Culver's Lakehouse Grille set to open May 11

Meet Mark Damore, Jr., a far less familiar face to Culverites than his father, Original Root Beer Stand owner Mark Damore, though Mark the younger is quick to emphasize he's "proud to be named after (my father)."

He's a Chicago native, Butler grad, and he wants the former Edgewater Grille to be the best restaurant in Culver.

First the preliminaries: 620 Lake Shore Drive will officially open its doors in grand fashion on Friday, May 11 as the Lakehouse Grille. No, the staple props diners love from the Edgewater dining room have not been removed, though Damore has employed years of experience in real estate to enhance the look of the place through often-subtle changes.

The longtime "tavern" side of the operation, to the west, will undergo a much more dramatic change which Damore is confident will be "phenomenal."

But back to Mark Damore Jr.

Butler was what drew him initially to the Hoosier state, and it’s also where he met his wife, Jen. The two decided to give Indianapolis a try after Mark graduated with his business degree, and he spent the next five years as a financial planner dabbling in real estate, which he says went well for him overall. While 2010 was a "huge" year for him, Damore says he felt as if things were going backwards last year, so he began investigating other options.

Of course he was already quite familiar with Culver, having been coming here regularly since his parents' arrival in 1998.

"Culver is such a hidden gem to me," he says. "I'll never forget the first time I came here. We were driving through cornfields and I was thinking, 'What are we doing?' Then we stumble onto this gorgeous little town and this special little lake. I've never seen water so clear, and it's laid out so openly. So from 1998 to about April 1 (of this year), Culver to me was the ultimate vacation! It's my favorite place to vacation, and I've been (all over)."

As Damore pondered, earlier this year, his next direction, his father told him former Edgewater owner Dan Bickel had discussed the possibility of the senior Damore purchasing the restaurant. Was Mark Jr. interested?

At this point, Damore Jr. says, his wife is studying hard at Georgetown, and he's sure there will be no committing to Culver.

"But my mom and dad said, 'Talk to Jen; see what she says, and then decide.' I did, and my wife was so supportive. She said, 'If you think this could be something special, I believe in you. We'll figure it out.' That was all I needed to hear!"

The restaurant business has always interested Mark Damore Jr. due in no small part to his father owning and operating Original Chicago Produce for 40 years now.

"It's almost like he was born to run (that business)," says Damore Jr. of his father. He notes he made the decision not to follow in his father's footsteps, partly to prevent Mark Sr. from continuing his breakneck work pace past retirement age in order to lend Mark Jr. a hand. He says his strategy worked.

"He (my dad is) certainly not retired, but he backed out a bit. Now he goes to Chicago once a week.

"He might go twice a week now that he'll be bringing produce here (to the new restaurant)," Damore Jr. adds with a smile.

Besides the food connection, Damore Jr. adds his knowledge of real estate and love of people as "some weird equation, and it says, 'restaurant!'"

With all this in mind, Mark Damore Jr. worked out some details, packed up his clothes and cats, and established a "dorm room" at his parents' house in Culver, leaving behind the house he customized to be his castle in Indianapolis.

"I tell my staff I'm going to be as involved in this as a man can be! I'm all in --I just sold my soul to the north shore of Culver!"

Specifically to the Lakehouse Grille, a moniker for which Damore Jr. credits his wife, despite her surprise at his reaction to what she'd intended as an offhand suggestion.

"I considered 'Lake Side' or Lake Shore. (But) if you say, 'Let's go to the lake house. I always called my parents' house that. So in my brain, if people said, 'Hey, let's go to Culver and go to the lake house,' you'd say, 'You mean the house or the restaurant?' I hope both!"

While he acknowledges some people's disappointment at the name change, Damore says he "just really felt like it needed something new. That is zero-point-zero defamation of anybody or anything of the past. I want to get the people that swore off the old place to give it another shot. And secondarily, I think the name's fantastic!"

By far the most major change in the space itself is the bar, says Damore, which he aims to make “more of an open space -- user friendly. That's why I eliminated booths and the partition wall."

Because of that, the section will become 21 and over only, which in general has been met with enthusiasm.

Add to the equation a plethora of high definition televisions (primarily for game-watching, though Damore emphasizes it's "not a sports bar"), retention of the popular Buzz Time game, seating for 70 in the bar space alone, "world-class bartenders," and renovations that take advantage of the view and the lake, visually.

"The way I was viewing it," he says of the changes he's made, "I'm giving lots of nods to the past. I have a deep appreciation and respect for the past. I want to leave a bit of history. The props (on the restaurant side) are cool and I know people like them. I felt like...the carpet brought in blue and nice, neutral beiges. The lake is major theme on both sides."

And yes, many of the faces at the Lakehouse will be familiar to devotees of the Edgewater.

"The hardest part has been not being able to retain everybody," Damore says. "I don't want to be a villain for anybody, but the people I did retain I feel special about. When somebody puts their whole life on the line, they need to feel special about the staff."

One new face is Tim Wilcken, the executive head chef, who is actually Damore's uncle, so "I've known him 25 years. He's been a chef ever since I've known him. He was my number one choice for a variety of reasons. The two biggest were his experience and the fact that in his abilities."

Damore says he feels the same way about Edgewater veteran David Noel, who is "executive chef B" and "an incredible universal guy."

"To pair them together is the dream team back there! I love that."
Other staffers include Peggy Pinder ("A staple, and one of the first people I called," he says), Crystal Moore, and Dana Keller behind the bar. Tina Pare' will offer sushi Thursday through Saturday once again as well.

"Location and supply staff is why this place will be wildly successful," he adds.

Damore and Noel agree the Lakehouse's menu will be "60 percent the same and 40 percent different" in relation to the Edgewater's.

"We know lot of people enjoyed the old menu," adds Damore, "so we used it as an outline."

Of course, fresh produce will be a major boon to the Lakehouse's offerings. Damore Sr.'s Original Chicago Produce Company, emphases Mark Jr., is "known for quality -- and I'm not just hyping my dad!"

"If our produce disappoints people," he says, "they need to find me and let me know. But I don't think I'll have that conversation very often!"

First out of the gate, Damore Jr. explains, the Lakehouse won't be open for lunch, though within a month or so, they'll likely add lunches from Friday through Sunday. He says he's not sure there will ever be lunches offered during the week.

That policy exemplifies a philosophy he sums up as "quality over quantity," and it's also borne out in the fact that Damore is already planning the restaurant to be closed from Dec. 24 through Jan. 24 each year.

"I don't want to burn out my staff. I want to keep my staff of 18 healthy and happy. Most of all, I want to keep the customers stoked.

"I feel like, if we do what we do and do it well, that's enough...some people overdo it, and it hurts them."

It's obvious Damore has been pouring virtually every waking moment into realizing his vision for the Lakehouse.

"I want the triple crown! Great location, great food, and great service," he says, though he's quick to add he hopes all restaurants in Culver succeed.

"That will bring more people to this town. They will spend more money at the other restaurants and this one, at the retail shops, the gas stations -- it all feeds the town. I like a thriving place. I think it's good for the town."