These days, a single restaurant can change an entire neighborhood by planting its roots and encouraging new growth around it. The same could have been said for the Hopkins Old Water Mill, the water-powered grist mill constructed in 1804 in what's now the village of Garrettsville. A steady stream of farmers from within a 20-mile radius eventually built roads for easier access to the mill, sowing the seeds for new small businesses to flourish.
Today, Portage County's 211-year-old Hopkins waterwheel can be seen from the balcony of Main Street Grille and Brewing Company (8148 Main St., 330-527-3663, msg-brew.com), the restaurant that the mill house was converted to nine years ago. And just as farmers once traveled to the mill with their grain, they now travel to Main Street with their products as it evolves into a new locally driven menu.
The farm-to-table overhaul came two months ago when owner Pete Kepich brought on executive chef James St. Ours.
"I just saw the place and it was gorgeous," explains St. Ours, seated at a wood table in the dining room with a view of the four-barrel brewing house.
Launching a career as a pro skater at 19, St. Ours traveled the country cooking in a mish-mash of kitchens for side money until he returned home to Akron ten years later. After chef roles at Bricco and Dante Boccuzzi's d.b.a., he came to Main Street, where he slashed the size of the menu in half and rebuilt it with dishes made using regional producers.
"This is an agricultural community and a small one where everyone knows everyone else," says St. Ours.
Now, guests can find Mackenzie Creamery's goat cheese atop an Ohio-beef burger. Shaved radishes come straight from Hartville and rabbits from Canton. In fact, the distance many of the ingredients travel parallels the 20-mile journey farmers once traveled to the mill, an homage to history if ever there was one.
Still, one of the struggles that accompanies change is being careful to not alienate a decade's worth of patrons, a path St. Ours and brewmaster Mike Mallone have taken pains to walk.
"We had a lot of people who initially said this isn't going to work, you're a small town and you need to remember that," says Mallone.
There's still a taste of the familiar, like the ahi tuna, a standard dish with an added kick of togarashi spices. And few things are more appropriate than the comfort foods that St. Ours says directly reflect his upbringing.
Much like St. Ours, Mallone draws on his own history and travels. As a Naval man, he spent long days on a boat in the middle of the ocean studying books on beer and trying local brews from port to port.
"I love funky, weird beers," he says from his upstairs office lined with magazines and books on brewing. Though his consistent rotation of eight brews on tap often lean more traditional, he hopes with the new palate introduced by St. Ours that he'll be able to venture into the less conventional.
On Jan. 18, Main Street Grille will host its first small-batch beer dinner, with a tasting menu created by St. Ours.
"With the direction we're going with the food it's going to make things easier to start making more forward beers," says St. Ours.