By Rae and Troy Matthews
Where do the locals go? In a tourist town like South Lake Tahoe, this is invaluable information. Tucked away amidst government buildings and between residential streets on Sandy Way is a gem specifically designed by and for Tahoe residents that only the most adventurous beer-hunting tourist will locate. Sidellis Brewery has only been open a year, but is already adored by locals. Owner Chris Sidell, Brew Master Steve Canali, and Chef Keith Brower have grown and evolved Sidellis from a beer-only brewery, to a beer-centric restaurant. Their concept: small operation, open seating, rustic feel, and family-like staff, offers locals a distinctly “Tahoe” place to come in and take a load off. Tourists are, of course, welcome… but they have to find it first. Sidell talked with us about his concept, and how his ability to adapt and change has been his key to success.
We asked where the name came from. Sidell explained, “So my last name is Sidell, and my husband’s last name is Ellis. And so that’s where the Sidellis comes from. It’s my name and his name stuck together.” Sidell first came to Tahoe 13 yeas ago from down under. “I grew up in Australia… I graduated high school in Australia and I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do, so I thought well I’ll go to the U.S. for a winter. And that was 13 years ago. And so I came here for one season, went back to Australia for a winter in Australia, then came back here for my second season and then that’s where I met my husband. That’s what stuck.”
He spent most of his time in Tahoe working in and managing various local restaurants, but he’s always had a thing for… well… yeast. “I’m a fermentation scientist by trade… We thought well, ‘How can we stay here and use my degree?’ And I thought the best way was to open our own place.” So the concept for Sidellis was born, and within a whirlwind 6 months, their doors were open. But if there’s one thing that Sidell has learned, it’s to roll with the tide. “So I’m a big fan of organic growth… I never expected to run a restaurant. It was supposed to be a brewery.” But the city informed them that they had to sell food because of their zoning, so they ran with it. And now they’ve found that their food is growing more and more popular. “Our initial concept was cabin, industrial, beer, food as a side note. And then over time the food has kind of pushed itself up, and then the beer has kept going, and because we have all this food income ultimately coming in, now we can take a little bit more risk with the beers.” Keeping the operation small and intimate allows Sidellis to offer quality product and still turn a profit. “The way we did that was: not stick it on the highway; build everything ourselves; and be simple.”
There are a handful of handcrafted beers on tap at any given time. We can’t say exactly which ones, because, by the time you read this sentence, it may have changed. “We have five regulars and four seasonals. So our regulars are our White Ale, our Amber Ale, our Farmhouse Ale, our Porter, and our IPA, ” says Sidell. Due to limited space and high demand, even the “regulars” get rotated. But they always come back. It’s the seasonal beers that allow Sidell and Canali to have fun. “For us it’s all about making sure we have the beers that people want, but then have the ability to kind of experiment, do fun things. That’s what we got into this for, was the ability to not make the same pilsner over and over and over again…. We need to have fun doing this otherwise what’s the point? ”
The food, which started as an afterthought, has now grown into a sizable draw for Sidellis’ customers, so much so that they brought in chef Keith Brower to oversee it. Each menu item started out as a test to see if it would sell, and most of it did. A lot. So they’ve made these items part of the unique, down home flavor that is Sidellis.
We tried out the artichoke dip, the French dip sandwich, the French onion soup, and the homemade pickles. Everything has a little nod to Sidell’s background as a fermentation scientist. “This is our French Dip, which is our biggest selling sandwich…we cook the tri-tip here. We cook it in our beer with salt and pepper, and then we make an au jus, and this au jus is actually non-meat. So it’s made with brewer’s yeast,” explains Sidell. This same au jus is also used to make the French Onion soup, which actually makes the soup vegetarian. But you would never know by just tasting it.
The pickle jar, which includes an assortment of just about anything that can possibly be pickled, actually started out as decoration. “It started up as more of a visual kind of thing where it would look really cool in that window over there, and then we sold so many the first week, we’re like ok I guess we’ve got to keep doing this…We probably have 400 jars that we just constantly rotate through.” And the same pickled jalapeños that came with the assortment are also folded into the artichoke dip. “Eventually the aim is to start curing meat. Something I’m really interested in. I’m really into bacteria and yeast. That’s kind of my thing. You know, we’re making our own sauerkraut. You know, fun things like that. And that to me is a use of my degree that I never would have thought of.”
But no matter how popular the food gets, for Sidell the beer will always come first. “Our big saying is, ‘Beer first, then everything else.’ And so it’s all about the quality of the beer and the product that we’re making, and then everything kind of flows along behind it.”
The Tahoe food scene is an ever-changing landscape, and learning to go along with the flow has been Sidell’s secret. “It’s ok if things don’t work out perfect…being able to accept things maybe slightly not the way you want them is a big thing, I think.” That, and, of course, the right people. “Steve is amazing. I can’t explain how good he is at what he does. I always describe him as the artist and me as the scientist, because he has that knack that I just can’t explain.” Unlike other restaurants in town, they’ve also had almost no turnover is staff. “We’re more of a family…We have a core group. We’ve lost one person since we opened and she’s coming back. I think if you treat your staff like a family…and you pay them a little bit more than minimum wage. I think that that really, really helps out in this town.”
In a town as tough as Tahoe, Sidellis has found its niche. But what we love about them is that their niche keeps evolving. Not being afraid to embrace change has helped Sidellis rise in the Tahoe food scene. If you’re a local (or a visitor), we’ll see you there.