When I Opened the Roadhouse

Inspired by roadside food on a cross-country trip, I decided to open a restaurant in West Tisbury.

The crew at the Roadhouse circa 1992. —Courtesy Tina Miller

During the fall and winter when I was 22, I traveled across the country with a boyfriend, camping through the South and Southwest. We camped throughout, from the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and cooked shrimp over a propane camping stove. We headed down to Key West to see my father and eat at his fabulous restaurant, Pepe’s Cafe. We drove up and down the west coast of Florida to eat oysters in Apalachicola. We camped in Slidell, La., and went into New Orleans to eat in the French Quarter and listen to some music. We hit Texas, which by the way is 18 hours across. We ate chicken-fried steak at a truck stop in East Texas, and camped down south on South Padre Island. We drove down to El Paso to buy Tony Lama cowboy boots, where I learned, “If the heel don’t slip, the boot don’t fit.”

We ate BBQ and cooked local steak on the grill in Austin. We made a stopover in Tucson, Ariz., for a few days to see my mother and younger brother — I hadn’t seen them in years. She greeted us with a big pot of green chili pork and beans. She took us down to the border town of Nogales, where we ate fancy Mexican food and drank beers and had mariachis sing at our table.

We ended up in Santa Barbara, Calif., sitting in a Mexican restaurant called Pascual’s. I had heard about Pascual’s for years from my father, who went to Santa Barbara in the ’70s, and became friends with Pascual. He was from Mexico, and had opened this restaurant years before. He spoiled us with delicious enchiladas with tender tasty pork and cold cervezas. We considered staying in Santa Barbara — Pascual offered me a job. But by the time we arrived, we were so inspired by all we had seen and eaten through the South and Southwest, we decided the only thing to do was to return to Martha’s Vineyard and open a restaurant and share what we had tasted.

Having a drink at Pascual’s in Santa Barbara. —Courtesy Tina Miller

In West Tisbury, there was a restaurant called the Midtown Cafe I had worked at twice, once as a dishwasher with my friend Beach, when we were teenagers, then again the summer I was 22, as a line cook, when it was known briefly as the Wayside. It was operated by Joey Hall, who was the general manager of the Black Dog at the time.

When we returned from Santa Barbara, I heard that the Wayside location might become available, and we were interested. It was small, and seemed like it might be manageable (whatever that means in the restaurant world).

It is good to be naive at times, assuming the best will happen, if you have a can-do attitude. You can get a lot done without overthinking. That’s how the Roadhouse came to be.

The Island food scene was quite different in 1989 — not many restaurants, and those were very much New England–style dining — Lawry’s Seafood, Anthony’s, Seasons, and David Ryan’s. Up-Island had the Home Port and the Aquinnah Shop.

By this time in my life, I had done almost all the jobs in restaurants except bartender and owner. Now I’d be an owner. I was by no means a trained chef — I was a decent cook, and I liked fresh, colorful, simple food. We wanted to create a local hangout, without an overly complicated theme.

My father was a helpful advisor, telling me about food and labor costs. He talked about the importance of consistency in food and operations. No mood food! He meant it didn’t matter who made the chili, it should be always the same, always good. With my restaurant experience and lots of good friends to help out, we decided to go for it.

It was early spring of 1989, and we were able to get a four-year lease. Now we just needed money to open, to pay rent, to pay ourselves, and give the nondescript diner a makeover.

I went for a commercial loan at Dukes County Savings Bank for $25,000 dollars. What I didn’t realize at the time was you needed money to borrow money — collateral. I was turned down. But with some muscle from old Island family friends who had several accounts at the bank and were pillars in the community, the bank reversed its decision, and the loan was approved, small-town style.

Once the money was approved and the lease was signed, we had just a few months to open. We had planned to do some updates to what was essentially a plain-looking diner, with white walls and brown trim. There was a low Formica counter bar and swivel diner stools. It didn’t feel like a place where you would want to eat a nice dinner. So we went to some of the best woodworkers around. My brother Andrew, a boatbuilder, designed and built a beautiful mahogany bar. Ross Gannon of Gannon and Benjamin Boatyard built eight tabletops out of recycled yellow pine to replace the bland tabletops that came with the place.

There wasn’t a lot we could do in the timeframe and with that budget, but it felt like a fresh start for the old restaurant. In the kitchen, we bought a new restaurant range and a chargrill, since the concept was grilled food.

The logo was inspired by a Western silhouette we had seen on a country album. I can’t remember who the artist was, but a good friend’s boyfriend was an artist, and he painted the sign with three bold colors — red, a deep marigold yellow, and black.

—Courtesy Tina Miller

We hired friends and family. Word got out, and a group of young college girls from Sarah Lawrence showed up to waitress. My cousin, my best friend, and her sister were all hired. A friend’s boyfriend’s brother who was an experienced line cook would be my No. 2 in the kitchen. The other guys in the kitchen were all surfers, including two young boys, John and Jon (I think they were 14), who were our dishwashers.

Opening a restaurant to a layman might look impossible, especially in the last few days. You usually get people walking in saying things like, “You really opening tomorrow?” Everything comes together in the last days. By mid-June we had spiffed the little restaurant up, and we were getting ready to open.

I had a family friend print the menus in North Carolina and — big surprise — they didn’t arrive in time, so we hand wrote menus on white-lined paper. Since that memory is the clearest of opening day, I would say things went pretty well.

A lot changes in your life between the ages of 24 and 28. Good and hard things, but one thing was constant: The Roadhouse was a magical time. I think the average age for the staff was always several years younger than me. We liked each other, and worked and played together. The surfers in the kitchen surfed during the days and worked hard late into the night. The customers felt that sort of clubhouse vibe, and they became loyal and constant. We didn’t take reservations, but always had a list. People would hang out in the backyard, sitting in the summer grass, relaxing, waiting for their table.

One of the best parts of the restaurant business is the friendships you make, not just with the team you work with but also all the great customers whose routine you became part of. There were the Millers (no relation), who loved France as much as I did, and would bring in a bottle of exceptional wine and make me sit and have a glass with them. There were Carol and Michael, who would bring in cheese that he smuggled back from his frequent work trips to Paris. Eleanor Pearlson and Julia Sturgis showed up with an old syrup bottle with booze (the Roadhouse was BYOB). They always had a group, at least six or eight people. Everyone wanted to wait on Eleanor’s table; she was a big tipper, but she had her favorites, so not everyone had the privilege.

My grandfather, Richard Miller, would stop by on his way to get the mail, and have a cup of soup. There were the Aronies, who would sit and chat past closing. Trudy Taylor loved my gingerbread with rum glaze, and Mark and Patty, who were just dating at the time, rolled in on a Harley-Davidson. My friend Cory, a record company owner from New York City, would come up on weekends. He left his tequila and Cointreau with us: He would be at the last table of the night, bringing his cool friends to eat chicken and ribs and drink margaritas.

By the end of the fourth summer, my lease was ending. We had gone through a lot together. Everyone was growing up. The surfer boys had graduated from high school, and the gang was ready to move on. Some traveled, one went to cooking school, everyone moved on to new chapters in their young lives. As the years have passed, I never stop hearing how much people loved the Roadhouse.