Janesville couple on a 'Lark' with planned restaurant

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Neil Johnson
Friday, April 14, 2017

JANESVILLE—Richard and Joan Neeno for the last few years have entertained their friends and neighbors with themed food parties at their home in Janesville's Courthouse Hill district.

The couple, who profess to have foodies' appreciation for fresh ingredients, novel culinary ideas and from-scratch cocktails, are taking their feed-the-neighborhood approach to another level with a new restaurant in downtown Janesville.

Unlike the Neenos' warmhearted culinary parties, they say, the new restaurant won't simply be a lark.

Well, actually, it will.

In June, the Neenos plan to open Lark, a small plate and cocktail restaurant, at 60 S. Main St. It will serve dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays.

The couple say Lark will offer small-plate cuisine made from seasonal ingredients in the key of “New American” cuisine along with a range of entrees that are local favorites. The restaurant will specialize in hand-mixed craft cocktails made from fresh ingredients specially designed to pair with the food.

To house Lark, the Neenos in November bought a long-vacant storefront west of the Marvin W. Roth Community Pavilion in Lower Courthouse Park. They're renovating the space to include a dine-in area, a bar area, a walled-in courtyard at the rear for outdoor dining, and two kitchens—one for cooking and one for food prep.

The Neenos are now interviewing chefs and cooks from around the country, and they're still planning the menu, but they teased The Gazette with one possible dish.

Think “Asian pork belly tacos.”

“If you take pork belly and give it some Asian spices, wrap it in a soft tortilla with some pickled onion, I think there's very few people in town that wouldn't eat that,” Richard said.  

Joan jumped in with an idea for a fresh-made cocktail to pair with Richard's pork belly tacos.

“A ginger-pear cognac cocktail. And the ginger and pear would match up the ginger that would be in the pork marinade,” she said.

Cognac? Is that now a thing?

The Neenos say the core concept for Lark is to find twists on the standard and move it into fresher territory. That includes employing some newer culinary ideas and tapping whatever ingredients are in season.

The restaurant will offer a full wine menu and dishes that most Janesville diners can't do without: big burgers, cheese curds and fish fry Fridays.

“As long as we don't scare anyone with the ingredients and an odd name, we'll expand on things that have become more established in American culture—whether it's Indian or Asian or Latin or any other cuisine," Richard said.

"We want them to have a bit of an adventure without it being a scary adventure. It's not a brand-new idea. It's more likely that nowadays, people are going to be more accepting of that,” he said.

Richard, 60, formerly worked in retail and as a buyer for a manufacturing company. Joan, 52, is a former newspaper features writer and now is a marketing communications manager for a Madison firm that handles corporate branding.

Richard has cooked since his early 20s, and he said he jokingly promised his friends he'd open a restaurant when he turned 60.

Joan, a former restaurant critic for The Gazette from 2011 to 2016, taught herself to mix cocktails to spice up the food parties the couple host annually.

Both Neenos said they'd been eyeing the city's plans for redeveloping the downtown riverfront. They were inspired to open Lark after they saw private redevelopment and kindling of new businesses heat up along Main Street and the east side of downtown—including The Venue, Rock County Brewing Company and the Bodacious Shops at Block 41.

The Neenos chose the storefront at 60 S. Main St. after walking through four or five downtown spaces that didn't feel quite right for Lark. They liked the location, and they learned late last year that the building's owner lived in their neighborhood.  

“We knocked on their door and said, 'We want to buy your building downtown,'” Richard said.           

The Neenos plan to run the business and creative ends of Lark—although they said they'll allow Lark's house chef a lot of input in planning the restaurant's menu, which Joan said will change along with the seasons.

Looking back on her time as a restaurant critic, Joan said she wrote her reviews with her neighbors, a working-class family with children, in mind. She said she tried to be honest about whether local eateries hit the mark for middle-class people who want to spend their hard-earned money on a night out.

“That's how I always treated the column. I feel the same way about Lark," Joan said.

"Our mission statement is that we want to provide the best night in your week, which is an incredibly high bar. If we don't meet our mission statement, bring it on. We deserve the criticism, and it'll be up to us to deliver."

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