Making changes to a restaurant that’s been around for 25 years is a balancing act.
Wild Fork has been a fixture of Utica Square for so long for a reason. So when word came it would soon be under the management of the McNellie’s Group, some wondered what that would mean for the beloved restaurant.
Lucky for us, the patio is as lovely as ever. The dining rooms still have the same intimacy of a place where for years secrets have been shared over iced tea and crab cakes. And the two sets of double doors, making way for an entry to a special place, are intact.
But the Wild Fork certainly did undergo change. A needed facelift has freshened up the place, touching everything from the design to the menu to the hours of operation.
“There’s no part of the restaurant that went untouched,” McNellie’s Group owner Elliot Nelson says. “We redecorated the dining rooms, put in new tables, gutted the bathrooms and refinished them. We tried to update every surface.”
One of the most dramatic changes was to the bar, which was moved to the west end of the space. The big, marble bar is now a horseshoe shape to accommodate more people.
We visited the Wild Fork on a Sunday night, which is a change in itself. Extending hours, including the addition of Sunday dinner, was intended to accommodate more guests. Even on a hot day, patio seating is comfortable, with shade and fans providing cool near the courtyard.
Chef Julie Woolman’s menu has stayed mostly the same, as she worked with Ben Alexander, vice president of culinary operations for the McNellie’s Group, to update the restaurant’s most popular items, and to introduce new, more modern dishes to the breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner menus.
We sampled two Wild Fork classics for starters. The black bean cassoulet ($9.95) is good, with layers of black bean dip, green chiles, cilantro sour cream, pico de gallo and cheddar cheese. And the crab cakes ($12.95) — a Wild Fork staple — are as good as ever, served with a jalapeño slaw with a creamy herb dressing.
One new bright spot on the menu is the lump crab pasta ($18.95) in a lemon butter sauce topped with toasted garlic breadcrumbs. Bucatini pasta is the perfect match for the delicate sauce and big pieces of crab.
The Wild Fork also added a great dish of shrimp and pimento cheese grits ($18.95). The pimento cheese is perfect with the creamy grits and sautéed shrimp. The dish is then topped with a poached egg.
Other classics, like the Southern five-spice catfish ($17.95), Mediterranean burger ($12.95), and lentil and feta sandwich ($11.95) remain on the lunch menu.
Nelson says the Wild Fork will concentrate on growing its dinner business, but knows it can’t neglect its faithful breakfast, lunch and brunch crowd.
“We were always excited about the location and the space, but we felt that we needed to grow the dinner business in order for the restaurant to be economically viable for the long term,” he says. “A lot of the changes were made with that goal in mind — trying to keep the breakfast and lunch customers happy, while growing a dinner business.”
And while the crowd has begun to grow in the evening, it’s brunch and lunch that are packed.
The weekend brunch menu (served until 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays) is robust, with traditional favorites like a fried egg breakfast sandwich on an English muffin ($8.95) and fun foods like miniature cinnamon rolls ($6.95) served in a cast iron skillet.
Another breakfast favorite is the Wild Fork hash ($13.95) a delicious mess of eggs, sausage, bacon, bell peppers, mushrooms, potatoes, cheese and pico de gallo.
Wild Fork cocktails are more elegant than ever. The Garden ($11) is a nod to the Garden restaurant, which predates the Wild Fork in that corner spot at Utica Square. The drink is a nice mix of vodka, elderflower liqueur and blood orange. For brunch, the Wild Fork’s mimosas are legendary, served in a glass ($6) or carafe ($20).
“We hope by making subtle changes to the menu and space, we’ll be able to keep the existing customer base happy while introducing the restaurant to its next generation of customers,” Nelson says. “The goal is to make sure the Wild Fork stays relevant and lives for another 25 years and beyond.”