May 2012

Ela's Blu Water Grille - For Seafood, Steak and Style

Author: David Tobias | Photographer: Photography by Anne

It was July and Paula Abdul was hungry. She and her mini-entourage were on Hilton Head Island—just passing through—looking for a nice, quiet, restaurant where they could dine in peace, with no fanfare, away from the masses, with some privacy and a nice view of the water.

God bless the Internet. A short browser search yielded Ela’s Blu Water Grille, recently opened, and tucked away in Shelter Cove Harbour with three-sided views of Broad Creek and the marina, and a back door that provided private access to a back stairway and a private third-floor dining room. Perfect, lovely and did we mention private?

But Paula Abdul is human, and inevitably nature called. “Ms. Abdul, said Ela’s owner Earl Nightingale, our restroom is on the main floor, two levels down. People are going to see you there, and you’ll likely be recognized.”

Sure enough, the private Paula became the public Paula and a slight flurry of gush later, pictures were posed for and autographs signed.

Now, nine months later, Paula Abdul is one of several celebrities whose grip-and-grin photo is framed and hung on what has become a fledgling hall of fame section of Ela’s—a tradition in restaurants where Nightingale comes from—places like Chicago. Leslie Frazier, coach of the Minnesota Vikings, is also on that wall. It’s not a huge part of what makes this restaurant special, just a tip of the hat to tradition.

There’s history and some tradition about the location of Ela’s, site of the locally famous Harbourmaster Restaurant that ruled for nearly 20 years, followed by the Ocean Grille, a Lowrey Group restaurant, which was open from 2002 until 2010.

The “e” on the end of Grille, is Nightingale’s salute to Pierce & Bonnie Lowrey, whose Ocean Grille concept, he says, allowed Ela’s to become what it is: a family restaurant in a great location, with architectural integrity (“good bones”) and a continuing reputation for quality and value.

Chef: Chris Cohen

The family part of Ela’s is very literal. In fact, the name itself is an acronym comprised of the first initials of Earl and Diane Nightingale’s children, Erin, Lauren and Alex. The “S” is for Sam, the son of a best friend of the family.

Each family member has played a role in the development of the restaurant. Erin is an interior designer in Chicago and lent her skills to revising the look and feel. Carpeting has given way to hardwood floors and the tables are slices of reclaimed cypress trees from Florida. Lauren, a human resource director at the Art Institute in Raleigh, created all the HR forms and applications; and Alex, whose degree is in finance and financial planning, manages the accounting in addition to assistant managing all other aspects of the restaurant.

Nightingale’s background is a solid 32 years in the hospitality industry, most of those with Hyatt, and he’s the former general manager of the Hilton in Palmetto Dunes Resort, which just recently became an Omni. While at the Hilton, Nightingale completely designed, built and conceptualized the HH Prime Restaurant, XO Lounge and Palmetto Market in preparation for the Omni Resorts transition in to the Hilton Head Resort market.

“I’ve remodeled and rebuilt hotels and restaurants in 18 different cities,” Nightingale said. “Everywhere I’ve lived, the most successful restaurants were the ones where the owner was at the door, greeting the customer, and here on Hilton Head Island there’s affection for family-owned restaurants. After all my years in this business, we got together as a family and decided it was time to do our own thing.”

That “thing” is “seafood, steak and style,” which was a phrase the family came up with, Nightingale says, during some wine-aided market research. “We thought about ambiance, but we thought it was a bit too lofty, and besides style completes the alliteration.”

It’s the ambiance, though, along with the food itself, that allows Ela’s to shine. Despite Hilton Head Island being an island, there are surprisingly few restaurants with this kind of water view. The fact that the first floor and casual dining deck is 12 feet off the ground, perched above a marina tackle shop, gives additional advantage. According to Nightingale, that elevation, and usually a light breeze, gives the deck a bug-free environment.

Inside, with three floors of dining, the ambiance gets even better, with 165 total seats, 100 on the main floor, 50 on the second floor, seating for 12 up top and decorative and colorful sailboats hanging from the ceiling. The windows are enormous to afford the view, and there’s live music four nights a week.

While all that is fine, it’s really the food that’s been the star during the restaurant’s nine-month incubation period. Thanks to a chef from New England, Chris Cohen, several of the featured dishes have a northeast flair, especially the sea scallops, which have emerged as the overwhelming favorite on the menu.

That’s a surprise to Nightingale, who expected a regional dish like crab cakes or shrimp to be the crowd pleaser. “Since we opened, we’ve probably served 10,000 meals,” Nightingale said, “and I’ll bet 7,000 of them have been the scallops. Chris fixes them uniquely, with a little crab risotto in the middle and a lobster cream sauce, and between that mix of flavors, it’s just become the number- one seller.”

Cohen has also introduced cod, which he describes as a “nice, meaty fish,” to the list of entrées, which complements the more conventional and regional grouper.

On the turf side of things, Cohen has discovered a source of great steak filets, at Southern River Farms in Augusta, Ga.—a secret Nightingale tried to hang onto but which inevitably leaked out. “The quality of the beef is so good,” Nightingale said of the restaurant’s hand-cut steaks, “it didn’t take long for other restaurants to start asking where we got it. It’s competitive that way in this business.”

Wine-wise (Nightingale’s specialty) Ela’s has a marketing strategy. Nightingale calls it “cost plus 10” or “cost plus 20”—not quite a loss leader, but an effort to get a bottle of wine on every table.

“People are surprised by our wine prices, but it’s part of a larger strategy to tamp things down a bit and make the experience just good resort casual dining,” Nightingale said. “We want people to have value, so we do the right thing: good pricing, good portions, nice atmosphere.”

All those aspects of Ela’s and more are now available at lunch as well. And keep your eyes open in July. You never know when Paula Abdul—incognito—might return.

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