State Road: An overnight success
State Road Restaurant in West Tisbury is a feel-good story in a season starved for good news.
Only nine months ago, proprietors Mary and Jackson Kenworth were staring at a hole in the ground where the burned down former Deon's Restaurant once stood. And now, since its June 19 opening, their new restaurant has served approximately 6,000 dinner guests.
The new building seems to fly in the face of the construction reality on the Vineyard. But the Kenworths's dream includes the legendary power of an Island community that wanted them and their restaurant to succeed. They have been fan favorites for nearly 15 years, previously operating The Sweet Life Café and Slice of Life restaurants in Oak Bluffs.
"It's been a perfect confluence of events, sort of like a positive 'Perfect Storm,' if you will," Mary Kenworth said, taking a break with husband and chef Jackson Kenworth last Saturday to talk at the restaurant. "Without the fire, the building as it existed would have tied our hands, but the fire opened a window to build back and conform to new building codes. The economy actually worked in our favor. People were available, they weren't overbooked."
"A group of investors got behind this, and they got the part that this was a little gem and good for the Island," Ms. Kenworth said, noting that all the investors are Island residents - not actors and rock stars."
"The same with our landscaper, John Hoff at Oakleaf Landscape," Mr. Kenworth said. "This is all John Hoff." He gestured toward a winding landscape of low stonewalls, flower gardens, and a grape arbor with benches. "Whatever it took, he did it."
There were early challenges: convincing the town of their plan to resuscitate a charred eyesore, overcoming some initial reluctance of neighbors fearing noise and traffic problems, which had plagued former owners, as well as undertaking the project in the middle of a national financial meltdown.
"The town was wonderful," Ms. Kenworth said. "They [the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA)] were thoughtful and sort of guiding. They listened to all sides. The contractor, Josh Flanders and his subs were into it. They were determined. They wanted this to happen."
During a series of long meetings with the ZBA in which shape, size, seating and noise control were discussed, jiggered and re-jiggered, the Kenworths promised a year-round business with year-round jobs, a commitment to Island grown food, and use of their restaurant as a community resource.
They have delivered. State Road has created 45 new jobs, and offers entrees (priced between $19 and $42) that are completely Island grown. The restaurant has its own nascent garden and plans an active role in support of the Island Grown Initiative.
And the staff was built from scratch. "We are nothing without this staff," Ms. Kenworth said.
Mr. Kenworth, taciturn by nature, added, "This is the best group of people I've ever worked with." He knows something about restaurant staffs. His resume of work with top-end eateries includes stints with Wolfgang Puck in L.A., and at legendary restaurants such as Citrus. Ms. Kenworth has an impressive record of running them.
The 60-seat restaurant can serve 140 dinners per night, far fewer than the demand. "We've been sold out every night," Ms. Kenworth said, noting that the restaurant has had as many as 700 calls a day for reservations.
State Road has a feel of an old-time inn, and the founders have imbued the venue with panache and a perfect pitch for Island life and culture, down to the details. At the front counter, for example, is a wooden bin containing oversized, custom-made chocolate bars with different ingredients and named for each town, like "Chill Bar", "Mighty Quinnah" and "The Edgar Bar" and a line of trail mixes named after Island hiking trails.
The restaurant offers breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week and will be closed only briefly for vacation next winter. Mr. Kenworth described the menu with a local seafood emphasis (tuna, striped bass, fluke, cod, clams, mussels, and scallops), beef and lamb, and a wood-fired grill for chicken and burgers. "I'd describe it as New American. We use the farm to table approach with available ingredients. We had an intense pea soup. Now corn's coming in so we'll have corn soup."
The Kenworths radiate gratitude for the reception their new venture has received. But the success of State Road is really no surprise, considering the Kenworths' talent for food and service.
State Road Restaurant, 688 State Road, West Tisbury, Daily from 8 am to 2 pm for breakfast and lunch, and 5:30 to 10 pm for dinner. For reservations, call 508-693-8582. For more information, visit stateroadmv.com.
Jack Shea is a regular contributor to The Times.