by Terry Rogers
On August 28 and 29, Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network show “Restaurant Impossible” visited Ellendale to help the owners of the Southern Grille improve their location. The famous chef brought in a builder and designer and, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, remodeled the interior and worked with the owner, Ronald White, to create better menu items.
The premise of the show is to turn around failing restaurants that may be in danger of closing the doors without the intervention of Irvine. With a budget of just $10,000 and two days to complete the process, Irvine talks to owners and staff to determine why the restaurant may be struggling. He begins the process by watching a service in the restaurant and tasting many of the items on the menu.
On Wednesday afternoon, a crowd formed outside the restaurant of those who had been invited to the lunch service Irvine would use to see what may be going wrong. Irvine and a camera crew pulled out of the parking lot just before the crowd arrived. At the start of each episode, Irvine is filmed pulling up to the restaurant he is working with, describing what he knows about the location. According to the show, Irvine is not given much information about the restaurant and learns much of what he needs to address by interviewing staff and the owners once he arrives.
This is not the first time that Restaurant Impossible has renovated a restaurant in Southern Delaware. The show filmed a segment at the Wagon Wheel in Smyrna about five or six years ago but the changes were not enough to keep them operational. They closed their doors in 2014. Irvine says that adjusting the menu and renovating with a tight budget and short timeframe is not the most difficult part of the show.
“Most of the time there are deeper psychological issues and interpersonal conflicts that are causing a restaurant to fail,” Irvine has said. “The decay of the restaurant, its menu and its clientele, those are just symptoms of the real issues at play. I have to cut through a lot of layers to get to the root cause and that is never easy. After that, the hardest part is making the changes stick. The renovations and the menu changes don’t mean a thing if the owners and staff aren’t committed to making real change. All we can do was give people a second chance. It is up to them if they want to seize it.” Although there are reports that the show only has a 26 percent success rate, reviews show that the restaurants that closed after his visit returned to methods and menu items that Irvine recommended eliminating.
Prior to Irvine’s visit, the interior of the Southern Grille had a distinct diner feel with banquet chairs and booths lining one wall. After the show’s builder, Tom Bury, and designer, Lynn Kegan, worked with a team of volunteer carpenters, electricians and members of the community, the interior became a bright, retro-farm kitchen. Distressed wooden floors and an old-fashioned screen door at the entrance immediately give the impression of walking into a farmhouse kitchen.
The walls are adorned with metal pails containing fresh herbs like basil and rosemary. Small lanterns with candles sit in the center of the table. The wall between the kitchen and dining area was moved forward with a checkerboard awning over a display of stunning cakes, pies and cookies, all baked in-house. The walls were painted a cheerful white and some have white clapboard treatments to give the dining area a country feel.
Because the show will not air until January, there is not much discussion about what Irvine tasted during his visit although the staff did comment that he was just as abrasive in person as he appears to be on the show. However, they are also appreciative of the new look and hope that it helps move the restaurant forward. Staff says that the menu is still the same and this appears to be true. Response to the food, however, has been excellent since the makeover.
“Wow, what a great dinner,” Mike Parnell of Milford posted on Facebook. “We went to Southern Grille for the very first time. They were so busy. The food was amazing. I got crab cake with fried chicken. Jen got crab imperial. We met the owner and joked around with him about coming down for breakfast. I told him I will judge him by his grits.”
Apparently, the show has already had an impact on the small restaurant. On Friday, the Southern Grille posted on Facebook that they were hiring servers, cooks, bussers and hosts. Some customers report that service is sometimes slow because staff is overwhelmed by the popularity since the filming of the show and there is now usually a wait for tables. The wait is worth it, according to those who have eaten there.
“Shout out to Ron White and his great crew at the Southern Grille in Ellendale,” Nancy McDonough Burkett said. “The reno from Restaurant Impossible is beautiful. Of course, the food and service are excellent as always. Though we couldn’t’ get in Thursday when the show did its reveal, we were still thrilled to have a delicious breakfast this morning. So nice to chat with Ron, he even sang to us.”
The Southern Grille of Ellendale is open Monday through Saturday from 6 AM until 9 PM and on Sunday from 6 AM until 8 PM. They are located at 13239 South Old State Road in Ellendale.
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