Going with the Grain
It isn't easy replacing a legend.
It is even more difficult to make a name for yourself while living in the shadows of the success that came before you. You can either turn your back from it, or you can honor it, and that's what Lee Mikles and Jim O'Donoghue did.
When they opened the doors to their Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen on State Street in Kennett Square in May, Mikles and O'Donoghue chose not to ignore what the Half Moon Restaurant & Saloon had meant to the customers who frequented the establishment at the same location since 1997. Rather, they honored what Half Moon owners Scott Hammond and Kristin Hess did for the community by hanging a colorful tribute painting to the long-time establishment on one of the walls of the stunning new restaurant, which opened on May 15 to great anticipation and praise.
They retained a few of Half Moon's wait staff, and Ashley Steele and Jamie Bailey are still behind the bar to greet the new regulars who have known them for years. Just like before, guests still walk into the restaurant on the same black and white tile floors that go back to the site's original occupants -- a candy store.
While Grain has retained some of the familiarities of its predecessor, its revamped street-level bar and dining area has received an aesthetic overhaul. The signature wooden booths of the Half Moon have been replaced by an open-air feel of a country store, lined with well-placed eating areas that leave a little room for a constantly-changing roster of local musicians that play throughout the week. Everything downstairs leads upstairs to 410@Grain, the restaurant's rooftop deck that offers a refurbished bar, TVs and retractable windows that offer panoramic views of Kennett Square and beyond.
"Lee and Jim have such an eye for the details of the restaurant," said general manager Alison Gutsche. "Part of their design development centers on creating conversation starters, such as the view-finder kids' menu and the Question of the Day that's posted on our black board. It's been nice seeing first-time customers talk about what we've changed and what we've decided to keep."
For Mikles, the connection to Kennett Square was immediate.
"Even before we announced that we were coming, I went into State & Union on Black Friday, and received a hug from the owner Doug Harris, and we had just met," he said. "The Kennett vibe is really strong. We really had to find a way to make that happen for us.
"The issue on finding that location so often comes down to the question, 'Is it in a neighborhood?'" Mikles added. "This site checked that box off in a big way."
While the demographics at the Kennett Square Grain differ slightly from the college town atmosphere in Newark, both fit comfortably within the definition of "a neighborhood place."
"The niche that both the Newark and Kennett Square locations have is that they have a superb 'Main Street' kind of feel," Gutsche said. "The foot traffic has been incredible here on State Street, because it plays directly into the concept of developing a partnership with the other businesses along the street – to be a place where people can come after shopping, for happy hour or an early dinner."
One thing is for certain: Mikles and O'Donoghue brought not only the atmosphere of their Newark location with them, but also its menu -- a tantalizing array of pub grub, lunch items and entrees, such as thai salmon, flatbread pizzas, and its soon-to-become-famous brunch that includes Capn' Crunch French Toast, Scrapple Cheeseteak, Crabby Pretzels and Sunrise Nachos.
The eclectic menu, Mikles said, was inspired by he and O'Donoghue studying the menus of more than 100 gastro pubs across the United States, and taking a highlighter pen to the menu items they thought would work well at their restaurants.
"Someone once told me that you should never build a restaurant around you as the target customer, but Jim and I and our wives wanted to create a restaurant concept that was good for our families, to give folks like us a place to go," he said.
In a town that already boasts a craft beer and gastro pub lineup of the Two Stones Pub, the Kennett Brewing Company, the Victory Brewing Company and the newly-opened Hearth Kitchen, Gutsche believes that the addition of Grain to Kennett Square is not a thorn in their competitors' sides, but merely the arrival of yet another welcome layer, meant to further solidify Kennett Square's place in the social fabric of southern Chester County.
"We discovered a very cool thing about Kennett Square during our first week of training here," she said. "After we got to done with our work, we went to KBC and Victory, and since we've been open, there are frequent visitors from other establishments who stop by here and do the same. While there is that competitive nature and everyone has remained loyal to their employers, they're also experimenting with new places.
"That's the beauty about the food and craft beer industry -- that more people are willing to support each other, and the support has been huge for us in this town. It's great seeing people who had a familiar thing here for many years making the adjustment and taking that step into the future with us."
By Mikles' count, there are about 120 sketches on the walls of the Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Newark that capture the likeness of the restaurant's most loyal and regular customers. He and O'Donoghue are continuing the tradition in Kennett Square; the sketches have already begun in the top left-hand corner of a wall on the restaurant's main floor -- ironically, near the painting honoring the Half Moon Saloon & Restaurant.
It is the perfect intersection of acknowledgment and aspiration.
To learn more about Grain Craft Bar + Kitchen in Kennett Square, visit www.meetatgrain.com.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email email@example.com .