Well Done

From tiny tweaks to major makovers, local eateries are changing with the times.

For many years Cielo, the fine-dining restaurant that Karen Carrier operated in a historic Victorian Village home at 679 Adams Avenue, enjoyed great success. The vibrant mixture of funky décor and Victorian architecture, the comfortable and eclectic upstairs lounge, and the lively, luxe cuisine attracted lots of customers as well as numerous accolades. Eventually, though, the business became increasingly uneven, with ups and downs both throughout the week and throughout the year. Meanwhile, Carrier found that she still did not feel at home with a fine-dining concept.

"I'm not a fine-dining girl, so for me it wasn't working," Carrier says of Cielo. Yet she didn't want to sell the house or rent it out to another operator.

Time for a redo.

She closed Cielo, redecorated, brought in lounge-style chairs, put together a menu of $4-$6 little plates, and convinced house chanteuse DiAnn Price to go along with plans to move the piano downstairs.

Three months later, the Mollie Fontaine Lounge opened for business, and became an instant hit. "I decided, let's just wipe out all the tables and chairs, and let's just do a lounge," Carrier recalls.

She certainly isn't the only restaurateur to decide it's time to shake things up. Elfo's recently morphed from a ladies-lunch eatery on the outskirts of Midtown to a splashy Germantown fine-dining restaurant with Miami style and a Northern Italian menu. Last year, La Tourelle closed its doors and re-opened as the short-lived Tuscany restaurant. And a few years back, one of the most visible redos took place when The Peabody converted its Dux restaurant into Capriccio, an Italian steakhouse restaurant.

Those who decide on a redo have strong reasons for making the move, and it's not because Kitchen Nightmares celeb chef Gordon Ramsey has stopped in for a reality-TV makeover.

One of the city's most successful redos took place a few years ago in Cooper-Young at 948 South Cooper. The restaurant Melange shut down and a few months later the restaurant reopened as dish, a completely different concept featuring a modern lounge design and tapas, not unlike Mollie Fontaine. (Change seems to be the norm for that location. Before dish and Melange, it was home under different management to Cooper Street Grill, Maxwell's, and Midtown.)

Melange, which had opened in 2000, was food-driven, with the focus on the fine-dining restaurant rather than the hipster bar on the other side of the dividing door, recalls David Nestler. As regional manager for Sekisui Inc., he manages dish and other Memphis restaurants owned by Jimmy Ishii. But the market was changing as Cooper-Young grew in its status as a hip party destination, and fine dining just wasn't fitting in. Only too aware of the fate of his predecessors at that address, he and Ishii decided it was time to try something new and to see what would happen. Melange closed for good in January 2005, and dish opened two months later.

While the lounge concept is a great success in other cities, it has been more challenging here, given the local meat-and-three mindset.

"We wanted to appeal to transplants, and to educate the local market that it's not just about steak and potatoes, it's about conversation," Nestler says. "We chose tapas because it focused on conversation and sharing. It's interactive in the sense that you try things and say, 'This is good, you have to try it.'"

Dish's location has always been very much a cocktail environment and a late-night spot, and that won't change. But changing the menu and other elements is a constant.

"When you've got a clientele like I do, you've got to keep it exciting for them," he says.

Often, a physical move provides the restaurateur the opportunity for a redo.

For example, one of this year's most dramatic makeovers involved Elfo's, which had been operated as a lunch restaurant by Alex Grisanti just 100 yards from Ronnie Grisanti & Sons at 3092 Poplar Ave. on the edge of Midtown. (For those unfamiliar with this culinary clan, Elfo's Alex Grisanti and Spindini owner/operator Judd Grisanti are the sons of Ronnie Grisanti. Ronnie's brother, Frank Grisanti, is proprietor of Frank Grisanti's Italian Restaurant in East Memphis.)

After trying for seven years, Alex Grisanti succeeded in securing the former Three Oaks Grill location at 2285 South Germantown Road, in Germantown. He and his wife Kim then closed the Midtown location of Elfo, ditched the ladies-lunch menu, spent more than half a million dollars on revamping the Germantown location, and proceeded to reinvent Elfo's as a stylish fine-dining restaurant with a Northern Italian menu.

It was a business decision as well as one of visual and culinary aesthetics.

"We needed nighttime revenue, and it didn't make sense to compete with ourselves," says Grisanti, noting the proximity between Ronnie's and the former Elfo's location. "We saw the Germantown location as a golden opportunity to do that."

The new Elfo's serves dinner and lunch in an atmosphere designed to recreate the clean, uncluttered lines of a chic Miami or L.A. restaurant. He sees the decor as more Jetsons than typical Italian restaurant.

"A few years ago maybe we would have gone to the old traditional Italian restaurant décor. But I was definitely not going to do the same old thing. This is very modernized, very hip, and it gives the people of Memphis and Germantown something different. I happen to think it's the prettiest restaurant in the city."

When Ciao Bella moved to the former LuLu Grille space at 565 Erin Drive in East Memphis in late 2007, the owners opted for a more subtle redo that built on the restaurant's strengths.

Rather than replacing the menu with something entirely different, the owners added to it. Taking advantage of a dining area that's double what they had before at 552 South Sanderlin, the owners recreated the intimate ambiance of the original location in the back dining room but also added a bar area, an outdoor patio, and a central see-and-be-seen-style dining room, says Judd Tashie. He owns the restaurant with Paul Tashie and David Tashie.

"The new space gave Ciao Bella a totally different dynamic, a multifaceted facility that has something for everyone," Tashie says, pointing also to the café/grocery that's being added.

Importantly, it makes Ciao Bella more versatile, not just a casual pizza place with beer and wine, but a restaurant that can accommodate those seeking fine dining as well.

As a result, "we've kept our core customers who like to come in for a glass of wine and to eat pizza," Tashie says. "But we've also made it more of a destination, for the customers who go out to eat once a week. They might want a steak, a martini, or something we didn't have back then. That's what we hoped to accomplish."

in some cases, when a restaurant moves, its owner may opt to make a few changes but decide against a major redo. For example, when two Overton Square establishments, Bayou and Le Chardonnay, moved across Madison into new digs after 25 years, the owner opted to keep close to the original.

"Conceptually, we were not going to change," says Bill Baker, who owns both. "Le Chardonnay works as a cozy dark little wine bar, and Bayou works as a Cajun-style bar. We like who we are, and our customers like who we are."

That said, Baker did take the opportunity to enlarge and freshen up both restaurants, and in the case of Le Chardonnay, add the outdoor seating he had wanted for many years.

Carrier believes that no matter how successful it is, every restaurant should be freshened up periodically. In fact she recently did just that at Automatic Slim's Tonga Club. She pointed out that even Galatoire's, the 100-plus-year-old restaurant that's an institution in New Orleans' French Quarter, was redecorated a few years ago, a move that initially alarmed many of its regular customers but turned out fine.

Sometimes, though, an owner redoes a restaurant, only to find it's not enough. Consider La Tourelle, which operated as such at 2146 Monroe Avenue in Midtown for more than 30 years. In 2007 owners Martha and Glenn Hays reinvented La Tourelle as the Northern Italian restaurant Tuscany, only to discover that what they really needed was to take the difficult step of closing the restaurant. The Hayses then leased the space to Kelly English, who recently opened Restaurant Iris there. The Hayses are now focusing their talents on Café 1912, their enormously successful bistro on Cooper Street.

In Collierville, the Ethiopian restaurant Blue Nile added Indian fare and changed its name to Ashiyana, a change that was intended to bring in more customers. That wasn't enough to keep the restaurant going, however. Now a new operator has come in and opened Spices Indian Restaurant at the 835 West Poplar address.

in any case, reinventing a restaurant is a dramatic step, much more so than the occasional new coat of paint or other freshening up.

Carrier believes when a restaurant takes this larger step, it's almost always because the business isn't working, or isn't bringing in enough money to pay staff or the other myriad expenses a restaurant incurs. What-ever the reason, a redo is not something to be undertaken lightly, in desperation or without careful thought.

"You have to be very solid about what you are doing. I think that's the bottom line," Carrier says.

As for the redo that spawned Mollie Fontaine Lounge, Carrier doesn't pretend to predict the future. "It has been really, really good. How long will it last? I couldn't tell you. We'll ride it out and see what happens.".....

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