Hominy Grill gets makeover

Nunally Kersh, wife of chef-owner Robert Stehling, talks with workers hanging a copper awning over the new entrance to the restaurant.

Teresa Taylor // The Post and Courier

Contractors try to wrap up work Wednesday afternoon in the new dining room at Hominy Grill, an addition that replaced the old outdoor patio.

After 10 days turning away disappointed travelers, Robert Stehling is ready to unlock the door to the new and improved Hominy Grill.

The iconic restaurant on Rutledge Avenue with its "Grits are good for you" mural was to open at 7:30 this morning. On Wednesday afternoon, a bevy of workers was still hanging lights and awnings, changing locks and cementing walls, among other tasks yet to be completed.

The chef-owner was optimistic, nonetheless, as he waited for the fire inspector. "As long as we get the C of O (certificate of occupancy), we'll be open," Stehling said.

The renovation began in April with the closing of the outdoor patio and the restaurant completely shut down on July 11 for the final phase of work.

Diners will find a spacious and airy -- but weatherproof -- dining room in place of the old patio. The look is much the same as the original dining room, save for two booths with stained-glass insets. Framed old produce labels will hang on the wall like the other room.

"We want people not to see any difference between the old and the new," Stehling said, so they will feel they are getting the same experience.

Another big change is a handsome new copper-clad entryway between the old dining room and the addition. Coming in the old front door was awkward because guests stepped immediately into the midst of tables.

A smaller patio now fronts the new dining room. It will be a space, including tables and umbrellas, for people to sit and have a drink while waiting to get in. A window opens from the patio to the new bar area.

"I think it will be a nicer experience," said Stehling's wife, Nunally Kersh. "Now people are standing in the street."

The bar occupies the space of the former unisex restroom under the stairs. But patrons will find better facilities elsewhere: Two black-and-white tile bathrooms have been added at the rear of the new dining room. The entire addition also includes office space and a much-needed wait station, which Stehling said was a bottleneck before.

The actual number of seats isn't changing much at all, with only two more overall. "We're not increasing the seating dramatically but increasing the usage year-round," Kersh said. Much of the year, it was too hot, too cold or rainy for people to eat outside, she said.

The kitchen also grew in size, got new venting and a dropped ceiling. Stehling said the lower ceiling means less area to cool and will improve energy efficiency.

And, "We're getting a new computer system, like a real restaurant," he joked.

For now, he plans no immediate revamp of the menu. "Having more space, I'll work the menu and make changes slowly over the rest of the summer," said Stehling, who won a James Beard Best Chef in the Southeast award in 2008. "By September we'll know what it takes to be busy." He also thinks there's potential for takeout service from the bar window.

"I'm excited about all the changes, but it is a little nerve-wracking," he said. "If you have something that works, you don't want to mess with it too much and take the magic out."