When a friend invites you to lunch with the idea of bringing you someplace you've never dined at before, are you the type to go along for the ride, certain they're right? Or do you scoff and say, "Sure, a place I don't know anything about? Try me."
If we're talking about The Grill off West Cypress Creek Road in Fort Lauderdale, we're going to bet you've probably never heard of it. Of course, we'd never been to a restaurant inside a church before, either, what's billed as a fine dining establishment at the Calvary Chapel campus.
"The Grill has been here for ten years, a restaurant that services our church, as well as the general public," says director of food services Darren Schnagel. "When it opened, it was thought there was a need to have a restaurant on the campus that would be special and different."
There are certainly a few things that set The Grill apart from other establishments. There's no alcohol, for one. And it's not open late into the evening. But it's the service — the kitchen staff in particular — that makes this restaurant especially unique.
"All of the people that work the line alongside the chef are part of the chapel's Calvary House program," says Schnagel of the one-year volunteer program that offers participants the opportunity to learn valuable service trade skills. "These are people that have reached a fork in the road of their lives, and come to us for assistance. We put them to work in the kitchen, and in exchange we help them with their food, housing, and transportation. When they're done, they're able to re-enter the work force with a valuable set of skills."
Located at the north end of the chapel's main building, The Grill is a dim-lit, casual spot. Seating up to 250 people, it serves an estimated 15,000 people each week, its kitchen servicing four separate dining operations that cater to different tastes and styles including the Calvary Café cafeteria and the Youth Center's The Hub. On an average weekday, The Grill is often packed come lunch, everyone from police officers and church staff, to local office employees and the occasional curious Yelper.
Last year, The Grill was named the best overall restaurant by OpenTable. Part of that distinction is thanks to executive chef Kenny Velser, says Schnagel, who for the past seven years has called The Grill home. Formerly executive chef for Max's Grille, Velser's menu at the Calvary Chapel's main restaurant rotates every few months, including a list of specials that change daily.
Right now, Velser's is offering a combination of soups, sandwiches and burgers, pizza, entrees, and dessert. Dishes are tweaks on familiar favorites, American-style cuisine with Asian and Mexican influences, like chimichurri tacos, or an ahi tuna salad. Best of all: it's affordable, with most selections priced between $8-$10 each.
And no, they don't make you say grace before you eat.
The only religious undertone you'll find here is on the menu's appetizer section — labeled Fellowship Food — sharing-sized plates that include a spinach and artichoke dip, chicken wings, crispy Brussels sprouts, and a seasonal flatbread. The highlight here is the chef's own Bang Bang Shrimp, a dozen shrimp that have been breaded and tossed in a spicy chili and soy mayonnaise served alongside crisp wonton chips.
"This is a place for everyone," says Schnagel. "You see everyone from the community here, even people who aren't members of our church. When you break bread with people, you truly get to know them. Food is a tension breaker."
The Grill is located at 2701 West Cypress Creek Road, Fort Lauderdale. The restaurant is open for breakfast Monday through Friday from 7:30 to 10 a.m.; 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday and Tuesday; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 4:30 to 9 p.m. on Saturday; and 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Sunday. Call 954-315-7500 or visit calvaryftl.org.
Nicole Danna is a food writer covering Broward and Palm Beach counties. To get the latest in food and drink news in South Florida, follow her @SoFloNicole or find her latest food pics on the BPB New Times Food & Drink Instagram.