Biz Beat

“We’ve brought back an old Modesto friend;” beloved restaurant reopens after 14 years

In magic tricks, smoke usually means something is about to disappear. But with Smoky’s a little reverse magic has brought the once beloved brand back to Modesto.

Smoky’s Neighborhood Grill debuted earlier this month in its new location on Bangs Avenue. Fourteen years after the last Smoky’s closed its doors, the once iconic Modesto eatery has returned with many of its original favorites and a few new tricks up its sleeve.

The men reviving the restaurant are former owner Mike Nelson and his new business partner Darryl Johnson, a first-time restauranteur who has owned United Sign Systems for more than 20 years. Together they’ve created a Smoky’s that is at once familiar and new, with old and new fans already streaming into its doors.

“We’ve brought back an old Modesto friend,” said Nelson, who owned Smoky’s for much of the 1990s and helped to make it one of the city’s favorite spots with locations on McHenry Avenue, at Coffee and Floyd and the Green at Creekside Golf Course. Earlier this year the restaurant made the cut as one of the 15 most missed former eating spots in town.

After selling Smoky’s in 1998, Nelson went on to open Mike’s Roadhouse on Dale Road and then Mike’s Grillhouse on Pelandale Avenue. Nelson’s more than 30-year restaurant service shows in the spot’s design, menu and service.

Back are The Smoky’s Original (a 1/3-pound burger with signature Smoky’s sauce), Pilgrim’s Pride (a roasted turkey sandwich), and Smoky’s Classic Chili Dog (a 1/3-pound hot dog topped with homemade chili). Like the old Smoky’s, the new Smoky’s slow roasts all of its meats, from barbecue tri-tip to turkey. You can also buy them by the pound or deli sliced from the counter. The soups and chilis are cooked fresh on site and they hand-scoop the ice cream for milkshakes. They even dug into Nelson’s family recipe book for its macaroni and potato salads.

New to the Smoky’s repertoire is a full breakfast service, large selection of baked pastries and a specialty coffee bar with hot and cold drinks. Nelson said the north Modesto location, surrounded by car dealerships and auto shops, helped to shape their service. That means easy grab-and-go items alongside sit-down meals in the morning and lots of sandwiches and wraps for lunch. Early in the new year the restaurant will launch its Smoky’s Express, with ready-made dinners for sale that can be heated at home. Most menu items run $6.99 to $11.99.

Nelson said the key to all of the food is quality ingredients made fresh.

“If you come in it gives us an opportunity to show what we can do through food,” he said. “We don’t just open packages and warm food up. We want to give people good food and make you happy.”

And, judging by the hugs and handshakes, it’s a message its diners are receiving loud and clear.

“Thank you for opening, we missed your food,” said Modesto resident Debra Rocha who stopped in for lunch with her husband.

Besides the familiar face of Nelson, Smoky’s also has brought in Jamie Taylor as manager. She worked with Nelson for over 15 years at his two previous restaurants, the Roadhouse and Grillhouse.

But just because the new restaurant is open doesn’t mean Nelson is done bringing Smoky’s back. In 2018 he plans to open a Smoky’s Pub & Grill, like the old Coffee Road location, in downtown Modesto. The second site would be open for lunch and dinner and serve beer and wine.

“We’re coming full circle with Smoky’s,” Nelson said. “People who come in are reliving their childhood memories. And bringing their own children in now.”

Smoky’s Neighborhood Grill is open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday to Saturday at 501 Bangs Ave. For more information call 209-554-6999 or visit

Elsewhere around the Business Beat:

If you’re wondering where the Hands-On Educational Supply Store has moved, the answer is not far.

The school supplies shop has moved to another location within Modesto’s McHenry Village. The new space puts the store between Bianca’s Bridal Couture and Marcy’s Hallmark. For more information call 209-491-2937 or visit the store at 1700 McHenry Ave., Suite 61.