I am regularly in awe of the people who run a successful restaurant. When the owner is the chef, like Mir Ali at Lili’s Restaurant and Bar on Wilmington Island, the admiration is even more than that. Especially when they are doing it well, as Mir is. The business is not for the faint of heart. The list of issues one has to deal with when operating a restaurant are too long for the amount of time we have here. It is ridiculously hard work. Happiest are those that can surround themselves with quality and loyalty. The kind of people that can and will operate your business as if you were there every day. Sometimes even that isn’t enough. Which is why I find myself watching Ele Tran and her Chef/Husband Sean from afar and regularly asking myself ‘My goodness, how in the world do they do it?’
We are all familiar with the “Ele” brand in this city. From King and I Midtown to Chive and Flying Monk on Broughton Street and a couple of others in between and in Charleston. The lines at Flying Monk will tell you they are consistent and popular. They are also flexible. Their next two projects will tell you exactly how so.
If you have driven down US Highway 80 on Wilmington Island lately, then chances are you’ve seen the work going on at Ele. It’s a massive makeover. The main building is largely still in tact. The changes are in concept. Fine dining is gone. ‘Current Kitchen and Cocktails’ is moving in.
“There was really no place on the island with a nice bar to hang out.” Ele told me recently. “We love our favorite spots to eat on the island, but we wanted to make something for families.”
The vision is an indoor/outdoor playground. For the kids and the adults. Pergolas and disappearing doors. There will be a fire pit so the kids and roast marshmallows and s’mores (in season of course) there will be swings in the parking. Swings in the parking lot? “Yes! We want people to be able to feel like they can hang out all day.”
“Sean is becoming a grill master with the menu at Current” she says. “It will be affordable and casual and fun. Salmon burgers, chicken maybe some BBQ. We are looking in the $10-15 dollar range.” Ele says they expect to be open no later than mid-July. “Then it’s on to the next project!” she says.
That next project is actually already underway on Ellis Square.
I’d been hearing whispers about Ele and Sean wanting to put a diner into a space downtown for years. About 3 or 4 years. They got close a couple of times, but the timing needs to be right and to this point it hasn’t been. Now it is.
Little Duck Diner is going into the old “Moe’s” space on Ellis Square at St. Julian and Barnard Streets one block north of Sorry Charlie’s. “It’s going to be a traditional diner, with some Ele twists of course.” She says the name comes from her 3 children. “My 3 little duckies” she says with a laugh. We’ll have more on that project later on this summer.
I don’t know how they find time for it all.
What a lot of people don’t know is that Ele designs her restaurants herself. Ele Fine Fusion was beautiful in its first incarnation. Flying Monk is a great looking noodle spot. The Vault is the most beautiful restaurant on Bull Street by a long shot. There are no high-priced designers flying in from who knows where making this happen. Ele oversees it all herself. “I love what I do so much.” she says.
Still, there is time for family. It is not at all uncommon to see the Tran family walking through a square or the park on a given weekend or at a festival looking impeccably cosmopolitan and happy to be where they are. When you see enough scowls from a chain smoking chef in the lane late at night, then you realize how unique their situation is.
There is, of course, a plan for more after Current and Little Duck Diner are up and running fully, likely by the end of the summer. Nothing set in stone so we won’t get into those details here. Suffice to say Ele and the Chef will continue to offer up plenty of opportunities to Eat It and Like It.
I don’t know how they do it all.
See you on TV,