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A death in the family
Friar Tuck’s owner Greg Cook leaves a lasting legacy
Greg Cooks’ sudden passing while skiing on Dec. 30 was more than the loss of a community leader and the successful owner of Friar Tuck’s in Nevada City. His death cast a shadow over the entire community. For those who knew him, it was like losing a friend or father figure.

It was hard to go to work knowing he wasn’t coming in, some employees said after hearing the news. It was difficult for friends who counted on the amiable chap waiting to talk about whatever was on their minds.
His interests were vast and knowledgeable, as well.

“He was a true renaissance man,” said John Vodonick, a good friend and until he quit drinking a regular customer at Friar Tuck’s, the popular restaurant and bar in downtown Nevada City. “He had a tremendous impact on my life. He was fascinated in interests I had and he encouraged me. When I finally decided to change the course of my life, he wanted to hear about every part of it.”

For many locals, Friar Tuck’s was like a second home. And, like the bar in the television show Cheers, it was where everyone knew your name.

“I’ve known him for 35 years,” said David “Sparky” Parker, city councilmember and man about town. “Greg’s impact goes far beyond Friar Tuck’s, which has been an institution for Nevada City. He was very civic-minded and did a lot for this town.

“I was there when the waiters wore monk customs and you’d leave smelling like fondue,” he said. “You’d go to Friar Tuck’s to see what was happening in town. It was really personal. The business was Greg and his wife, Rona, and it was friendly and family-oriented.”

For staff, the death of the 66-year-old Cook was like losing a beloved relative.

“I felt like he was my dad, even though I was older,” said Julie Toaste, who has worked at Friar Tuck’s for 27 years. “I cried more when he died then when my own dad died.”

Employees said working after his death was a challenge, but they realized the show must go on.

“It’s been so hard to work … very hard to come in now without him here,” Toaste said. “It feels empty.”

Known for its loyal and longtime employees, Friar Tuck’s stayed open after his death and regulars flowed in to talk about Greg Cook’s legacy.

“Employees are sad,” said Michelle Litton Ogadi, a longtime off and on employee and currently a teacher at Forest Charter School. “And customers came in wanting to talk about it. People felt like they needed to all come together.”

Part of the appeal of Tuck’s is to see friends, hear the best live music in town and be greeted by what seemed like family by staff and bartenders.

“He was the perfect host,” Vodonick said. “He knew and wanted to talk to everyone who came into the restaurant. He wanted to talk about literature, film, politics, food and wine. That’s what makes a good host.”

“Greg and Rona took care of their friends and regulars,” Vodonick said. “The bartenders are quirky, but they know you. I had a different drink for every season and they would know each one. It is a true neighborhood establishment.”

For longtime customers, the ambiance always included the warmth of the owners and staff toward the patrons. Everyone always seemed to bask in the glow of family and friends.

“He treated his staff the way a good father treats his children,” his wife, Rona, said. “His customers were like family to him. He knew what their interests were and always wanted to talk to them.”

For Greg and Rona’s daughter, Carissa, who now manages the restaurant, her father always felt like everyone’s father, “He authentically cared about people,” she said. “His heart was huge. I’ve discovered in my adult life how rare this is. My little brother and I used to tease him that the restaurant was one of his kids.”

A key part of Cook’s legacy was his emphasis on live music every night of the week, an unusual feature in small town bistros and bars. Jonathan Meredith, a well-known local musician and member of the Buffalo Gals, has played at Friar Tuck’s since 1975.

“His is the only business in town that has live music seven days a week,” he said. “I was lucky to get a regular gig, and I thank him for that.”

Cook opened Tuck’s in 1973. He married Rona, a former waitress, in 1982 and they joined forces to become co-owners. She has been described as a major force in helping to make Friar Tuck’s a success and a “huge contribution in running that restaurant. They were a very warm and loving team and they cared about their people,” said Mike Bratton of State Farm Insurance in Grass Valley, who has known the couple for 40 years.

In the 1970s, burlap was big and it was a feature in the restaurant’s design. Because of the funky décor and burlap on the ceilings, it became know as the burlap era.

“At that time, there were gunny sacks on the ceiling,” Vodonick said. “From gunny sacks to major remodeling after the fire nearly burned it to the ground in 2002, it has become a beautiful place,” he continued. “It’s a central part of this town. It”s the heartbeat of this town.”

Greg and Rona Cook pictured here in the mid 1990’s.
Photo by Stact Drake
“Greg’s impact goes far beyond Friar Tuck’s, which has been an institution for Nevada City. He was very civic-minded and did
a lot for this town.”
—David “Sparky” Parker