Gravel Road Makes Smooth Move To Seagrove

September 30, 2010 by Joyce Owen

When Jesse Hart relocated Gravel Road to a more visible spot in Seagrove Beach, it was more than just a change of address.

Chef Hart also created what he describes as a practical menu with moderate prices where people could dine more frequently.

While Hart might have lowered prices, he certainly didn’t lower his standards for food quality, service or ambiance.

The new locale also has the feel of fine dining with dark walls, muted lighting and tasteful music, he also retained servers with knowledge and skills that enhance the enjoyment of the meal.

With a new menu, guests will discover some of their favorites are still offered, but the emphasis is on Southern style cooking. It is evident in the entrees served at lunch and dinner – chicken and dumplings, country fried steak and fried catfish, and then there are the sides.

If you’ve ever been annoyed with the “no substitutions” on some menus, Gravel Road will be a delight. Hart noticed that customers often asked for different side dishes and decided to let the diners decide what should “go with” their entrée. The list of sides is actually longer than the selection of entrees – again with a decidedly Southern flair, including fried okra, fried green tomatoes and sweet potatoes, but the kitchen ventures out with mascarpone wild rice, chevre and scallion polenta, and Gouda and oyster mushroom risotto.

With all those choices, comes questions and thankfully the servers know the difference between bliss potato mash, boniato mashed potatoes and maque choux potatoes. They also can describe how every vegetable is prepared. It is nice to note that with an extensive list of vegetable choices, Gravel Road is an ideal spot for vegetarians.

Desserts have a special place at the restaurant – really. There’s a glass case near the entrance filled with desserts prepared by Chef Kim Connelly.

“Guests are drawn to the glass cases,” Hart says. “Kim keeps three or four things the same, but makes decisions on other items based on the produce that is available.”

With chocolate tortes, pies and cakes, fruit pies and cheesecakes, cookies and ice cream, it can be difficult to make a choice, even for Hart. Although his favorite is the pecan pie made from his grandma’s recipe, he says he loves the baklava.

Hart admits running a restaurant is tough and he admires the other restaurateurs that continue to be successful. What success he has achieved he acknowledges is due to hard work, hiring the right people and treating every customer right.

Hart is proud that many of his staff has been with him for years. He notes almost all the cooks started as dishwashers. The managers, Callie Clark and Ron Mortimer, both waited tables at one time.

“They have different strengths,” Hart says, “but working together they have created a strong team.

“Both have gone beyond my expectations,” Hart reflects.

A key to his management style is that Hart generally stays behind the scene, letting the staff handle the front of the restaurant. Hart is usually in the kitchen making sure every guest’s meal is properly prepared. He depends on the dining room staff to complete the dining experience with attention to detail from the moment guests arrive.

“If new employees are hard workers, we will teach them. We build into people the training they need to do a good job,” he says.

It’s important for everyone that works at Gravel Road to do what is required to keep the business going.

“The way times are, you have to be able to do everything,” Hart says.

And being that times are difficult, Hart and his staff devised an unusual incentive to keep guests coming back. They know that repeat business is important to the restaurant’s survival and focus on locals. While local’s discounts are a popular item at many restaurants, one of the most creative incentives is Gravel Road’s Locals Box. From the first day, locals were invited to sign up for inclusion in this special program.

Located at the far end of the bar, the “box” has 24 marked drawers. Originally, individual last names were posted on the front of the drawers, but as the number of participants grew, the boxes were relabeled with letters of the alphabet.

After being seated, regulars head to the box to see what the latest reward might be. One night, it might be a coupon for a free loaf of bread, but there are also coupons for a free glass of wine or beer, $5 off the meal or a free mimosa with the Sunday brunch. By offering coupons for breakfast or brunch, those incentives not only bring regulars back, they encourage them to check out the morning offerings.

Serving breakfast, lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and a brunch on Sunday, Gravel Road fills a need for diners that are looking for that elusive combination – good food, good prices and a great dining experience.

Gravel Road is located at 4935 East Highway 30A, Seagrove Beach, Fla. The telephone number is (850) 534-0960.

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