In a building he wouldn’t have entered 10 years ago, chef Brian Whittington is basking in the transformation of a historic place that he hopes will have an impact on an entire part of town.
Whittington is the owner/operator of Preserved Restaurant at 102 Bridge St., former site of the infamous M&M Market in Lincolnville. He said he’s thrilled to be part of a positive change in the neighborhood he’s serving.
“I think it’s in the beginning stages of really being something (great),” Whittington said of the area. “I think a lot of people recognize this area is up and coming. Over the next five years, it’s going to transform into something different. A lot of people are going to see what it’s become.”
Just adding Preserved to Bridge Street is a pretty drastic change.
The restaurant occupies the first floor of the three-story building, seating about two dozen customers inside a homey but elegant dining room and another dozen or so on the wraparound porch. More seating will soon be added in a small courtyard.
A building once housing a seedy convenience store that was shut down by police in 2010 has been refurbished and returned to its glory as a place befitting former resident Maria Jefferson Shine — great-granddaughter of Thomas Jefferson.
After the market was shut down, the city purchased the property with the intention of selling it to someone willing to revitalize it. There were several bids by those proposing a variety of uses, but the eventual winner was David Corneal, who bought it for $225,000.
Corneal promised some kind of restaurant or coffee shop for the first floor, with rentals of apartments above.
While renovating the property, Corneal also acquired the former Dow Museum of Historic Houses of St. Augustine just down the road. He’s converting that property into an inn.
With so much going on, Corneal decided to lease the building at 102 Bridge St. to a restaurateur and, after some negotiations, settled on Whittington.
“I decided I didn’t have the time or the expertise to run a restaurant,” Corneal said. “I looked for a chef who would lease the property. I’m thrilled with his work, with what he’s presenting. It’s turning out to be a fabulous connection for both he and I.”
The city’s initial decision to acquire the property and the deal to sell to Corneal were somewhat controversial at the time. But Commissioner Nancy Sikes-Kline, who was on the commission at the time, said she’s pleased to see how it worked out.
“We’re just happy to see the building put into service in a positive way,” she said. “It’s really helped turn the neighborhood around. We wanted to be sure whoever had it was a good fit.”
In 2010, after an eight-month investigation, the St. Augustine Police Department executed a search warrant at the M&M Market, seizing all assets and closing the business. One of the owners, Raj Patel, 20, pleaded no contest to charges of sale of cocaine, sale of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a place or worship or convenience business, money laundering and public assistance fraud. Patel was sentenced to five years in prison.
The argument by those in favor of buying the property was that the City Commission would be able to select the kind of business proposal that would most benefit the neighborhood and the city overall. It was the best way to erase the stain of crime and help change the vibe of the neighborhood, they reasoned.
Former Mayor Joe Boles said he was confident that city was doing the right thing by purchasing the property in 2010.
Now that a quality restaurant is open and the building has been restored, Boles said the corner is now hugely improved from what it used to be.
“It’s so wonderful for residents of Lincolnville to be able to walk to a fine restaurant rather than (to a place of) violence and drug sales,” he said.
Current Mayor Nancy Shaver is a Lincolnville resident who was not in office when the decisions about the property were being made. However, she said she’s familiar with the history of the building and glad to see the change.
“I’m delighted this revitalization is taking place,” she said.
The goal for Whittington now is to turn all the goodwill into a sustainable business. The restaurant started opening for dinner a week ago — but is always closed on Monday. It is Whittington’s intention to open for lunch and Sunday brunch as well, but he doesn’t have a firm starting date yet.
Whittington, who took about nine months to get the restaurant ready to open after signing the agreement with Corneal, said he’s been thrilled with the staff he’s been able to assemble. That includes local hospitality veterans Jem Fromant and Francesca Cooper.
“Somehow we got extremely lucky here, ended up getting really good staff, not only in the front but in the back as well,” Whittington said.
He said they’ve helped him create positive early impressions for the customers.
So far those patrons have enjoyed the style of food that Whittington calls Southern cuisine “with a little bit of French.” They can select dishes such as shrimp and grits, fresh fish, and even a side of macaroni and cheese.
Whittington said it was important to offer the kind of fare in the type of atmosphere that is appropriate for the neighborhood.
“It’s big that we’re inside a community, so I think doing anything in the community that wouldn’t fit, to me, would be kind of an injustice to it,” he said. “There’s a lot of Southern culture here, so a lot of our dishes have Southern staples in them.
“At the end of the day, we’re just trying to make the guests happy.”