Why the iconic Broiler restaurant closed its doors

When the iconic Broiler steakhouse and its bar-lounge, Gallagher’s Irish Pub, unceremoniously closed over Labor Day weekend, longtime co-owner Larry Lords couldn’t be reached for comment. But he phoned the other day to explain that he’d been screening calls and avoiding the media. “You’re the only one I’m going to discuss this with, and then that’s the end of the story,” he said emphatically.

The Broiler closed it doors after a long-brewing perfect storm of financial woes that included increasing debt that had accumulated to an average outlay of $12,000 a month, Lords said.

Also, the operation never recovered from the death of Lords’ wife and business partner, Marilou, in August 2012, “the heart and soul of the business,” he said. “She took care of the menus, the guest relations and the staff. I could handle the back of the house fine, but (her part) was starting to slip pretty badly.”

The restaurant, now in Chapter 7 bankruptcy, was battered by the national financial-meltdown years of 2007, 2008 and 2009. “Business steadily fell those three years, by 18 percent, then 22 percent, then 26 percent. I should have closed then, but I figured if I could just keep going long enough, we could get through it and rebuild.”

The Broiler “did well” from 2011 until “we hit mid-June of this year, the worst I’ve ever seen. Basically, it was a bad six-week stretch when everybody had left town and nothing was going on. Most operations could have sustained that, but I had used up all available resources. I was dragging so much debt from (2007-2009) and from borrowing from every source I had. It finally all closed in.”

Over recent years, Lords fell behind on the rent and faced multiple tax liens. “I put everything I had in it to keep it floating,” he said. “I emptied my IRA and sold my wife’s car. There was nothing else I could put in and nowhere I could borrow.”

Lords thought he had lined up a deal to sell the restaurant last month, but the potential buyer “pulled away when I pressed him on it. We were talking terms and I was willing to sell for just enough to cover the vendors. He knew my situation and wanted to buy it (cheaper) out of receivership.”

On Sept. 3, Lords called his staff together for the last time “to pay them off in cash because I knew that checks wouldn’t go through the bank. I wasn’t prepared for the emotions. It was like losing family.”

The Broiler’s closure has generated a steady stream of remarks and memories on social media, and has reverberated throughout downtown.

“The Broiler was part of the fabric and identity of downtown, and you hate to lose the stability of your longtime champions,” said Michael Ault, executive director of the Downtown Sacramento Partnership. “It’s a huge loss, and you can’t say enough about the commitment Larry and Marilou Lords made to downtown.”

The California Dental Association owns the 1201 K St. building that housed the Broiler and Gallagher’s on its lobby level. CDA director of communications Alicia Malaby emailed this statement in reply to voice-mail queries: “The CDA is saddened to hear that the Broiler has closed and filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy. The Broiler has been a landmark restaurant in Sacramento since 1950 and a tenant in our building for the past 14 years. We have no further details.”

The Broiler opened at J and 10th streets in 1950, quickly becoming the steak-and-scotch destination of choice for the politicians, lawyers and lobbyists who inhabited the nearby state Capitol and neighboring offices.

It changed hands in 1962 and again in 1985, when Larry and Marilou Lords teamed with Walter Harvey and his (now late) wife, Gloria Harvey, in the Broiler operation. They also partnered in Gallagher’s Bar & Grill in east Sacramento. In 1999, the two restaurants moved to new quarters K Street. The Harveys sold their interest, leaving the Lords as sole owners.“Marilou set up a ‘ghost walk’ when we moved from J Street to K Street,” Lords recalled. “We had a cocktail party at the old Broiler and marched from there to the new Broiler and carried all the good ghosts to the new place. Close to 200 people were in the march.”

Part of the Broiler’s charm was its sense of retro, on the menu and in the decor. From day one until it closed, the restaurant specialized in classic, old-school dinner dishes, though the K Street lunch menu was updated to feature more contemporary fare.

Over the decades, the Broiler hosted Sacramento’s biggest politicians, including “every governor since (Goodwin) Knight (elected in 1953),” said Lords. “The first time we served Jerry Brown was in the late 1970s. I was a waiter at the old Broiler, and remember him flying through the door and joining Grey Davis (then Brown’s chief of staff), (political activist) Tom Hayden and their gang, who were having dinner. Brown had two quick glasses of white wine and was gone.”

Arnold Schwarzenegger and his entourage had lunch at the new Broiler one day “and his secretary called the next day to make a reservation,” Lords recalled. “My wife told her, ‘I’m sorry, but we’re booked.’ The secretary said, ‘I don’t think you realize that this is the governor.’ My wife said, ‘I’m really sorry, but the table is already promised.’

“I don’t think they ever called back,” Lords said. “We didn’t feel bad about it because the (next-door) Esquire Grill was loading up with a lot of looky-loos who were tracking Schwarzenegger, and a lot of (high-placed regulars) were moving away from that. So we were getting a lot more business without him than with him.”

The K Street location also served a luncheon for the California Supreme Court in January 2011, in celebration of Tami Cantil-Sakauye’s appointment as chief justice, and the Sacramento Press Club gathered there for its monthly lunch meetings.

Does Lords think Sacramento has room for a replacement Broiler-style restaurant?

“There’s certainly a place for it in our enlivened downtown,” he said. “(Such a restaurant) would still draw heavily on convention traffic and from the theater district and the hotels — if it’s a contemporary operation. I believe we kept our menu pretty contemporary.”

As for the next step, Lords plans to sell his house and move to Oregon, where he’ll “do a little writing and hopefully find a part-time teaching job (in communications),” he said. “My sister has a mother-in-law cottage on her property and has offered that to me until I get situated.”

Lords paused in the conversation to collect himself.

“It’s been a year since Marilou died and 12 years since (our son) Tim died,” he said. “He was an executive chef in the Bay Area and Seattle, and the plan was for him to take over the Broiler. It’s time for me to get out of the restaurant business. The three dogs and I will move on and start a new life.”