By Ginna Parsons/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Two years ago, Blair and Hamp Hughes were toying with the idea of opening a second restaurant in Oxford or Starkville, patterned after their successful Park Heights in Tupelo.
“We wanted to do a white tablecloth restaurant in one of the college towns, but then this building became available,” said Blair.
‘This building’ is the old Shoney’s restaurant on North Gloster. The couple purchased it last July and started renovation the next month.
“It came with it all – the breakfast bar, gumball machines and some things we won’t mention,” Blair said.
Work included digging up the floors, removing four drop ceilings to expose the original vaulted ceiling from the 1970s, adding bead board and hardwood floors, and bricking the walls.
“We really wanted the feeling of something old and out of the Delta,” Hamp said.
The one thing the couple knew they didn’t want was another white tablecloth, fine dining restaurant.
“We didn’t want to compete with ourselves, with Park Heights,” Hamp said.
So they decided on a casual color palette of soft grays, with an assortment of booths, tables and banquettes. Blues music plays softly in the background. And they brought in a young chef, Hal Rusk, who has a penchant for taking old Southern standbys, punching them up and keeping prices affordable.
“The price range is suitable for young professionals and newlyweds to eat here more often,” Blair said. The average entrée cost is $16 and the average appetizer is $7.
Hamp said the customer base is everything from truck drivers to doctors to families to young professionals to retirees.
“It’s surprising how well it has taken off,” he said.
New menu debuts
A new seasonal menu debuted last week. Some best-sellers are the South Burger ($13), the Fried Pork Chop with two sides ($13), the Fried Chicken Breast with two sides ($14) and the Shrimp & Grits ($18).
Sides include cheese grits, five-cheese mac ‘n’ cheese, tomato pie, stewed tomatoes and okra, skillet fried corn, roasted garlic mashed potatoes, seasonal garden peas and ham, braised collard greens, Mississippi ratatouille and green beans.
“We thought we could fill a void and offer the kinds of food we grew up eating,” Hamp said. “We call it upscale Southern soul food.”
The couple had a feeling their menu would work.
“The few times we offered specials at Park Heights that leaned in the Southern direction, they really went over well,” Blair said.
Hal said the new menu offers some lighter seasonal fare.
“We took off the pot pie for the summer,” he said. “We took off the red drum with tarragon aioli and replaced it with blackened mahi with grilled peach salsa. We added catfish cakes and a grilled pork chop, and grouper, and snapper and fried green tomatoes.”
And in response to customer requests, Blair said, they’ve added some lightened dishes and entrée salads.
As for desserts, they took off the Strawberry Pie – an homage to Shoney’s – and added a Big Boy Hot Fudge Cake. They even have a Goo-Goo Cluster Cheesecake along with Frozen Caramel Pie and Bourbon Pecan Bread Pudding. All desserts are $6.
The bar offers 30 craft and specialty beers, a large selection of wines, including organic wines, and a dozen specialty cocktails.
Casual, not stuffy
Even with their success, though, the Hugheses admit their biggest challenge is a perception problem potential customers have.
“People think with it being tied to Park Heights that it’s going to be an expensive meal,” Blair said. “But it’s not. So we’re getting rid of the white tablecloths because people are quoting it as a ‘white tablecloth restaurant,’ even though we have Kraft paper on top for people to draw and color on.”
The white tablecloths will be replaced with pearl gray ones and the Kraft paper will stay.
Another misconception is that there is a “fancy” dress code for patrons.
“The servers all wear jeans and T-shirts,” said Jamie Young, the restaurant’s manager. “People come in here to eat in workout clothes, in jeans, in shorts.”
Hamp added that on prom night, there were high-school students in the restaurant in gowns and tuxedos. But that’s not the norm.
“I think if we had a dress code, it would be, ‘Just please have some clothes on,’” Chef Hal said, laughing.
Hamp stressed that he and Blair and the staff want customers to come in and feel comfortable in their surroundings.
‘You can’t have hardwood floors and play blues music and serve Southern food and not be casual,” he said.
WHERE: 706 Hillcrest Drive, Tupelo (in the old Shoney’s on North Gloster)
WHEN: Monday-Saturday, 5 to 9:30 p.m.
OFFERINGS: Dine-in, carry-out, catering. Two private dining rooms. Reservations taken for party of six or more.
INFO: Call (662) 205-8751