A popular Wheeling restaurant thrives as a food truck after a devastating fire threatened its future.
Having worked in the food business before, Phillip Kendall always wanted his own restaurant. His wife, Lara Graves, an exhibit designer at the time, wasn’t sure. But she supported his dream—and got swept into it herself—as they started envisioning the type of place they might open.
Once those seeds of excitement were planted, they quickly took root. “We finally said to ourselves that, if we could find the right spot, we’d really do this,” Graves recalls. That spot ended up being an old home in Wheeling’s Pleasanton neighborhood that had housed several businesses before. “I doubt anyone else looked at it and saw a restaurant, but we did. We’re very gut-driven people, and we knew that was the place.”
So Avenue Eats was born in February 2013 and became a hit thanks to a charming renovation, friendly service, and epically delicious burgers. Its popularity was so strong, in fact, even a pandemic couldn’t tame it. “Turns out burgers and fries are two of the best things you can serve for takeout, so we trimmed the menu to focus on those items,” Graves says. “We converted the parking lot to outdoor dining, and were doing really well, despite COVID-19.”
Then they lost it all on November 1, 2020, when a devastating accidental fire left the building a total loss.
“I’ll be honest, it was tough. Even talking about it now still throws us back to that, um, yeah …” Graves’ voice trails off as she struggles to find the words. “It wasn’t like, OK, let’s just rebuild. It was our main source of income. It was our life. It was like losing a member of the family. It really turned our world upside down, and we just sat and wallowed in that for a while.”
But time heals most wounds, and a new opportunity came knocking a few months later. Friends of theirs who own a local garden center asked if Graves and Kendall would come talk to them. “When we showed up, they had this food trailer sitting out on the property,” Graves remembers. “They said, ‘We have this thing, but don’t have anything to do with it,’ and wondered if we could use it to sell food there on the weekends.” The couple was speechless. “We had people offering us spaces, but nothing had spoken to us until that moment. It was another gut-thing we knew we had to follow.”
Rising from the ashes, Avenue Eats reopened at Nicky’s Garden Center on Warden Run Road in July 2021, serving a limited menu out of a cheery red food truck with picnic tables spread out among the plants and flowers.
You’ll find occasional specials like juicy sloppy joes and silky tomato–basil soup on the menu. But let’s be honest, you ought to be going for the burgers. Kendall often grills them himself, using his own special grind of meat in mouthwatering combinations. We’re talking stacked, juicy burgers topped with smoked gouda, fresh spinach, caramelized onions, and garlic aioli. Or brie, grilled pear, thick-cut bacon, and honey. Or a poutine burger dripping with brown gravy–coated cheese curds. Mercy.
Seasonal offerings might include an Oktoberfest burger with beef, brats, swiss, sauerkraut, and whole-grain mustard, a pumpkin burger with maple goat cheese, or spring burgers with fresh veggies and whipped feta.
Fries come with caramelized onion dip or gravy. Tough choice. And you can cap off your meal with a gourmet cupcake, donut, or ice cream provided by another local food truck or restaurant.
It’s become a popular gathering space that not only helped Avenue Eats bounce back, but also reminded the couple how special a tight-knit community can be. “Reopening after all we had been through was incredible,” Graves says. “I remember just standing there that day, looking out over all the people who supported us, and I just cried.”
One day last summer, one of the firefighters who had fought the blaze at their previous restaurant stopped by the new location to see her. “He said, ‘I’m really sorry—we tried so hard to save your building.’ That’s when I realized Avenue Eats was not just our place, but everyone’s place.” Graves still struggles to finish the thought again, but this time you hear a smile in her voice. “Small towns can be tough, because everyone knows everyone. But small towns can be amazing, because everyone knows everyone. We’re really fortunate to be here. Wheeling is such a great place.”
The couple, who also own Whisk Bakery & Catering and Elle & Jack’s in downtown Wheeling, say they may rebuild in a permanent location someday. “If we find the right place, we’re open to it. But for now, this feels as close to home as you can get.”