When Valarie Kirby's landlord told her his plans to demolish her restaurant's outdated building and construct a new modern space for her, she was initially devastated.
Kirby, the owner of Valarie's Place in Sea Isle City, said it
wasn't that she didn't want the central air conditioning, the new plumbing, the handicapped accessible bathrooms and all of the other benefits the would come with the new building. Rather, she feared the new building wouldn't have the same friendly, anything goes, feeling of the old one, and that her regular customers wouldn't like it.
As it was, Valarie's Place was known as the place with the colorful paint handprints covering its ceilings and walls, the mis-matched tables and chairs and the piles of toys in a corner.
Parents loved the restaurant because it was a BYOB where their children could play while the adults enjoyed a reasonably priced meal and grown-up conversation, Kirby said. The casual atmosphere also made her guests feel comfortable wearing their bathing suits and beach cover-ups out to lunch.
"I had to make sure my people knew it was still going to be the same, it's just a new structure, that's all," she said.
Demolition on the building, which had the restaurant and a real estate office on its ground level and two apartments on its second floor, began in the late fall, delayed a bit by Hurricane Sandy. Construction of the new building, which still has the restaurant and real estate office on its ground level, but now has 12 condominiums on top, began in the winter and was recently completed.
On July 19, Valarie's Place's officially reopened in its new building, which now offers outdoor dining - "It wasn't level outside before, so we couldn't put tables out there," an elegantly decorated dining room and a revamped menu, which now includes a daily happy hour food and drink section.
The walls are a caramel color with large pieces of modern artwork scattered around, replacing the colorful childrens' handprints, and the tables and chairs match.
"Elegant, but homey," Kirby calls the new setting.
Sitting at one of the restaurant's tables a few days after its reopening, Kirby scanned the dining room and took it all in. The last few days - adding the finishing touches to the restaurant - had been a blur, she said.
Now that she can sit, the big question has been weighing down on her: Will her customers approve of the changes?
"A big difference, huh?" she said. "I still want it to feel the same. Does it, do you think? I don't want people to think just because there's not a thousand handprints on the walls in different colors, it's not as warm as it was. I want them to know it's the same."
In a corner of the new restaurant was the old familiar pile of toys for the children with colorful construction-paper artwork hanging on the wall above it, created by some of her pint-sized customers as a welcome back gift.
In the kitchen, Kirby also stored away a few cans of paint and extra floor tiles that she plans to use to create handprint keepsakes with the children who come in, "as a way to compensate for not putting it on the walls," she said.
The restaurant is still a BYOB.
"People can still bring a bottle of wine and their 12 kids, but now if a couple wants to come in and have a romantic meal, I really think it will work this time," Kirby said.
In a true testament of whether her customers approve, 11-year-old Brendon Abernethy suddenly ran into the restaurant and began calling out for Kirby. Coming to the table where she sat, Brendon handed her a stack of colored index cards each with "Good for $5 off at Valarie's Place" written in crayon on one side.
"He offered to help me," Kirby explained, taking the handmade coupons from Brendon, a resident of New Hope, Pa., who spends each July with his family in Sea Isle City.
Brendon beamed with pride and without being asked, said Valarie's Place is his favorite restaurant, not just in Sea Isle City, but in the whole world.
"Oh, I love you sweetheart. You're going to make me cry," Kirby said.
They must like it.
Contact Elisa Lala:
5900 Landis Ave., Sea Isle City, NJ 609-263-5400