By STUART KORFHAGE
Shortly after the turn of the century, the Davoli family took an old restaurant in Jacksonville’s San Marco area and turned it into the neighborhood’s favorite diner.
Almost 15 years later, they are looking to claim their sixth neighborhood. This one in St. Augustine.
The Metro Diner is venturing outside of the Jacksonville area for the first time with its newest restaurant at the corner of U.S. 1 and State Road 207 in front of Winn-Dixie. Opening day is Monday, complete with a ribbon cutting ceremony featuring local dignitaries.
But lovers of “comfort food” won’t be coming to see city officials. They’ll be around for Metro Diner’s popular menu selections that set it apart from the more ordinary eateries.
Chef and co-founder Mark Davoli calls the restaurant’s style “Southern with a flair.”
And by flair he means items like six different styles of eggs Benedict, stuffed French toast and a monstrosity called J.C.’s Vortex Burger (a half-pound burger with slaw and bacon and other stuff with grilled cheese sandwiches as a bun). There’s also the ultimate in diner fare, fried chicken and waffles.
That kind of food created quite a following for Metro, and then something really amazing happened: TV exposure.
“After 10 years of cranking out good food and developing good relationships, we were featured on ‘Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,’” Davoli said.
Sales soon doubled and so did the locations, from one to two.
“It was pretty incredible,” Davoli said.
The show aired in September 2010, and now less than five years later Metro is in full expansion mode. St. Augustine was an obvious choice.
“We’ve been wanting to get to St. Augustine for a long time. We have a lot of friends here,” Davoli said. “It’s such a great place.”
With so much effort devoted to Jacksonville, Davoli said he didn’t have a great knowledge about the St. Augustine market. But he found a safety net in restaurant manager Doug Willis.
Willis worked for 20 years as the general manager at Outback Steakhouse in St. Augustine before joining Metro about a year ago.
He had great ties the local community and even with Davoli, whom he hired as a young cook decades ago in Orange Park.
The change of scenery has been invigorating for Willis. And after serving as the manager for the original San Marco store, the chance to help open a new restaurant was a challenge he couldn’t pass up.
“To come back to square one again is amazing,” Willis said. “There’s such a feeling of family watching this thing grow. It’s goosebumpy.”
Davoli is also having a great time starting another store from scratch. Adding to the experience is the fact his brother John Jr. and father John Sr. are also active partners in the venture.
John Sr. was a regional vice president at Cracker Barrel, so he knows what expansion entails and how do it correctly.
“It’s been pretty awesome to get together and put our knowledge together,” Davoli said.
Metro has also partnered with ConSul Hospitality Group, consisting of three men with backgrounds in Outback and Carrabba’s Italian Grill.
Their experience and investment has given Davoli the confidence to look at expansion to Savannah, Ga., and Tampa in the near future.
But this week the focus is on making the St. Augustine restaurant as successful as the Jacksonville ones.
“We’re going to want to put our best foot forward,” Davoli said. “We’re having a lot of fun doing restaurants.”