West End girls

Ellen's Southern Kitchen will bring coffee, breakfast, long hours and full bar to West End

Ellen's Southern Kitchen will bring coffee, breakfast, long hours and full bar to West End

The renovation isn't even complete, but it's hard not to feel excited about Ellen's Southern Kitchen. The new restaurant is opening in mid-October in the West End, in the building that was previously the detestable Heart Attack Grill (and Johnny Rockets, way back when).

Seeing the details of the renovation and hearing what owner Joe Groves has planned paints a picture of a place that's going to be hugely practical and inspiringly progressive in its attitude and amenities.

The cuisine will be home cooking. The hours will be long: breakfast, lunch and dinner. They'll serve breakfast all day. They'll serve coffee from Starbucks. And there'll be a full bar. What's not to like?

 The cuisine will be home cooking. The hours will be long: breakfast, lunch and dinner. They'll serve breakfast all day. They'll serve coffee from Starbucks. And there'll be a full bar. What's not to like?

Groves, a congenial guy with an entrepreneurial bent, previously co-owned a well-respected fabric design company with his brother and runs a haunted house in the West End. That proximity is what brought his attention to the Heart Attack Grill space.

"When Heart Attack Grill opened in May 2011, it was an interesting gimmick — they had their shtick," Groves says. "Unfortunately, the food didn't match the hype. It was a little uncomfortable for patrons to have to wear hospital gowns. It lasted exactly six months.

"It was the first weekend of October that they closed their doors. I remember that night. It was Texas-OU weekend, crazy busy. We had a great night at the haunted house. I remember seeing the proprietor, Jon Basso, walking past us at the ticket office in his little lab coat. He never showed up again. He never came back."

About that time is when Groves started having designs on the place.

"Not because of the reputation — this has been a string of failed restaurants, including Johnny Rockets and Atomic Sushi," he says. "I think originally it was a Wendy's. One thing that was common among all of them is that the place looked exactly the same. There was never any change to the décor. And there was an awful smell that was pervasive through all of them.

"But when we walked in, I thought this could be a really cool little place," he says. "It has a great location on the corner. The West End is not so active at night anymore like it used to be, but we did some research and found there are 17,000 people who work within three blocks of this place, and yet there are very few places to get a good meal. We figured we could create really great food, spruce it up and clean it up, and transform it so that when people walk in for the first time, they have no memory, visual or otherwise, of what was here before."

He and his team are in the midst of a makeover, which includes covering the white tile interior with warm, dark textures, such as the charcoal-black industrial carpet, pale wood flooring, black granite bar, and beautifully ornate black-and-white wallpaper. The front door is being painted a glossy black, which highlights the art deco swirl of the door handles.

Ellen's is named for Groves' mom and the cuisine is comfort food, which Groves developed with chef Russell Mertz.

"There are 17,000 people who work within three blocks of this place, and yet there are very few places to get a good meal," says Joe Groves, owner of Ellen's Southern Kitchen.

"Russell's from Van Alstyne, he's a great creative chef, and he's created a great familiar menu with what we hope will be exceptional style and some panache," Groves says. "With our meatloaf, we want people to say, 'That's a meatloaf.' We’re going to have the best chicken-fried steak in town. We know everyone says that. We'll make all of our own jams and jellies, and we're installing a bakery in back, where we'll bake all our own breads. We want everything to be made from scratch, so we're bringing a full-time baker by the end of the year."

Beside serving breakfast all day, another big thing Ellen's will do is coffee, in a neighborhood that currently has little to none.

"The closest coffee store is at the Fairmont hotel, and there’s one in the basement of the Bank of America building, but nothing that's walking distance," he says. "We partnered up with Starbucks to put in a store inside the store. We're not branding it, but it's all Starbucks product, equipments, training and recipes. We're calling it Magellan's coffee, but it is under the Starbucks brand. And we'll have free Wi-Fi. In the mid-afternoon, places empty out after lunch. We've got 50 seats here. People can work on their laptops. We're happy to have the company. And we have a full bar."

His hopes to open by October 12.

"We're shooting for that week between the fifth and the 12th, which is TX OU weekend," he says. "We're not going to miss that."

As the owner of a business already in the West End, he's obviously bullish on the neighborhood, even as it has seen some hard times in the past few years. He hopes to be part of movement to turn that situation around.

"I have to give credit to the stalwart restaurateurs who remained here — not just when times were good — and they were just sucking air because they have been steadfast in supporting the West End," he says. "Otherwise this place could have dried up.

"Even a corporate mega-store like TGI Friday’s — just having its presence helps legitimize the neighborhood for tourists, for whom familiarity is important. But there are also some indigenous restaurants down here, like RJ Mexican, a fantastic place, a one-store operation, not a chain, with really good Mexican food. You have Sonny Bryan's, YO Ranch. But what was missing was Southern food. Many people are coming here from other places, and that's a cuisine we have that they might not."

Ellen's Southern Kitchen
Ellen's Southern Kitchen in the West End should be open no later than October 12. Ellen's
Ellen's Southern Kitchen
Where the kitchen will be at Ellen's Southern Kitchen. Courtesy photo
Ellen's Southern Kitchen
Chef Russell Mertz of Ellen's Southern Kitchen.
Ellen's Southern Kitchen
Wallpaper and floor covering coming soon to Ellen's.
Ellen's Southern Kitchen
Owner Joe Groves of Ellen's Southern Kitchen.