The State Road shuffle

Since 1975 there have been nearly a dozen restaurants where the State Road Restaurant now stands.

State Road restaurant in West Tisbury. —Mary Kenworth

State Road Restaurant in North Tisbury has become a beacon for fine dining on the Island over the past five years, but didn’t just appear out of nowhere. The location on State Road where the restaurant stands has had a rich history of restaurants that can trace their roots back to a little ice cream parlor.

In 1951, Bill and Betty Haynes moved to a house pretty much directly across the street from where State Road Restaurant is today. Bill’s family was from Pawtucket, R.I., and his father decided to retire to the Vineyard. What attracted his father to the State Road property was that there were eight acres right across the street from his house, and he wanted to have a big vegetable garden and a farmstand. Soon, he was able to sell his produce from a little shack on the property, which Bill’s mother, Hortense, ran. It was called Sundown Gardens; around 1960, Hortense converted the vegetable stand into an ice cream parlor by the same name, which became a must-stop for people returning from the beach.

In 1967, a few years after Bill returned from the Air Force, his mom turned the business over to him; he expanded the menu, and it became the Haynes Luncheonette. Haynes operated the Luncheonette until around 1980, when he sold the property to Fred Feiner, who, at the time, owned and ran the Beach Plum Inn in Menemsha. And Feiner, in turn, gave the business to his daughter, Bonnie, who lived in Montana at the time.

I reached Bonnie (Castle) by phone. She lives in Florida now, but said that she doesn’t have fond memories of either the restaurant or the Island. She called the restaurant the Mid-Island Cafe, and said that it offered what she called “a small country dinner menu,” of sandwiches, fries, and burgers, but she never could get the business off the ground, and it went bankrupt. “All in all,” Bonnie told me, “I had a very bad experience.”

In 1981, Feiner sold the Mid-Island Cafe to Tony Friedman, who changed the name of the restaurant to Fat Tony’s. I talked to Friedman on the phone from his home in West Virginia, and he said that he found the business to be both satisfying and challenging, but after a few years decided to lease out the restaurant and pursue other ventures.

Next up was Joe Hall, former general manager of the Black Dog, who opened up a restaurant called the Wayside in 1987, which lasted about two years and then was taken over by our own Tina Miller, an editor of this magazine, who worked as a line cook at the Wayside and went on to open a restaurant called the Roadhouse (see Tina’s essay about this adventure).

Miller was born and raised on the Vineyard (her father, Allan Miller, built and was the first chef at the Black Dog Tavern; see “The Black Dog Turns 50,” She and her boyfriend had just returned from a road trip through the South and Southwest, where Miller had become infatuated with BBQ. “We decided to open a chicken and ribs joint,” Miller told me.

The property, which was still owned by Friedman, was the first restaurant to really put the State Road location on the map, offering patrons innovative new cuisine in an up-Island setting.

In 1993, the next restaurant to follow up on Miller’s success was the Red Cat Restaurant, operated by local restaurateur Ben Deforest. The name was inspired by the Red Cat Bookstore, across the street from the restaurant.

“The Black Dog was the most successful restaurant on the Island,” Tony Friedman said, “so I was looking for a two-word name with an animal in it.” “Red Cat” fit the bill, and it operated on State Road for about five years.

Deforest’s restaurants — Balance, Red Cat on Kennebec, the Oyster Bar 02557, Cardboard Box — have become well-known for fine dining, but the Red Cat on State Road was also known for its freewheeling “scene.”

“We had a little bar downstairs at the Red Cat that Dan Aykroyd used to call the Bottom Lounge,” Deforest said. “It was his clubhouse. One night after the Nantucket Nectar Fest, which was held at the Performing Arts Center, many of the musicians came to the Red Cat, including Bo Diddley and Bob Weir, and Ted Danson and Woody Harrelson were in there tending bar; it was bedlam.”

And then there was that night that (President) Clinton threw an engagement party for his friend Richard Friedman, and they set up a piano out in the backyard and Carol King played until one in the morning. “I guarantee no one ever had more fun at that place than me,” Deforest said.

In 2000, after the Red Cat closed, Tony Friedman, who still owned the property, sold it to Eleanor Pearlson, the longtime owner of Tea Lane Realty. “Eleanor passed away in 2010,” Abby Rabinowitz, Pearlson’s niece, told me, “but she was a force of nature and had a real vision and a passion about what she wanted the property to be in the community.”

Pearlson was one of three partners who purchased the property; their first restaurant involved one of the three partners, Pat Harrison, who was, herself, a bit larger than life. She had previously had a career in the foreign service, and was an accomplished high Himalayan trekker and a seasoned sailor. She was also a graduate of Le Cordon Bleu school of cuisine, and was the owner of the catering company Vineyard Haute Cuisine. Harrison opened up a catering and takeout business on the property that she called As You Like It.

“But for whatever reason,” Rabinowitz said, “It was a short-lived experience, and Harrison moved on.” But Pearlson used Harrison’s departure as an excuse to turn the business into a full-service restaurant. And in 2001, she brought on Chef Keith Korn, who had recently made a name for himself in Chicago.

The name of Korn’s new restaurant was the Ice House, and it quickly took the Vineyard by storm. Suzanne Provost (Flanders), Keith’s girlfriend and co-worker at the time, said that Keith was a genius at cooking, and that they were a big success almost immediately.

“Korn was one of the first to introduce the farm-to-table concept to the Vineyard,” Provost said. “The food was fabulous, and the vibe was casual and fun.” Then tragedy struck. Scarcely a year after opening, Korn died in an automobile accident. The restaurant staff and the community were devastated. After closing for a couple of weeks, the restaurant rallied, and the sous-chef, Job Yacubian, took over as chef and kept the restaurant open into the fall.

Job Yacubian, Bittersweet chef, and his son Jesse. —Courtesy Stacey Trevino

It became untenable for Suzanne to continue running the restaurant, so Pearlson offered the lease to Yacubian and his wife, Stacey Trevino.

“It was a fairly seamless transition,” Trevino said. “A large part of the staff stayed on.” The new restaurant, called Bittersweet, continued to have a booming business, but after three years, the one thing it couldn’t survive was the breakup of Stacey and Job’s marriage. In 2006, Bittersweet called it quits.

Once again, Eleanor Pearlson was there to pick up the pieces. When vacationing in Anguilla, she had frequented a restaurant owned by a Jamaican-born man named Deon Thomas. She liked his charismatic personality and his Caribbean-influenced cuisine. She encouraged him to come to the Vineyard, where, she said, she would find a space for him to open a restaurant.

When Deon decided to take her up on her offer, the space at State Road wasn’t yet available, but he found a home at a restaurant in Chilmark called the Cornerway (someday we’ll tell you the story of the illustrious chefs who’ve come and gone from that space in Chilmark). Deon ran the Cornerway for eight years, and when in 2009, Bittersweet closed, Pearlson invited Deon to take over the space. The new restaurant, called Deon’s, was another success, and the future looked bright for Chef Deon until the following year.

“I was in Anguilla drinking rum punch, I had my toes in the sand,” Deon said, “when I got a call from the West Tisbury fire chief telling me Deon’s had burned down.”

“I cried a bit,” Deon said, “Deon’s was one of the best restaurants on the Island, it had great revenue, it was a great operation.” He didn’t have much time to feel sad, because Deon also had several other restaurants in Anguilla and on Long Island, not to mention the Chilmark Cornerway.

So with the fire, Deon closed Deon’s down. But as with so many other twists in the saga of this spot on the side of State Road, this gave Pearlson a new opportunity. She had grown to like and respect the two people who owned the Sweet Life Cafe in Oak Bluffs, Jackson and Mary Kenworth. Abby Rabinowitz said that it was Eleanor’s favorite restaurant on the Island.

“We hit it off right away,” Mary Kenworth said. “Eleanor liked people who worked hard — that was the highest compliment she could pay, and she recognized that we worked hard.”

“Eleanor just loved Mary and Jackson,” Rabinowitz said, “and I think they loved her too. Eleanor had a vision and passion about what she wanted a restaurant to be in the community, and I think Mary and Jackson shared that passion.”

“We talked about how the State Road location could be an anchor for the community,” Kenworth said, “and to do that, it needed to be open, not just in the summer but for all four seasons [see editor’s note].”

After Deon’s burned down, Rabinowitz said that there was an opportunity — Eleanor was thrilled at the idea that Mary and Jackson might take over the restaurant and create something wonderful. In 2008, with the help of backers, the Kenworths bought the building from Pearlson and opened up State Road Restaurant.

Rebuilding from the fire gave the Kenworths the opportunity to create something wonderful; after extensive renovation they opened up in 2009. The restaurant, reminiscent of an old tavern, had a great stone fireplace, rough-hewn beams, artwork from local artists, and often-whimsical antiques. And the fare was contemporary American cuisine sourced from regional farmers and fishermen, with many herbs, fruits, and vegetables harvested from its own gardens.

“Eleanor ate at State Road many times,” Kenworth said. “She absolutely loved it, and we’re happy to have the memory of her in our building.”

“State Road is one of the few fine-dining restaurants on the Island that stays open year-round,” Rabinowitz said. “This is a huge contribution to the Island community. And during COVID, they offered takeout, which has been a wonderful thing for so many of us. State Road has been many things over the years — all according to what the community needs.”

“We have held fundraising events for the West Tisbury library,” Kenworth said. “We hold farm dinners for Island Grown Initiative; we’re always looking for ways we can cement our relationship with the community.”

“And that would have made Eleanor smile,” Rabinowitz said.

It’s been an interesting 60-odd years for this little property in North Tisbury. As the Island’s tastes in dining have changed, so too have the little restaurants on State Road evolved. Where once stood a simple ice cream parlor, today stands a world renowned eatery. But then again, I guess that’s just who we are these days.

Before there was State Road Restaurant, there was:
Sundown Gardens
Haynes Delicatessen
The Mid-Island Cafe
Fat Tony’s
The Wayside
The Roadhouse
The Red Cat
As You Like It
The Ice House

Editor’s note: State Road has traditionally been open year-round, but due to COVID and a shortage of staffing, they may be temporarily closed this winter.