Douglas Keane says he’s tired of fighting with “rich landlords” whose “petty” actions complicate the daily job of running a restaurant. But last week the chef and owner of Michelin-starred Cyrus in Geyserville got a boost in his ongoing fight with landlord Steve Oliver, a contractor, art collector, and former board president of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. On Monday, July 31, Sonoma County Superior Court granted Keane and the Cyrus group preliminary injunctive relief, the latest development in a two-year-long spat first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle.
The injunction was a response to Keane’s request for declaratory relief — a legal action that asks a judge to interpret an existing contract, in this case, a lease — on the subject of parking, which has become a major point of contention between the two parties. The original lease spells out who can park where; the injunction means neither Keane nor Oliver can change or breach that agreement while the court case plays out.
“We feel great,” Keane says of the injunction. “We just want to be left alone to run our restaurant. I’m not going to let this bully push us around anymore.”
The injunction could also signal that Keane will likely prevail in the larger case about the lease. But first, the backstory.
Keane’s first iteration of Cyrus, in Healdsburg, closed more than a decade ago after a dispute with a landlord. But the chef and his longtime business partner and maitre’d Nick Peyton retained the restaurant name and after years of attempts, finally found a new home in Geyserville. In 2020, Keane signed a 30-year lease for the building at 275 CA-128 to open Cyrus 2.0.
According to the Chronicle, the new lease included an agreement that Oliver would be the general contractor on the Cyrus buildout. But the relationship soured in early 2021 when construction costs soared beyond initial projections. It worsened when Keane hired a new contractor and continued to go south as Oliver issued a slew of new rules and regulations that Keane says violated the lease terms. Keane tried to buy the building, but the two were unable to reach an agreement.
The whole ordeal has cost Keane’s side about $350,000 in legal fees and created an ongoing headache for the restaurant team, he says. Neither Oliver nor his legal team have responded to Eater SF’s request for comment.
The most significant issue for Keane right now: parking spaces. The lease designates 59 parking spaces for restaurant use, with six other spaces assigned to the landlord, plus what amounts to four spaces in a private garage. The spaces designated for Keane’s staff sit behind the restaurant, near the landlord’s rental unit. But with those parking spots increasingly being occupied by vehicles unrelated to Cyrus, Keane advised his staff to park in the spots marked for “tenant” use. At some point, all hell broke loose.
Oliver then submitted a proposal to redesign the lot, including adding spaces and changing the traffic flow. That was before last week’s injunction, and two days after it, on August 2, the Sonoma County Design Review Committee met to make a decision. Keane’s team argues the proposed redesign will “create chaos” and require daily management. The gravel lot is a floodplain and cannot be paved, making it impossible to delineate parking spots with paint striping.
In the hearing, Oliver said he’d agreed to the existence of 59 spaces for the restaurant but not the location of those spaces. He alleges he never saw the parking design and that his tenants in the caretaker’s unit are burdened by the presence of restaurant employees parking nearby, taking spaces that would be more convenient for them to use. The garage spots aren’t an option, he adds, as he uses it mostly for storage.
Keane’s lawyers pointed to the recent injunction, saying the request for the redesign violated the court order. Keane also disputes Oliver was unaware of the parking design for the restaurant. “He was actively involved in getting the use permit, in every decision,” he says. In emails reviewed by Eater SF, Oliver does appear to have been involved; he participated in email conversations about obtaining Cyrus’s conditional use permit and was sent related documents including a vicinity map, site plan, and site plan for valet parking.
The Sonoma County Design Review Committee began the meeting with a staff recommendation to approve “the minor design modifications to the parking lot,” but backtracked and ended it without a decision, continuing the issue for “a future unnamed date.”
Keane says parking is a critical issue for Cyrus since the county requires the restaurant to have a certain number of parking spaces to do business. Without the spaces as spelled out in the original plan, the restaurant’s conditional use permit from the county could be pulled, threatening the restaurant’s existence.
Keane, his restaurant partners, and his legal team hope the tides may be turning, but are cautious about saying these recent rulings mark the end of their problems. “It’s not over, and the landlord intends to continue to pursue modifications to the use permit,” says Christian Baker, real estate litigator and member of Keane’s legal team from Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP. The next phases of the case include written discovery, depositions, and a trial — if it comes to that. Baker says he regularly counsels clients on landlord-tenant disputes, but this one is unusually contentious. “At the end of the day, this is a threat to the restaurant’s ability to operate,” he says.
Meanwhile, Keane says he’s committed to the Geyserville community and is proud of the team, the restaurant, and of making strides in staff pay and work-life balance. “We’ve worked so hard for so long,” he says, ‘“and I’m not going to let someone with a big ego and a lot of money ruin that.”