Comfortable, Cosmopolitan, Sublime.

September 1, 2018 | By More

Sinatra’s silky baritone croons through the rustic yet refined decor. Earth tones of raw umber, slate gray, and golden wheat are accentuated by textures of stone, brick, plaster, and grainy wood. Dark walnut-stained booths with high, private backs and low amber light work with the decor ensemble to bring a sense of warm relaxing comfort. And then there’s the food.

Spicy, savory, and even sweet. Some Italian, some Cajun, along with the simple everyman delectability of steak and potatoes — USDA Prime and Choice Angus steaks and parmesan crusted potatoes, that is.

As you relish in the flavors of pretty much any pick on the menu, your tastebuds pick up on something familiar, though, you can’t quite decide what it is. Sure, you’ve had many of these dishes at other establishments, but there’s something different here. Something soothing. Something nostalgic.

“If you taste something familiar in our food it’s probably because it tastes like what your mom made,” says David Eslick, co-owner along with wife Jennifer and Wes and Suzanne Hall, of Pasta Grill in Russellville. “It’s all made fresh and from scratch. In a sense, it’s home cooking.”

It’s a legacy of great taste brought about by great attention to detail and honest-to-goodness care for the customers. And it all started a long time ago right at this very place: 319 W Main Street in Russellville.

Wes and Suzanne were the original owners of Italian Gardens — a restaurant that once sat where Pasta Grill does now —opened way back in 1994.The Halls sold their first venture into the restaurant industry of Russellville in 2000 and poured themselves into Pasta Grill of Conway.

When the owner of Italian Gardens began negotiations with Wes and Suzanne to bring Pasta Grill to Russellville instead of simply shutting down one of Russellville’s iconic restaurants, the Halls were open to the idea, but only with the right people at the helm. Enter longtime friends David and Jennifer who collectively had zero experience in running a restaurant. “Unless you consider church potlucks,” says David. “But for whatever reason, they thought we were the right people.”

Jennifer is a former elementary school teacher and David has been involved in a church ministry for the last few decades, up until late 2015 when Pasta Grill Russellville opened its doors. Yet, here they are, co-owning the “it” eatery in Russellville and winning Best Local Flavor at Taste of the Valley 2018.

Now, nearly three years in, it looks like Wes and Suzanne made a great call. David and Jennifer fairly glow with enthusiasm while talking about their jobs and lives, which seem so tightly interwoven. “We jokingly call it our empty-nester project,” says David. “It was an opportunity for us both to do something pretty physically rigorous, but, I guess, lighter on the soul. It’s just a happy place.”

Was physical rigorousness expected in owning a restaurant? “I think it was expected,” says Jennifer, “but not to this degree.”

The Eslicks say they like the straight-forward aspect of restaurant work. “Either we got it right or we didn’t,” says David. “Even the subjective part of that is objective. If the customer says we didn’t get it right, we didn’t.”

And in this service/hospitality business, David says he also finds shades of the theatre. “I’ve had a lot of opportunity to be involved in play productions and presentation and stage performance. And in an odd way, this isn’t much different to me.”

There are certainly parallels. There’s the backstage and kitchen comparison. “You don’t want to go back there,” says David. “It’s kind of chaotic, people shoving stuff around.” This is where Jennifer shines. “I’m the multitasker in the back,” says Jennifer. “I like all the planning, the running around making sure everything is done. I come from a classroom teaching first graders. Teaching school, managing a classroom, especially little kids like I did, there are some similarities.”

Then the curtain parts, the food comes out. “And we’re presenting,” says David. “We’re not pretending, you can’t take that analogy too far. But we are, kind of, putting on a show. We’ve got a set. Some music is playing. We’ve got ‘actors,’ you know, the people presenting. When I put it in that perspective, it all makes sense in my mind.”

While David and Jennifer manage the day to day of the Russellville Pasta Grill, Wes and Suzanne are the genius behind the atmosphere and menu. What’s the influence behind that incredible menu? Italian cuisine, of course, but also regional and even family tweaking. “A lot of our dishes are Cajun influenced,” says Suzanne. “It’s on our menu like a hundred times. We also do a ‘meat and potatoes’ version of Italian food.” This broad appeal menu was influenced by Suzanne’s father.

“My dad would not eat pasta,” says Suzanne. “So when we started this restaurant we offered baked potatoes and steak. You know, if someone goes out with a large group of people and doesn’t like Italian, they can get something else here. Not everyone is a fan of spaghetti.”

Part of that home cooking appeal is also attributable to the portions. “People like big portions,” says Suzanne. “They like to feel like they got a good value.” Large helpings are one way for Pasta Gill to show deep appreciation for their customers. “Our customers are everything,” says Suzanne. “Every single customer that comes through the door should feel respected and honored. There’s a lot of good restaurants in this town. When they choose to eat here, to spend their money here, and I see people waiting to eat here, that’s so humbling to me.”

Jennifer says consistent quality is awhat defines Pasta Grill. “We have a lot of people say that they appreciate how consistent it is. They order something and they know it’s going to be just as good as it was last time.” Jennifer thinks this level of customer satisfaction is accomplished by a top-down passion for the work. “We’re owner driven,” says Jennifer, “and the owners are here all the time. And we love coming into work,” says Jennifer. “There’s a real family feel here.”

David agrees. “We can’t love our customers and show genuine care for them and then walk in the back and start yelling and starting drama back there,” says David. “So from front to back, we want everyone to feel happy and feel enthusiastic and be successful and know they’re part of something cool.”

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