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MODESTO — After nearly three decades of practicing law, Modesto Attorney, Mark S. Nelson, is venturing into the restaurant business.
Nelson became a twice-over business owner in December 2016 when he purchased the former Vito’s Ristorante, at 918 13th Street in downtown Modesto. After a six-week renovation, the new establishment was expected to open in early March as the Bayou Bar and Grill.
“We’ve basically had to start from scratch,” Nelson said. “(We’ll have a) different menu and different environment.”
Vito’s Italian restaurant operated for seven years. The business closed early this year when its owners decided to move back to Chicago. As a frequent guest at the restaurant and friend of the former owners, Nelson saw it is an opportunity and worked out a deal to take it over.
Nelson opened his law firm in 1989, located on McHenry Avenue in Modesto. It specializes in personal injury cases and bankruptcy law. Though he described the decision to open a restaurant as a bit crazy, he said it’s something he has always wanted to do.
He believes the restaurant’s downtown location is ideal. In addition, both the dining and kitchen areas are large. The restaurant seats approximately 130 people.
Nelson has combined forces with his son, Mark Nelson II, and partners, Cassandra Day, and Karen Dooley, to open and operate the Cajun-style restaurant. Both Nelson II and Day bring nearly a decade of combined experience as servers and bartenders to the Bayou Bar and Grill.
“We were going to keep it Vito’s,” Nelson said. But there are already several prominent Italian restaurants in Modesto. So, he and his team looked to their travels for cuisine inspiration.
The restaurant’s ambiance is inspired by New Orleans, the Louisiana city that Dooley and Nelson have both visited several times. Aside from being fans of the food, music and culture of the city, the group was also drawn to the southern-style food menu because there is no other Cajun cuisine in town.
Like its name implies, the restaurant will feature a French Quarter theme and what Nelson calls a “Mardi Gras feel.” The interior will showcase a purple and gold color scheme, beaded sconces and alligators airbrushed on the walls.
The group also plans to incorporate entertainment intermittently, including jazz music and live piano performances in addition to weekly karaoke.
“It will be an energetic, fun environment, both in the bar and restaurant. When customers walk in, they will feel like they are on Bourbon Street,” said Nelson.
Dooley described the menu as quintessentially Cajun.
“Gumbo, jambalaya, an oyster bar, crawfish dishes, and shrimps and grits,” she said.
Nelson said the restaurant will also serve traditional, non-Cajun style food such as burgers and salads.
The group intends to retain some of the Vito’s staff, including regionally renowned chef, Chris Bonora.
The Bayou Bar and Grill will also welcome sports fans. The restaurant will feature six large screen TVs, so customers can watch a wide variety of sports, said Nelson II.
Nelson believes there are some similarities between a law practice and the restaurant business.
“Customer satisfaction,” said Nelson, “Whether (we are helping) with an auto accident or serving you Cajun food it’s all about (delivering exceptional) service so they come back.”