The charming, circa-1946 building in Old Naples that formerly housed the First Baptist Church has been rechristened as The Chapel Grill by local restaurateur Stephen Fleischer. Always attracted to the property’s history and good looks, Fleischer felt compelled to buy it and give it a new purpose when he discovered the edifice was for sale. “I just love history, and what would have happened if I didn’t save that building? It would have been knocked down and it would have been a parking lot,” he says.
Since his former project, Trilogy, closed during the economic slump, he has had a strong desire to try his hand in the restaurant business again, and his instincts told him this was a good match.
He’s off to a great start. The week following the November ribbon cutting, Fleischer says, the establishment served more than double the number of diners nightly he expected, calling those first days a trial by fire—“and we did it,” he notes. One of his goals is to run a popular place downtown that will lure the dining public to venture beyond the strict boundaries of Fifth Avenue South and Third Street South. This space, at the edge of Cambier Park, blends a relaxed yet elegant feeling with fine cuisine and is a destination in and of itself.
The outside retains the simple white clapboard style, and the interior, created by Wegman Design Group, Naples, is chicly understated with clean lines, white linens, marigold walls and an open kitchen that adds up to an atmosphere in tune with the food and respectful of the past. “We wanted the bones of the church to be there without doing anything that someone would find offensive. So there’s no stained glass, but we have a lot of other glass that has some resemblance,” Fleischman says. The vaulted ceilings remain, along with some wooden floors, though some were carpeted to keep the noise level down.
Once a place of worship where Evangelist Billy Graham spoke, it now draws the foodie faithful with an American menu featuring dishes accented with global flavors.
Chef Jorge Nolasco, whose résumé includes stints as executive chef at the Edgewater Beach Hotel and overseeing the two clubhouses at The Quarry, places his focus squarely on using fresh, local produce, fish and other ingredients while adding unique touches. Some standouts that piqued our palates: porcini-dusted Florida snapper with sweet corn saffron risotto and sherry-braised leeks, Asian-influenced ahi tuna with baby bok choy and somen noodles, and a decadent roasted lobster bisque dolloped with sherry crème fraîche.
Another alluring element, the Chapel Tavern, packs in a fun-loving social crowd in an open-air setting. They gather to sip specialty cocktails and wines by the glass and chow down on small plates like Kobe beef sliders, salads and sandwiches, such as Maine lobster roll and grilled cheese (Alpine Swiss, Manchego and Saint Andre on sourdough with garlic jam). The handsome bar is spacious, with long windows and doors on opposite sides of the room opening to outdoor tables flanking the tavern.
Giving us more reason to indulge, the restaurant secured a partnership with Gulfshore Playhouse at the nearby Norris Center: Enjoy a meal pre-theater or top off the evening with cocktails and dessert, and park once for both venues. Ticket holders can also have a three-course dinner and glass of wine for $29. Plans call for adding Sunday brunch and nightly specials that will allow Nolasco to flex his creative muscle.
Fleischer’s vision was to establish a casual place with “fine dining, but you can come in your flip-flops.” So far, it’s a heavenly combination. (thechapelgrill.com, 239-206-4310)