When Mary and Jackson Kenworth first came to Martha’s Vineyard in 1993, they immediately began looking for a place to open a restaurant. The old building at 688 State Road in West Tisbury that housed the Red Cat Restaurant, a longtime up-Island casual eatery, caught their attention.

“It was one of the first spots we looked at,” says Mary.

However, former owner Tony Friedman wasn’t willing to lease the building, and the couple couldn’t afford to buy it at the time. Jackson recalls, “We didn’t have two nickels to rub together.”

So they turned to Oak Bluffs and made a name for themselves there, opening the upscale Sweet Life Café in 1996 in an old house they renovated at the end of Circuit Avenue. They stayed in that location for nine years. Along the way, they opened Slice of Life, a popular, casual restaurant across the street.

But the couple dreamed of opening a larger, stand-alone restaurant, maybe one with some land for vegetable gardens. So Mary continued the search. “I researched every piece of property in West Tisbury and Chilmark.” But it wasn’t easy to find a spot with the right zoning for a restaurant. “That’s why the Vineyard is as lovely as it is.”

Back at 688 State Road, a succession of chefs – some very talented – came and went over the years. The Red Cat became Ice House, then Bittersweet, and finally Deon’s. In 2007, a fire forced Deon’s to close, and the spot became available once more.

This time the Kenworths were ready to make the purchase. “Sixteen years later, we came back to the spot that was our first choice. We had a real love for this location,” says Mary.

The right look

The fire was a blessing in disguise, allowing them to rebuild from the ground up to design the restaurant of their dreams. They knew it should have a timeless, vintage look that would fit in with the surrounding rural landscape and pay homage to the property’s long history as an eatery.

“We wanted it to be something that belonged to West Tisbury and to the Island – we wanted it to be as if it could have been here all along, and will be, after we’re not the stewards,” explains Mary.

The couple researched buying a barn and moving it but that option proved too expensive. Instead, they elected to combine new and old, working with Sullivan O’Connor Architects of Oak Bluffs to design the structure. Project builder Josh Flanders of Oak Bluffs’ Flanders and Crew – who has a good eye for salvaged building materials – found and installed century-old wooden beams from the former Necco candy factory in Cambridge.

Old farm-tractor hubs were refurbished to become three chandeliers outfitted with bare light bulbs; the fixtures hang from the overhead beams. “He got it so right,” says Mary, referring to artisan Billy Hoff of Lamplighter Corner in West Tisbury. “I love them.” The fieldstone fireplace and the outside stonework and gardens by West Tisbury’s Contact Stone and Oakleaf Landscape help give the place a long-established feel.

Looking back on the demanding nine-month building process, Mary and Jackson recall one of the more humorous moments: when they delivered two heavy antique train doors to New York City in a torrential downpour. They called friends (who showed up in business suits) to help them carry the doors – 350 pounds each – to the studio of artist Nancy Lorenz. One of the doors, decorated with gold leaf, now hangs in the main dining room. “It’s such a conversation piece,” says Mary. “I thought it was the expected and unexpected all in one piece.”

Professional design help

The couple received guidance from Los Angeles interior designer Michael Smith, who offered his assistance pro bono, as a friend of one of the restaurant’s investors. A designer for Hollywood clients such as Cindy Crawford and Tom Cruise, among others, Michael helped them achieve the vintage-tavern look they sought, suggesting colors, materials, furniture designs – right down to details such as the pulls on the window treatments.

“A month or two into committing to help us out, he got the Obama job [redesigning the first couple’s private residences in the East Wing and the Oval Office],” says Mary. “He was such a gem and gentleman and he still did it. He could have dropped us.”

One of the issues for this year-round restaurant was how to make it comfortable in all seasons: full and lively during the long, cold winters, relaxed and cool during the summer rush. That was the idea behind three different rooms, any of which can be closed off in winter by pulling shut the plush, floor-length draperies suggested by Michael.

“He absorbs so much, then lives it. The process was fascinating,” Mary explains, saying a lot was accomplished by faxes sent between the Island and Los Angeles. “He treated the project like it was top on his list.”

Only once did Mary say she wondered about a choice: using zinc for the bar countertop that displays baked treats by day and adds additional seating by night. “I thought it should be wood – that zinc was cold. But I was wrong. It’s one of my favorite things in the restaurant.”

In the kitchen

While the couple focused on building and design details for the sixty-seat restaurant, the chef assembled his team of cooks and a pastry chef to design the eating experience.

“Mary wears seven or eight hats. I’m the lucky one – I wear one hat,” Jackson says with a laugh. He was trained in French cuisine, gaining early experience at the celebrated Citrus in Los Angeles with French-born chef Michel Richard, following a stint with celebrity chef
Wolfgang Puck at LA’s Spago. He describes the kitchen staff, which includes chef de cuisine Austin Racine, former owner/chef of Vineyard Haven’s Café Moxie, and pastry chef Rose Sarja, as “the best I’ve ever had.”

For menu ideas, they draw from the prolific herb garden outside the restaurant entrance; two vegetable gardens farther out back filled with tomatoes, kale, carrots, and more; daily trips to Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown; and goods from nearly thirty Island growers and fishermen who deliver fresh food daily. The week of this interview, there was a delivery of eighty chickens from Jefferson Munroe’s Good Farm in Vineyard Haven, and fresh fish from Menemsha brought by sauté chef Michael Holtham. Chefs use turkey from West Tisbury’s Cleveland Farm, and beef and pork from Blackwater Farm in West Tisbury and Chilmark’s Grey Barn and Farm.

Since some 90 percent of the menu in season is locally sourced, Jackson simply describes his food style as “Vineyard Americana.” He says, “I think everybody can understand it – you can pronounce it.”

He points to the July 22 menu: Vineyard fluke with Morning Glory Farm carrot purée, braised kale, carrot-top pesto, pea greens, and crispy salt cod bits; and the Vineyard striped bass with Morning Glory corn purée and North Tabor Farm bok choy, beet salad, and jalapeño vinaigrette with peppers from the restaurant’s garden.

“We push ourselves to the point of making our own preserves, which we send out with our multigrain toast, which we make here,” Jackson says. “Imagine doing breakfast and lunch and then jarring two hundred jars of strawberry preserves.”

This summer the restaurant added beer and wine, after a town-wide campaign led by the Kenworths overturned the decades-old town ban on alcohol. As with every other detail, researched meticulously, Mary says she tasted 280 wines in three weeks for the inaugural list, which has about 80 wines, many paired with the food.

A dining experience

For their hard work and careful planning, they fill the restaurant and feed nearly 160 people each night, getting some 400 calls daily for reservations during summer months.

“Our opening summer, the phone system was not holding up to demand and we were frantically evaluating options for a new phone system,” recalls Mary. “The tech asked us to count calls to help decide on the right system. So one day my nephew came in and clicker-counted phone calls received. It was over 700. [He got paid in limpopos, light and fluffy doughnuts.] I would say it now averages about 400 calls a day in July and August.”

Since its opening in 2009, State Road has won the top spot for best fine dining restaurant in the Best of the Vineyard contest, sponsored by Martha’s Vineyard Magazine. This year Boston Magazine also lauded State Road as the best restaurant on the Vineyard.

State Road feels like a cross between an elegant restaurant with a bustling-yet-refined demeanor, beautifully plated food, and the occasional celebrity, and a neighborhood joint where you are likely to see your next-door neighbor. Mary warmly greets many of the repeat seasonal customers who return like old friends each year. One of her customers told Mary that dining at State Road was like attending a class reunion.

“We do get a lot of repeat people, including the president,” says Jackson, who notes that Obama’s two visits to dine at the restaurant had a “huge” impact on him. “I supported him and he’s a senator from my home state.” Jackson says his brother still works in the Illinois State House. “And funny enough, he knew who my brother was.”

Mary says former Clinton advisor Vernon Jordan, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Attorney General Eric Holder, and Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren have dined at State Road. She adds, “We get our movie stars, which is exciting.”

In the off-season, they have cemented their place in the community by hosting gatherings to support the West Tisbury Library, and annual dinners to raise money for Island school gardens. They host a special burger night on Thursdays in the off-season, and it’s not uncommon to see one long communal table with friends celebrating someone’s birthday.

“We wanted to be part of West Tisbury right away,” says Mary. “We’re very fortunate to be here – we count our blessings,” adds Jackson.

The following recipes were published along with this article:

Pan-Seared Sea Scallops with Carrot Purée, Carrot-Top Pesto, and Pea-Green Salad