By David Nilsen
When Cassie Lambright and Chris Campbell visited family in Darke County in 2015 and took a stroll around downtown Greenville, they never imagined they would be opening a new restaurant here in less than a year. Last spring the engaged couple visited Cassie’s family near Arcanum. When they walked down Broadway here in Greenville one afternoon with Cassie’s parents, Randy and Georgianne Lambright, they were taken in by the beautiful historic buildings but were surprised there were so few options for where to eat dinner and get a drink in the evening. The elder Lambrights had long thought of opening a restaurant in Greenville, so they walked into the Darke County Visitors Bureau Welcome Center at 421 S. Broadway and talked to Amber Garrett, the director of Main Street Greenville. They casually joked about wanting to open a restaurant downtown. Amber, it turns out, is the wrong person to say that to unless you’re serious. Two weeks later she contacted the group and told them the perfect location had just opened up. It wasn’t long before they had the keys to their future restaurant–and a lot of work to do.
The building at 406 S. Broadway has seen a lot of businesses come and go from within its walls since it was built in 1888. Most recently it played host to Sportzers, a bar and grill catering mostly to bikers. When Chris and Cassie walked into the building for the first time they knew it would take a lot of work to get it ready for the establishment they had in mind, but even they didn’t realize just how much would be required. The building’s original beauty had been buried under years of cosmetic “improvements” that had hidden much of its charm and even a few secrets.
I recently met Chris at this building near the corner of Broadway and Third to talk to him about The Merchant House, the restaurant he and Cassie will be opening this winter. Chris has a warm, outgoing personality, and his enthusiasm for the project was palpable (and infectious) as he gave me a tour. A team of workers was busy finishing the House’s interior, and our conversation was punctuated by the sounds of saws and hammers as we wove between the supplies and tools still cluttering the dining spaces. Even unfinished it was not difficult to see The Merchant House is going to be a knock-out.
Chris and Cassie and their team have refused to cut corners in returning the building to its original splendor. They began aggressive renovations on the structure in July 2015, and expected to be open within a few months, but they quickly realized that had been overly optimistic–if they wanted their restaurant and bar to be as beautiful as they knew it could be, they would have to take the time to do it right. When they first acquired the building, Chris slept on a cot by the window so he could maximize the amount of time he could spend on demolition work. For a while after this he drove back and forth from Detroit, where he was from originally and had been living, to continue work before finally moving to our area as the building got closer to completion.
As our tour began Chris pointed out the original hardwood floors they’ve uncovered throughout the building and returned to a beautiful weathered luster. The large but cozy main dining room has a stage that will host local musicians and other performers on a weekly basis. The walls have been stripped down to the original brick, with a patchwork of remaining plaster, lending a beautiful but down-to-earth appearance to the walls. Several of these plaster patches have been covered with chalkboard paint and will feature original artwork by Greenville’s C.J. Jasenski. Another wall in the dining room will display large murals of what Broadway looked like when the building was first built. Among the most striking features of the dining room are several large columns that stretch from the floor all the way to the second storey ceiling high above. These columns were incorporated into the building when it was built in 1888, but Chris believes they were originally streetlights. Research Chris has done shows they were made by a Dayton company and one has an archaic light switch at the base consistent with the kind used on streetlights in that era. How they found their way into a building in Greenville we may never know, but they harmonize beautifully with the dining area’s blend of industrial chic and home-like warmth. When Chris and Cassie tore out the drop ceiling to open up the dining space they could hardly believe the pillars extended all the way to the next ceiling.
Diners enjoying this delightful space will be served from a menu featuring Detroit-style deep dish pizza and authentic barbecue dishes. I had never heard of Detroit deep dish, though my wife is from Chicago and swears by her city’s legendary take on the style. I asked Chris what the difference is between the deep dish pies from these midwestern cities and he smiled before responding, “Detroit’s is better.” He went on to explain Chicago invented the style, but Detroit cooks wanted a version of their own after experiencing this unique dish from the rival Great Lakes city. They welded together square auto parts trays and mixed up their pizza’s assembly a little: cheese and toppings went directly on the twice-baked crust and then cooked sauce was added only at the end. A lesser-known but equally delicious take on deep dish pizza was born, and now Chris, a Detroit native, is bringing it to Greenville. He found a former restaurateur in Indianapolis who had a twenty-year-old pizza oven for sale and set about getting the hulking machine to its new home. The gargantuan pizza oven sits near the bar and diners will be able to watch their pizzas being made.
The bar area is separated from the main dining area by a wall with archways at either end, and this cozy space will bring a touch of class to the drinking experience, something long lacking from our little town. A few high tables just across from the bar will provide some privacy for conversation with friends, while those who choose to sit at the bar itself will enjoy the bar’s hand-built facade featuring local ash lumber. A Darke County gentleman discovered Emerald Ash Borers in his trees and was forced to cut down ninety ash trees from his forest before the pests could spread. The beetles only harm the outmost layer of the tree, however, so the remainder was cut into lumber. Chris’s foreman, Eric, used this wood to create a beautiful bar front of “poor man’s oak.” The bar will offer an artisanal take on classic bar foods like loose-meat sandwiches, street tacos, and pickled vegetables, a list that will rotate and change constantly. Patrons can watch their handmade cocktails taking shape before them, or enjoy a beer from one of the sixteen rotating taps, which will focus on local and regional craft breweries such as Maria Stein’s Moeller Brew Barn. Eventually, Chris would love to see a brewery share space in the building, but that’s a dream for later down the road.
Chris next led me up to his restaurant’s open loft, one of the most striking elements of the building. The loft will serve as a lounge where customers can have a drink while they wait for their table or carry-out, or simply hang out in a more secluded area of the restaurant. The loft will overlook the dining room on one side with an excellent view of the performance stage, and the bar on the other. Flat screen televisions will show sports and other entertainment when performers are not on the stage. Chris and Cassie wanted something special for this space, so they searched for old church pews to put along the railing in this loft lounge. Chris was excited about how they acquired their pews: “We found these at a church in Eaton. We were looking at churches as far away as New Jersey. Old pews tend to go pretty quickly, so we were really lucky to find these so close.” Small tables with high-back chairs will complete the seating in the loft.
The lounge will also provide the perfect vantage point to take in one the more remarkable secrets Chris and Cassie uncovered while renovating their building. Wood paneling had lined the front wall above the main windows when they started work, and they knew something interesting had to be under this cheap covering. They weren’t prepared for the four-foot-tall band of leaded glass windows they found stretching from one side of the building to the other. Two hundred work hours were required to strip and restore these amazing windows, and the work was more than worth it.
After seeing the building I was nearly as excited as Chris was about his labor of love, and this led to an obvious question he’s probably sick of answering: when will The Merchant House be open so we can enjoy it? The amount of work involved pushed the opening back to the holidays and then further still, but good news is on the horizon: The Merchant House team expects to be open by late-February, just a few weeks away. The interior is still a mess from construction, but it’s all cosmetic–most of the work is done. After a private party to thank family, friends, and workers, The Merchant House will open for limited hours on their opening weekend (the exact date will be revealed soon), with full hours expanding the following week. Chris and Cassie are planning to be open each week Sunday through Thursday from 11 a.m. till 10 p.m., and Friday and Saturday 11 a.m. till 11 p.m., with the bar staying open later if business calls for it. Chris was quick to clarify they are not looking at their business as a bar–they are a restaurant first and foremost, they will just happen to be a restaurant that features an awesome bar! They will maintain a family-friendly atmosphere during dining hours.
Chris has over twenty years of restaurant experience, with Cassie adding another decade of her own. Chris started at a restaurant in Nevada as an eighteen-year-old and has worked nearly every position in foodservice. For over a decade he has worked for Olive Garden, serving as a general manager and operating four different locations for the respected chain. When The Merchant House opens Chris will run the kitchen while Cassie primarily runs the dining room, though both will share management responsibilities. His enthusiasm for every aspect of running this restaurant is clear to see, especially when he starts talking about the menu. In addition to Detroit deep dish pizza, they will serve barbecue items like ribs, brisket, chicken, and more. They will acquire their meat from local favorite Winner’s Meats, and they plan to make the dining experience as authentic and family-and-conversation oriented as possible, offering family barbecue options such as a whole roasted chicken and multiple sides groups can share around a large table. They also hope to host a low country boil on Fridays, a southern dish incorporating shrimp, crawfish, corn and other vegetables cooked in a seasoned broth. “We’ll spread butcher paper over your table and dump out the pot right onto it so everyone can dig in.”
Greenville has needed something like The Merchant House for a long time, and Chris Campbell and Cassie Lambright seem like the right people to bring a dining and drinking experience like this to our town. When I asked Chris about the choice for a name, his response perfectly encapsulated his team’s philosophy, one that will hopefully lead to years of success in our charming and historical downtown:
“This building has been a dress shop, a menswear shop, of course, a series of restaurants, who knows what else. That’s why we’re calling it The Merchant House. This is a place where merchants have always done business. Greenville has a beautiful downtown and really kind people and we love the idea of opening a restaurant here. We can’t wait to bring this to Greenville.”