PJ Grill on Industry Magazine

Re-branding a 70-year-old bar into a modern comfort food haven has been a culinary quest for one manor road entrepreneur

By Jennifer Vikse • Photos By Luca Sforza • Read the full article here

Melissa O’Connell is a fourth generation restaurateur on Staten Island, and her love of food, drink, and interior design blend together deftly at her casual dining restaurant, Pepperjack Grill. Located on Manor Road across from the Armory, the spot—complete with bar, dining room, two private rooms available for parties, and an outdoor patio—has been drawing crowds since it opened in 2011.

O’Connell said owning the place has been a bit of a rollercoaster.

“We’ve had our ups and downs, but we’re finally evening out now,” she said. It took some time for the community to embrace her new concept, she added, noting the spot was a bar for 70 years prior to Pepperjack’s arrival.

“They’ve finally accepted the changes we made from the original place that was here,” she explained.

The changes are obvious. The restaurant is colorful—vibrant even— with yellow walls featuring local artists’ work and—to the chagrin of some male customers—chandeliers at the bar.

“The décor was easy,” said O’Connell, a former interior designer. “Running the restaurant was a challenge.”

To create the menu, she looked back at her own life and the comfort foods she grew up with. “It’s American comfort food with flair,” she said of the fare, which she created, along with some tweaking by her chef. “Everything is homemade from the appetizers to the desserts. It’s a lot of stuff I grew up with, things I thought were normal American food.”

The menu features skillets, pot pies, shepherd’s pie, and several mac & cheeses, with the lobster mac the most popular. “It’s all comfort food from across the U.S.,” O’Connell added, like seafood stew adapted from one she found in San Francisco, and chicken muffaletta inspired by a jaunt to New Orleans.”

The seafood specials come from what markets can deliver; on Thursdays, there’s a lobster party, while an abundance of cod makes great fish & chips on another day.

In addition, there is a gluten-free menu, carefully designed by the owner and chef, along with a customer who lives with celiac disease.

Appetizers range from $7 to $12; the dinner menu ranges from $15-$24 and also includes chicken sandwiches and gourmet burgers.

And let’s not forget the desserts. “Some people come in for apps and go right to desserts,” O’Connell said.

Her desserts are “old school favorites—there’s the chocolate brownie explosion and our peanut butter and jelly bread pudding is award winning, said O’Connell. “We also have chocolate dipped bacon that is really popular.”

Yes, you read that right: bacon dipped in chocolate.

A bartender herself for 18 years, she is particularly proud of the bar offerings, which came easily when creating the menu.

“We’re known for 17 different sangrias, all made in house,” she said. Among them are a line of sake sangrias, chocolate sangria done with chocolate port wine, a bubble tea, frozen sangrias, and more. “The champagne sangrias are very popular,” she noted, and they are all named after her favorite rock songs, including “Whole Lotta Rosie,” “White Rabbit,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” and “Sweet Home Alabama.”

Pepperjack offers acoustic live music Thursday through Sunday; its two stages (one behind the bar , the other in the dining room) offer everything from a single performer to a band playing doo wop, oldies, classic rock, or folk music. Jazz is the genre of choice during Sunday brunch.

“There’s no radio or juke box; it’s all live,” said O’Connell.

Outside, the outdoor patio is newly open, serving food al fresco. The Palm Tree patio is split between a bar area and a private dining space.

“It’s definitely cool,” O’Connell added. “You look at the Castle and tanks across the street. This is the first year we’re really working hard with it; we hadn’t promoted it before. Now we book it for parties, and it’s beautiful.”