by Charles McGuigan
Shanan Chambers was about to take a huge leap, born of faith and tempered with absolute determination. As the landlord turned the key in the lock and the deadbolt slipped free of the strike plate, Shanan felt a surge of excitement. He shouldered the door, which was warped at the base, and shoved it past the threshold. The interior space—which had previously housed a hardware store, and an auction house—were, to put it mildly, in rough shape. Grime thick as paint, dust like a carpet. As Shanan explored the twin storefronts, the ancient linoleum tiles crackled beneath her feet. Overhead, the acoustic ceiling tiles were stained with deep brown tattoos inked by leaking roof. But Shanan could see beyond the deficiencies.
“I knew what I wanted to do,” she tells me now, more than a decade after she first examined the twin storefronts that now house Northside Grille. “I had this big vision. When I walked in I could already see the bar. I knew I wanted all booths. I knew I wanted the patio, but I didn’t know how fast it would all come together.”
As it turned out, renovation would take a total of 13 months, and fortunately for Shanan, her father, Jon Delmendo, an engineer, was able to relocate from Seattle to oversee the entire project. He also built the great horseshoe of a bar. “I couldn’t be luckier,” says Shana. “My father could build you a house from scratch, if you wanted him to. He’s built anything you can imagine.”
Shanan and I are sitting on opposing couches in the living room of her Ginter Park home as she begins talking about the origins of Northside Grille.
“We completely gutted it, and had to go through a change of venue because it wasn’t a restaurant, so we had to get permits for all that,” Shanan says. “It took us thirteen months to get it opened. We paid rent on that place for thirteen months with no income.”
After demolishing the wall that separated the two storefronts, contractors peeled back the old plaster on the exterior walls, revealing brick and mortar, a portion of which would remain exposed. The rest of the walls were paneled with beadboard wainscoting. They preserved the tin ceiling tiles, and installed all new systems from wiring to plumbing, from heat and air to lighting, along with a fully-equipped, brand-new kitchen that cost a small fortune.
Bellevue resident Craig Nattoon, a master carpenter, leant his expertise to the project. He designed all the booths, and he was assiduous with their creation, visiting restaurants throughout the area in order to get all the dimensions just right—enough leg room and arm room, adequate seating space to accommodate the human torso in its various permutations, every last detail.
And then there was the vacant lot (which would become the patio for Northside Grille) sandwiched between the storefront and the CVS pharmacy. It was packed with wooden boards, plywood sheathing, clothing, suitcases, drug paraphernalia, and assorted trash and junk. “We had to get a big dumpster and we backhoed everything out of it,” Shanan tells me. “That lot had become a little hideaway for people doing bad stuff.”
After a grueling year, complete with city inspections and licensing, the restaurant neared completion. On the day of the opening—June 18, 2007—while the health inspector was there giving his final nod of approval, Shanan and her staff were still busy putting on the finishing touches.
From the moment Northside Grille’s front door opened for business that first day, its success was extraordinary, surpassing Shanan’s wildest expectations. This was just what the neighborhood had longed for. Remember: Eleven years back there weren’t many restaurants to choose from on the Northside, and aside from Dot’s Back Inn, there was no other sit-down restaurant in all of Bellevue.
Shanan’s vision for the restaurant was, at least in part, influenced by obstacles she encountered on a nearly daily basis. For one thing, as a single parent of two children, she was juggling more than Jonathan Austin.
“With Dean and Katherine (her son and daughter) and the sports they played,” says Shanan. “We ate out all the time, and we didn’t have much money. It might have been Ukrop’s deli one night. Trying to balance both their schedules, and they were at different schools. With the menu, I knew I just wanted family, reasonable, affordable food so people could come out two or three times a week.”
Over the years there have been many nights and afternoons when my kids and I have sat in the capacious booths at this restaurant to dine, and each time the staff has always been kind and accommodating. Charles first ate there when he was just five years old, at a time when the only food that would pass his lips were chicken fingers, and he ate a veritable flock of them over the next two years at Northside Grille. A couple years later he advanced to the mini-corn dogs, and ultimately the linguini with marinara sauce, before advancing to the adult menu. And one of his favorite choices are the crab cakes, filled with large chunks of lump crab meat, very little (if any) filler, and served with a horseradish Dijon sauce that does not compete with the delicate flavor of the crab meat. My daughter has always been a fan of their hummus platter, which is listed as an appetizer, but is easily a meal in itself with plenty of marinated vegetables, feta cheese and pita points. One of my favorites is the Cuban, which feature a perfect blend of roasted pork, ham, mustard, pickles and Swiss cheese, and I always add the jalapenos.
Regardless what we order as an entrée for either lunch or dinner, we always start off with the lumpia, a sort of Filipino spring roll served with a sweet chili dipping sauce. You crunch through the golden casing to a center of rich, seasoned beef and pork. The recipe comes from Shanan’s father, and she has been making them daily since the restaurant first opened. “You’ve got to roll them really fast because they dry out so quickly,” Shanan says. “They’re very temperamental.”
And extremely popular. “We ran out of them at lunch-time yesterday, and I ran back and started rolling them as fast as I could,” says Shanan.
Here’s something that has amazed me about Northside Grille: The prices over these past eleven years have only increased ever-so-slightly, and the food turned out from the kitchen has always been sapid and consistent. What’s more the basic structure of the menu has remained the same. That menu, incidentally, was created in large part by Debbie Vaughn, who was the backbone of the kitchen for many years.
Shanan’s house is tomb-quiet this time of day until a young man comes down the stairs and heads out the front door. He is one of two foreign exchange students who spent this past year in the Chambers’s house. One is from Spain, the other is from Germany, and they are scheduled to return to Europe the following morning. During the school year both young men attended Richmond Community High School. “It’s been nice having them here,” Shanan says. “It’s part of a program called American Heritage.”
This fall, her own son, Dean, who has been a fixture at Northside Grille for years, will head off to University of Alabama. Shanan’s daughter, Katherine, is already studying marketing at Elon College in North Carolina. “I’m becoming an empty nester,” says Shanan.
Before Shanan opened the restaurant, she worked in the field of medical geriatrics at ManorCare Health Services on Hilliard Road. At Virginia Commonwealth University, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social work, but throughout her college days she had worked as both a server and a hostess at a number of Richmond restaurants.
Well before that, back in high school, Shanan landed her first job as a hostess at a seafood restaurant called Hogan’s Bay Company in downtown Tacoma, which is when her love affair with the restaurant industry began.
Throughout her professional career in social work there was always a gnawing desire to open her own restaurant, and with all her experience working the front of the house at a number of restaurants, she knew more than a little about the business. Shanan also happens to be very social, and has that rare ability to connect with people of diverse backgrounds, and make them feel at home. “It’s part of my nature,” she tells me. “I’m a giving person.”
With Northside’s largest bar, seating up to 30 people, and it’s frequently full, Shanan managed to blend this with the family-friendly environment. It’s genius, really.
“We have this regular group of guys who sit in the corner, they meet up almost nightly,” she says. “And a lot of the regulars are parents. They’re all pretty mellow, from professional people, to blue collar, hard-working, decent people.”
Shanan considers what she’s just said, and she smiles. “It’s such an eclectic crowd, and everyone gets along,” she says. “Lawyers, teachers, Sammy the baker, Marcel, Galen and Amy . . .” Her voice trails off. “We love out regulars,” she says. “They all have different backgrounds, different interests, different talents, and they all get along.” And in that moment, I truly wish we could replicate what Northside Grille does for our entire nation, where people come from all walks of life, with varying interests and beliefs.
Shanan views her regulars as extended family. About a year ago, a couple who have been not only long-time regulars at Northside Grille, but Shanan’s neighbors in Ginter Park, were in a terrible car accident. When Shanan learned of the accident, she sat them down and said, “Call me for anything, I’m not tied to a desk, nine-to-five.” Not long after that, she got a call from the woman, who said, “Can you please bring me a cheeseburger from Northside?” Shanan placed the order immediately and delivered it in person.
An integral part of the Northside Grille family is the staff there. All three bartenders—Nathan Lang, Steve Douglas and Dana Beers—have been with Shanan since the beginning. And Carol Ray, or “C” as she’s called, has been part of Northside Grille from almost day one.
Northside Grille has also become a sort of incubator of friendships. “You know what’s funny?” Shanan says. “So many people say because of Northside Grille we’ve met our dearest friends. Not only do they hang out at Northside now, they hang out outside of Northside. They go to each other’s homes.”
Shanan Chambers checks her phone for the time; she’s got an appointment in twenty minutes. “And, you know, I’ve met so many people that same way,” she says. “When you see them all the time they become family; you see them more than your own kids. What really gives me joy and makes me proud is when people give me a compliment or a comment. It’s nice to know they love our food, but more than that it’s when they tell me about the relationships that have been formed between employees and customers, and customers and customers. And me.”
Sunday (Serving Brunch) 10am–Close
1217 Bellevue Ave
Richmond, VA 23227