Opening their doors earlier this month, the Renfrows have created an old-world pub atmosphere in the Viking Room, used the main space as a gourmet Danish restaurant, and used the windmill for retail. It was an ambitious undertaking, but the couple had experienced partners in San Luis Obispo: Bill and Meygan Hales, Ron and Mercedes Meier, and Crystal Jewell.
Danish, American, and pub grub-style food make up Chef Michael Hendrickson’s menu. He mastered traditional Danish recipes for the project, some passed to the Renfrows by old Solvang families. Hendrickson updated the recipes, making “the kind of food you would find at somebody’s grandmother’s house” into modern Danish cuisine. Medisterpølse sausage and Frikadeller meatball sliders are on the menu, along with slow-braised meat, hefeweizen sauces, an onion soup made with stout, beer-glazed chicken, and fried food battered with their Blue-Eyed Blond ale.
Brewmaster Patrick Slavin is at the helm of the Solvang Brewing Company’s beer, which includes a Valhalla IPA and a Great Dane Pale Ale. “Patrick’s concept on beer is that it can always be better,” said Renfrow. “One of our taps is Patrick’s beer-of-the-month, which allows him to try new things. He is very excited about having the opportunity to experiment with the recipes he’s made in small batches.”
Besides brewing craft beer and serving Danish pub grub, the Renfrows’ goal is to run a family-friendly restaurant that provides entertainment later than most Solvang establishments. They plan to have a satellite jukebox and invite live bands to play in the evenings and are considering karaoke nights and Wii bowling leagues using the 64-inch HDTV. The restaurant welcomes families during all hours, but the Viking Room isadults-only at night so that patrons don’t stumble over children on their way to the Wii.
The Viking Room hasn’t changed much. It was built in the late 1960s, when besuited businessmen sat down to martinis, conducting business over long lunches. Phone jacks were installed at each table and the bar had its own switchboard. Renfrow said they want to preserve the memories: “We are not changing the look. You can’t buy character like this. When people come in here, it’s recognizable still. But now that I’ve been in here doing the remodel, it’s hard for me to imagine it as anything other than a brewery. I think this is what it was always meant to become.”
The floors are new, a stylish, polished concrete. But the walls retain their dark oak panels, the ceilings their heavy beams, and the original copper bar top has the patina developed from many glasses. Renfrow said they considered replacing the red leather benches, “but it’s another part of the character of the building. A lot of butts have worn these seats in and made them comfortable.”
While the younger generations cheered them on using Facebook, those who remembered the Danish Inn and Viking Room gave moral support to the Renfrows in person. One particular resident left quite an impression. “A few months ago, this gentleman pulled up—he had to be close to 90—all spiffed up in a dress shirt, a bola, and a cowboy hat, heavy Danish accent. He says ‘When ’ja gonna be open?’” recalled Renfrow, who gave the man the planned opening date. “Fantastic; that’s my seat,” replied the man. “I used to sit there with my wife. Can I have that seat opening day?” Renfrow immediately obliged, promising, “We may have to kick someone out, but that seat is yours.”
Soak in some suds in wine country at the Solvang Brewing Company (1547 Mission St., Solvang). Call 688-2337, or see solvangbrew.com.