Araxi owners purchase Il Caminetto 

Umberto Menghi's iconic Italian restaurant opened in 1981

click to enlarge PHOTO COURTESY OF TOPTABLE GROUP - BIG BUY Umberto Menghi, left, has fielded many offers for his iconic Italian restaurant Il Caminetto over the years, but the famed chef says it wasn't until Toptable Group president Michael Doyle, pictured, approached him that he knew he'd found the right fit.
  • Photo courtesy of Toptable Group
  • BIG BUY Umberto Menghi, left, has fielded many offers for his iconic Italian restaurant Il Caminetto over the years, but the famed chef says it wasn't until Toptable Group president Michael Doyle, pictured, approached him that he knew he'd found the right fit.

The Toptable Group has added one of Whistler's oldest and most storied restaurants to its stable, Il Caminetto.

Toptable announced the purchase last week, adding another resort restaurant to a roster that already includes Araxi and Bar Oso.

"Il Caminetto is an iconic brand in Whistler that fits well with our philosophy to celebrate a sense of place that we are invested and engaged in the community," wrote TopTable president Michael Doyle in an email to Pique. "We look forward to developing and continuing (Umberto Menghi's) commitment to approachable dining in the village under the Toptable brand."

Il Caminetto launched 36 years ago, only months after Whistler Village opened on a former landfill site, giving the community its first introduction to the rich flavours of Tuscany and the charm Menghi has become known for in his decades as a celebrated chef and restaurateur.

"My father always told me, if somebody wants something you have and they'll pay for it, give it to them," Menghi said with a laugh. The restaurateur said he fielded many offers over the years for Il Caminetto, but that developers were usually only interested in the real estate. It wasn't until Toptable, operators of half-a-dozen restaurants in Vancouver and Whistler, made an offer that he knew he had found the right fit.

The company will take over the day-to-day operations of Il Caminetto in mid-April. After some "fine tuning" to the interior, the restaurant will reopen for the summer under the guidance of Araxi Executive Chef James Walt, who will oversee the kitchen, while Neil Henderson will lead front-of-house operations.

"Chef Walt is hard at work to subtly adjust the restaurant's culinary direction — it will meld local and Italian ingredients to a contemporary, regionally inspired menu," Doyle said, adding that he expects Walt to continue working "with his broad network of suppliers and producers to create an inspired menu for Il Caminetto, both locally and abroad."

Menghi is confident Toptable will be able to preserve the legacy he's spent nearly four decades cultivating at one of the village's first restaurants.

"There are Italian minds behind it, the Aquilinis, and they know business quite well," he said, referring to the Aquilini Group, which purchased Toptable from Araxi founder Jack Evrensel in 2014.

Menghi has long been considered one of the "Godfathers" of Whistler's restaurant scene, and built his legacy by serving unapologetically authentic Italian cuisine in a cozy, relaxed setting. His first restaurant, Il Giardino, was an institution among Vancouver's high society, and over the years, he added others to his resume — including a second Whistler location, Trattoria di Umberto — along with several best-selling cookbooks. Now 70, he said he has no plans of retiring.

"You know what? Never thought of it," he said. "I'm going to spend more time in the Trattoria, I'll build a house up in Whistler and have some time to enjoy family."

When asked if Toptable considered buying any of Menghi's other properties, Doyle said the company remains focused on Il Caminetto for the time being.

"We're in the business of doing things right — one restaurant at a time — so taking on the addition of Il Caminetto will keep our team busy for now," he wrote.

Toptable has expanded its presence in Whistler in recent years. Now with three of the resort's top restaurants under its banner, Doyle is confident Toptable will be able to maintain diversity in the resort's relatively small fine dining scene.

"Each of the restaurants are so unique — through varied design, decor and menus — that they are truly distinctive in their own right. Of course, the food and wine programs will remain true to each of their respective personalities as well," he said.

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