Cherry-red curtains have been hung and delicate chandeliers are aglow. Finally, there’s life at the former Front Porch, which has been vacant since last summer.
I’m sure that, like me, a good many folks have sadly passed the deserted restaurant, wondering when someone would eventually take over this iconic building.
Wonder no more.
New owners Mandy and Joe Lemons have tentatively set June 20 as the opening date for their new Table 23.
Sitting in the future main dining room, surrounded by boxes, boards and busy workmen, the couple took a break last week to talk about their vision for this latest incarnation of the Carroll House, which was built in 1924. It’s just my first impression, but I left feeling that if anyone could make this work it would be the Lemons.
They have years of experience in the restaurant business, have hired good people, understand the business and creative sides and are putting their heart and soul into making Table 23 work, with the simple premise: Southern Porch, Table and Bar. Plus they have five children. That takes commitment!
.For starters, here are some things you’ll want to know:
- Table 23’s top chefs will be Brian Knepper and Brandon Miller. Knepper, who trained at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, worked at the famed Commander’s Palace in New Orleans after graduation. He was executive sous chef at Tallahassee’s Cypress and most recently was the executive chef at the Governor’s Club. Miller grew up in the restaurant business (his parents founded Miller’s BBQ in Morven, Ga). He was a corporate trainer for Bonefish Grill and worked with Joe Lemon at the Tallahassee branch for 12 years, most recently as culinary manager.
- The menu is still being finalized but will feature dishes with a Southern twist, with influences stretching from Texas to Virginia. You’ll find oysters, gumbo (reflecting Knepper’s N’awlins experience), shrimp and grits, barbecue (but it’s not a barbecue joint), casual items like burgers and tacos, bar bites and upmarket entrees, primarily steak and seafood.
- Prices will vary, with smaller items (about $8) and burgers (about $11), and entrees priced from the teens to low-$30s.
- Expect a daily happy hour but not a nightclub atmosphere. The full bar will feature wine, (including a pear sangria); beer (including craft offerings) plus some interesting cocktails, like their Pecan Old Fashioned, featuring Michter’s Whiskey, pecan-infused syrup, black walnut bitters and burnt orange peel. They’re touting drinks with fresh-squeezed juice and drink prices ranging from $6 to $12.
- The building, which can accommodate about 300 people, will offer space downstairs and upstairs for private events.
- They’re now hiring servers and bartenders, creating about 80 jobs overall.
- The front manager will be Chris Aiello, whose career includes management and wine consulting, catering and experience as kitchen manager of Orchard Pond Organics, general manager of Wine Loft and a former manager at Bonefish Grill.
The couple believes their corporate background is a prime asset in launching this local venture.
Joe, 47, has 23 years’ experience working for Bloomin’ Brands Inc., which owns successful chains including Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill and Carrabba’s Italian Grill. Say what you will about mega restaurant corporations, they do provide a great deal of experience and training, Joe said.
“I’m very money savvy, very conscious of budgets and expenses and staying profitable,” said Lemons, who was managing partner at Bonefish in Tallahassee.
Joe said he’ll be handling the business side and let his two chefs tackle the creativity. Still, expect the Lemons to be on premises. It won’t be an absentee ownership.
“I think most people want to be their own boss, taking the skills you’ve learned and applying them for yourself,” Joe said. “I never wanted to do anything but work in restaurants.
“My mom and grandmother were really good cooks and I learned from them,” he said. “I used to get cooking equipment and cookbooks for Christmas.”
When the Front Porch became vacant, the Lemons knew they had found their dream spot.
“I love this building,” Mandy said.
“For eight years, this has been something we’ve really been working on and thinking about,” Mandy said. “But the timing was never right.
“This one already has what we need — parking, a great location, a lot of history and it’s in really good shape,” Mandy said. “This is a place that people want to come to.”
She should know. Mandy grew up in Tallahassee and remembers the place as the former Chez Pierre. The couple met at the Outback Steakhouse, which Joe opened in Tallahassee. He was the manager and Mandy was a waitress. They were married three years later and their five children are ages 4 to 15.
If you’re wondering about the name, Table 23, the number has a lot of significance for the Lemons. They have two girls and three boys — 23, get it? Joe was 23 when he went to work for Bloomin’ Brands and worked for them 23 years. Mandy was 23 when the couple married. Psalm 23 (The Lord is my shepherd) is the favorite of Mandy’s and both their grandmothers.
While there’s a lot to do, the restaurant is in good shape despite being closed a year, the Lemons said. The Front Porch closed last May, reportedly after a fire. A Tallahassee Democrat article stated that a malfunctioning butane burner activated a sprinkler head.
Joe said employees weren’t able to turn off the sprinkler and the place sustained water damage. It never reopened.
Most work being done is sprucing up, making some changes like adding metal to the outdoor tables. The biggest job is redoing the kitchen and replacing all the equipment.
As for the menu, the Lemons said they aim to be “locally relevant” when possible, which means “if we can pull in something for that season for a week of specials we will.”
But they’re not attempting a farm-to-table concept. “One, it’s expensive, hard to execute at a high-volume restaurant and a lot of people claim they’re doing it when they’re not,” Joe said. (See the excellent exposé by Tampa Bay Times Laura Riley.)
One of their prime goals is to make Table 23 feel “hospitable.”
“We don’t want to become a special occasion restaurant people visit once a year,” Mandy said. “We want our customers to keep coming back. From the second someone walks in the door we want their experience to be amazing.”
So do we!
If you go…
1215 Thomasville Rd., Tallahassee, 32303