There won’t be a rooftop bar at Spoonbill Watering Hole & Restaurant, but there will be neon. A custom-made job, perched atop an old Conoco service station that will fire hotrod beams down Jefferson Street. Revved up like a deuce. Another runner in the night.
“Everybody knew this place from the neon,” says co-owner Adam Loftin, squinting up at soon-to-be-replaced sign for The Filling Station, the Downtown icon his restaurant will succeed. Loftin and his partners, Stephen Verret and Jeremy Conner, are in the process of stripping three restaurants worth of walls to the gas station studs, installing window frames that mimic the building’s historic iron-held panes. A lot will change in the makeover from Filling Station to Spoonbill, but the neon’s going back in.
“Gotta make it real,” Loftin says of the cost of finding custom-made neon. There’s only one place he’s found in the state that can do it. “It wouldn’t be right.”
The Filling Station died a young icon. For 15 years it pumped Tex-Mex and margaritas into Downtowners and sent them whirling off to Downtown Alive!. While a decade and a half in business is no small feat in Lafayette’s restaurant scene, you’d swear The Filling Station had been here since the 1950s — a testament to the loyalty of its following and its currency as a Downtown landmark.
What Loftin, Verret and Conner hope to create is a restaurant with a familiar vintage and similar durability — an instant icon for the 25 to 45 crowd, a casual place to lubricate the work week and refuel. Like The Filling Station before it, its prime offering is a dressed down social scene on a deck patio that’s more al Fresca than al fresco. New bays of windows (including one set into a garage door) pull the outdoor light into a blown-out open floor plan. It’s as much space as could be carved out of a cramped locale. There’s room enough for 40 tabletop diners at the spot, including spillover onto the planks outside.
“People love to be outside,” says Conner, who will man the kitchen and develop the restaurant’s menu. The notion that outdoor dining doesn’t work in Lafayette, he says, is “flatly disproven” by the success of fellow Downtown upstart The Wurst Biergarten.
Conner, a heady chef and a towering figure in Lafayette’s farm-to-table movement — he’s 6 feet 8 inches — is designing a menu with deep Southern roots and mainstream appeal. The concept traces the origins of Southern foodways downstream to the Gulf of Mexico, leaning on fresh seafood and local ingredients.
“There’s this creature that goes to restaurants, essentially ignores the menu and asks for a piece of grilled fish,” Conner says. “I want everyone to get the opportunity to get my version of that.”
A patio is a great place for a piece of great fish. But, while the outdoor dining thing seems obvious now, it wasn’t always. Lafayette’s weather, being for the most part unagreeable, has led to the commonly-held conviction that open-air restaurants won’t work, never mind the inclement weather we’ll brave for barbecues and boils.
Indeed, Spoonbill joins a crop of local restaurants — Pop’s Poboys and Central Pizza & Bar come to mind — that have bucked conventional wisdom on what works, particularly as it comes to Downtown.
“When the weather was good, I had the best food in town,” laughs Bentley Suire, who opened The Filling Station in 2001. “When the weather was bad, I had the worst food in town.”
Suire’s made himself available to the new partners in their remodel. He spent years fighting the building’s foibles, at one time ripping out a wall just to find the source of an odd smell. It was a gas pipe. When his wife died, he lost interest in the loving upkeep. He sold the business and the building to Hook & Boil owner Mark Alleman in 2016.
Alleman’s vision for a Hook & Boil Downtown, complete with a rooftop bar, never materialized and tumbled into a lawsuit with his creditors. Loftin and his partners managed to snatch the building in a direct sale with Alleman, closing the deal, free and clear of liens or debts, in April 2018 for $500,000, according to the Lafayette assessor’s records. Loftin says Spoonbill’s all-in cost, including renovation, will hover around $1 million.
Loftin’s purchase consummated the trio’s winding and parallel paths to a partnership. Separately, the partners in two camps — Loftin on one end, Conner and Verret on the other — had watched The Filling Station sit idle and salivated. Loftin, a commercial Realtor, had eyed Downtown properties for years, failing on several bids to buy historic buildings in the city’s urban core. He was agnostic about opening a restaurant but was drawn to the idea of rehabbing a piece of history. The Filling Station was his winning ticket.
“I didn’t want something dumb going in there,” laughs Loftin.
Meanwhile, Conner and Verret, already partners via the pair’s pop-up pizza and yard game concept Olympic Grove, had seen a pair of brick and mortar attempts fizzle. They at one time hoped to set up shop in a storage unit on a grassy triangle between the 2nd Street and Congress Street split. Always on the lookout for new spaces to dig in, they even considered approaching Alleman to lease the building when Alleman’s work on Hook & Boil stalled. Finally, when they heard Loftin had the building under contract, they pounced with a pitch. The convergence made sense; the seeds of Spoonbill were planted and the concept pruned in the dark for months.
Now, angling for a fall 2018 opening, the trio is ready to flip on the neon light. “It’s a building that’s like a beacon,” says Verret. “That’s why the neon is so important.”