When I added Smoky’s into my countdown of “Gone, but not forgotten” restaurants of Modesto lore last month, I didn’t expect I’d have to cross it off the list quite so quickly.
The one-time popular burger joint, which first opened in Modesto in 1968, is coming back thanks to former owner Mike Nelson and his new business partner Darryl Johnson. Nelson has owned a string of eateries over the past 30 years, most recently Mike’s Grillhouse and Mike’s Roadhouse.
“Everyone loved the name and nostalgia behind Smoky’s. They would bring their kids there, then their kids would bring their kids there,” Nelson said.
He ran Smoky’s for much of the 1990s, making it one of the city’s favorite spots with locations on McHenry Avenue, Coffee and Floyd and even at the Green at Creekside Golf Course. He sold Smoky’s in 1998 to open Mike’s Roadhouse on Dale Road. Then Smoky’s closed for good in 2003.
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But it turns out you can’t keep a good restaurant down. Fourteen years after it flipped its last burger, Smoky’s is returning thanks to Nelson and Johnson’s 25-year friendship. Johnson, who has owned the successful Modesto business United Sign Systems for more than 20 years, had been thinking about trying his hand at the restaurant business.
And Nelson, who sold Mike’s Grillhouse on Pelandale Avenue last November, was contemplating getting back into restaurants. Around the same time the owner of Greens Table, on Bangs Avenue, decided not to continue its lease in the space. So when it closed in August, Nelson and Johnson took over the site and have been renovating it since.
“It’s really exciting because of (Nelson’s) passion and his knowledge,” said Johnson, who as owner has contracted Nelson to be his operations manager.
The new Smoky’s Neighborhood Grill will have a lot of the same menu as the original Smoky’s – burgers, sandwiches, soups, salads tri-tip and roast turkey. And it will have Rudy’s Chili Cheese Dog, a Smoky’s staple named after Nelson’s father.
The spot, which seats a little over 100 people, will be tailored to the clientele in the north Modesto area, which has a lot of auto dealerships and repair shops. It will serve breakfast and lunch and Nelson promises quick, quality items at reasonable prices.
In addition to its lunch fare, the menu will include from-scratch breakfast items and baked goods, as well as specialty coffee drinks and hand-scooped shakes.
But it won’t stop there. The duo already has ambitious plans for the rebirth old Smoky’s. They hope to have the Neighborhood Grill up and running by November 15. Then in December Nelson said he wants to bring back Smoky’s catering business, which will be run out of the restaurant’s large commercial kitchen.
In the next couple of years, Nelson envisions two to three Smoky’s around town, including another signature Smoky’s Pub & Grill, like the old Coffee Road location, which will be open for dinner and serve drinks. They’re looking at spots in downtown Modesto for that project.
“We are going to bring old Modesto back to new Modesto,” Nelson said.
Speaking of old Modesto, Nelson said people can expect plenty of nostalgic touches inside the new Smoky’s, including pictures of the city through the years. And, like in all of his restaurants, Nelson will have his old-fashioned police officer statue standing watch. His mother gave him the figure when he opened his first Velvet Creamery in 1984. And he is already inside the Bangs Avenue space, ready to greet folks.
Once it debuts the new Smoky’s Neighborhood Grill will be open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday at 501 Bangs Ave.