When Russell Jones got the opportunity to open his own restaurant in his home town, he knew immediately what the name would be.
“My grandmother is Lula Bess and I love the name Lula,” Jones said. “I’ve always thought that I would name my first restaurant Lula.”
But, as luck would have it, the week Jones and his wife, Monica, and the couple’s 6-month-old son, Henry, drove from their D.C. home to South Carolina to secure a bank loan for his restaurant, Tim Gardner announced that the wine parlor he would open on Columbia’s Main Street would be named Lula Drake.
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“What are the odds?” Jones asked with a smile.
Though he needed to quickly change the name of the new Devine Street restaurant, Jones still wanted to keep it in the family.
“My grandmother was named after her grandmother and her name was Tallulah,” Jones said. “It’s still a family name – just one that goes back another couple of generations. Monica and I always talked about if we opened a restaurant we’d name it Lula and if we had a daughter we’d name her Tallulah. So, this is our baby. And we had a boy anyway. Couldn’t name him Tallulah.”
So Jones made the name change and hasn’t looked back. With the restaurant set to fully open on Thursday, he hasn’t had time.
In the six months since the D.C. chef moved back home, Jones and his wife have been completely remodeling the interior of the former Dianne’s on Devine restaurant, hiring the staff and preparing the menu.
“If I was just the chef here, I would be in the kitchen all the time and I would be focused on running that kitchen,” Jones said. “But since I’m chef/owner, there’s a lot more involved.”
On any given day, he might have to deal with the main dining room’s lack of heat, a patio leak, and mis-deliveries.
“When you’re owner, you’re in charge of everything, you’re not just the chef,” he said. “You’re the chef, you’re the plumber, you’re a medic, you’re partial fireman.
“You’re doing all these things making sure everything’s the way it should be for DHEC, for the city of Columbia, for the fire marshal – all these things.”
Though Tallulah is the first restaurant Jones has owned, it’s the fourth he has opened. For the last 12 years, Jones has lived in Washington, D.C., where he attended French culinary school L’Academie De Cuisine and then worked as a chef at fine dining restaurant Le Paradou, Restaurant Eve and, most recently, the high-end bar and restaurant Jack Rose Dining Saloon.
“I learned what fine dining and real work in a kitchen really was,” Jones said.
But that enjoyment for working in a kitchen began at Columbia’s Rosewood Market.
A graduate of Dreher High School, Jones’ first restaurant job was as a 19-year-old delivery driver for Beezer’s Sandwich Shop, which typically kept him on the road late into the night.
“A buddy of mine was working at Rosewood Market,” Jones said. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come get a job at Rosewood? You won’t have to work til four in the morning.’”
So Jones landed a job in the kitchen with chef Benoit St. Jacques.
“I worked there three and a half years and just loved the atmosphere in the kitchen and the camaraderie,” Jones said. “Benoit was my first chef to show you how to do things. I just kind of fell in love with it.”
He further developed that love in Washington at some of the capital’s most successful restaurants. In fact, Jones was getting ready to sign a deal last spring with Jack Rose to open another restaurant in the city when his dad called with a proposition: Come home and open a restaurant in the space formerly occupied by Dianne’s at 2400 Devine St.
Dianne Light had operated the business for 24 years, building a following at the upscale restaurant and its comfortable bar. After opening a second eatery, the delicatessen DiPrato’s, and operating both for eight years, Light closed Dianne’s in 2013. Since then, Light had been waiting for the right chef to open the right restaurant in the space.
“My dad worked for Dianne at LaBrasca’s in the ’60s when he was in high school,” said Jones, who dined at Dianne’s on Devine the night of his senior prom and whose brother had his wedding rehearsal dinner there.
LaBrasca’s Pizza, on Jackson Boulevard, has been open for 50 years.
After talking with Light, who still owns the 2400 Devine St. location and is leasing it to Jones, he learned there was a group of investors in Columbia who simply wanted to see a good restaurant go into the space but did not want to operate or oversee it. They agreed to back Jones.
Jones said he is proud of the staff he has assembled for Tallulah: Charley Scruggs, formerly of Oak Table and Rise Bake Shop, as pastry chef; Jason Davis, formerly of Motor Supply Co. and Speakeasy, as bar manager; and Blake Fairies, formerly of Nonnah’s and Saluda’s, as chef de cuisine.
“There is a lot of talent here (in Columbia),” he said. “There are so many people in this industry down here who are so passionate about it and they are looking to build the scene here.”
Together, the staff is assembling what will become a constantly updated and changing menu. It will feature what Jones describes as “local Southern, seasonal ingredients prepared with a modern approach using French technique.”
Jones is using local ingredients whenever possible, currently using carrots from City Roots, squab from Palmetto Pigeon and pork from Carolina Heritage. All of the menu items can be divided into four categories representing regions of the state: Lowcountry, which focuses on seafood; Sandhills, featuring meat, poultry, and game; Piedmont, featuring vegetables; and Appalachia, featuring “methods of food preservation” – curing, pickling and smoking.
In addition to the menu, the Joneses have literally been peeling back layers of the restaurant’s physical space. Before housing Dianne’s on Devine, the building – constructed in 1954 – served as The Peddler Steakhouse and Griff’s.
“We took the back kitchen down to the dirt,” Jones said.
The end result is a crisp, modern, sleek design featuring white coffered ceilings, custom-made pedestal tables with elaborate decorative footwork, thickly padded cream-colored leather seats with upholstered backs and a creamy white and dark velvet blue color scheme throughout.
All of the changes have won Light’s approval.
“It’s beautiful, fresh, new and exactly what the space needed,” Light said.
Light has already experienced Tallulah, attending one of the restaurant’s soft opening, reservation-only dinners last month.
“It was wonderful. Could not have been any better,” Light said. “I’m hoping they will be there forever.”
Jones hopes so, too.
“Ten years from now I want to be just running a perfectly oiled machine,” Jones said. “When I say I want to be the best restaurant in Columbia it’s not to say that there aren’t great restaurants in Columbia because there are and there are great chefs here,” he said. “But if there’s someone doing something really well I want to do it just as well if not better.”
Address: 2400 Devine St., Columbia
Phone: (803) 400-2300
Hours of operation (Beginning Thursday):
Dinner: 5:30-10 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday
Bar hours: 5:30 to 11 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; 5:30-midnight Friday and Saturday.
Closed Sunday and Monday.
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