Just an hour after he’d closed his restaurant for the night, Sunny Gerhart’s phone started ringing.
“I live right down the street, and as I opened my door, I could hear the fire trucks,” Gerhart said. He ran down to St. Roch Fine Oysters + Bar, arriving shortly before 2 a.m. that Saturday morning. By the time he got there, so much smoke billowed out of his restaurant that he couldn’t see inside.
After slogging through the pandemic for more than a year, in many ways the May 22 kitchen fire was adding insult to injury. Gerhart and his team had fought hard to keep the beloved downtown Raleigh oyster bar open, switching to a takeout model and offering po’boys and partnering with the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, among other initiatives to keep the lights on. Once the smoke cleared, he hoped the fire would only keep them closed for a couple weeks, since none of the damage was structural. It would take four months.
The fire began when one of St. Roch’s coolers malfunctioned, Gerhart said, and then spread across the kitchen floor before likely catching some residual grease by the hood. Smoke and soot coated the walls and turned the white ceiling black, but fortunately most of the damage remained contained in the kitchen. Still, the process of dealing with insurance and permitting dragged on much longer than Gerhart anticipated.
“This is my first fire,” he said. “I’d never worked in a place that had a fire before, so I didn’t really know what to expect. It was a rough four months sitting in an empty restaurant with four employees every day.”
But now that St. Roch is open again, patrons will quickly realize that the changes extend beyond replaced kitchen equipment. Gerhart took advantage of the time while his restaurant was shuttered to refinish the floors in the dining room, behind the bar, and in the kitchen. They painted the front of the building and the entry alcove. And he rethought portions of the menu.
“We ended up doing a bunch of extra work while we were closed,” Gerhart said. “When I bought the restaurant, it already had five or six years on it from two previous restaurants. All of these things would’ve had to get done, and I would’ve had to close the restaurant to replace the floors. That would’ve been really hard to do at another time. Hopefully this will last us for 10 years.”
Other changes — like a new custom wallpaper in the front-most dining area — will look new to most diners, because Gerhart had just made them before the fire. He’d even intended to have a little party to celebrate, but the fire torched those plans.
“The fire gave us an opportunity to reopen the restaurant again,” he said. In addition to the cosmetic changes, St. Roch’s new menu is also more streamlined. Some of that is pandemic and supply chain driven; with the cost of lump crab meat doubling, Gerhart scrapped a popular crab dish and replaced it with an impressive pickled shrimp toast, which still features crab but as a tertiary ingredient. He added a bucatini puttanesca with Creole shrimp. And he modified the gumbo recipe, which originally didn’t rely on a roux to remain gluten free, but which now utilizes gluten-free flour as the base for “a fairly dark brown” roux. Gerhart also added a potato salad.
“A really good potato salad with gumbo, to me, is life-changing,” he said. “I was always scared to have gumbo or jambalaya on menu, more traditional New Orleans stuff. But now I’m embracing some of the classics more and tweaking them — having some fun with it.”
While closed, Gerhart read through some of his classic Louisiana cookbooks for inspiration, finding things that he could “dress up a little and do it our way.”
“We’re trying to have some fun, and not take it too seriously,” he said. “We’re just happy to be back and cooking, believe it or not.”
Whatever he’s doing, it’s working.
In addition to the bounty of raw oysters on the menu — including a range of marvelous options from the North Carolina coast such as the small, salty-sweet Bell’s Reef — the menu brims with distinctive choices. Consider the alligator bolognese with sweet potato gnocchi, a rich dish where the gator is more like crumbled ground beef than a chewy chicken, giving the entree a flavor-packed warmth and must-order status.
The market catch served with ratatouille, harissa oil, and crispy okra is arguably one of the best fish plates around. And it doesn’t matter that the beignets with a side of bourbon caramel sauce are the only dessert item, because these puffy delights are all you need. The fall-flavored Eden’s Autumn cocktail with aged gin, apple butter, and a hint of lemon is bound to inspire knockoffs.
Four years into St. Roch, Gerhart appears to have hit a stride. It’s a confluence of factors, he said, influenced largely by the need to innovate or perish during Covid.
“I’ve grown a lot,” he reflected. “I’ve been sober for three years. My perspective has changed. This is my first business, and I’ve learned and grown so much. I almost feel like my learning curve has accelerated — over the last year and a half — exponentially. I just really pushed and tried to do whatever it took to keep the doors open and stay busy.”
The fire, too, pushed Gerhart to take inventory and reorganize. It’s been a difficult four months, he said, especially since he couldn’t retain his front-of-house staff, despite keeping most of his team through more than a year of the pandemic. But there’s also a clear silver lining, as that opportunity for reflection, focus, and reconfiguration helped St. Roch claim its rightful place as one of the city’s most exciting restaurants.