WEST TISBURY — To see Mary and Jackson Kenworth in their restaurant, State Road, you’d think the couple and the Martha’s Vineyard property had always been together. Every detail of the West Tisbury building’s design is entirely their own — from the porch walls lined with recycled shingles to the decorative but functional herb and vegetable gardens that flank the entry in warm weather.
The duo move about like innkeepers carefully tending to their patrons, many of whom have become good friends. Their Limpopo doughnuts, crusted in sugar and deceptively light, are a fixture on the long, smooth bar. But it actually took them 14 years, and an extraordinary confluence of events, to get to State Road.
Before the Vineyard, the Kenworths were living in California. Jackson’s kitchen resume is impressive (Spago, Citrus), and Mary’s front-of-the-house experience is equally distinguished. After 10 years on the West Coast, Jackson felt his career had become stagnant and proposed a move east. The idea was a tough sell for Mary, a New York native who’s not fond of cold weather. She had one exception in mind, though. “I woke up in the middle of the night and said to Jackson, I’d do the East Coast if it could be the Vineyard.”
That got them as far as the island, where Mary had spent summers as a kid, and the couple began shopping for restaurant space. They found what they wanted quickly: a stand-alone building along pastoral West Tisbury’s central corridor, State Road, with plenty of space in the back for gardens and parking.
But there was a problem. As Jackson explains it, the owner only wanted to sell, not lease, the property. “We couldn’t afford to buy it then, so we had to walk away.” Instead, they rented and fixed up an old Victorian residence in busy Oak Bluffs. They set a fine dining room, strung up the adjoining garden with white lights, and called it the Sweet Life Cafe. And it was an immediate success. A few years later, across the street, they opened the restaurant’s more casual kid sister, the Slice of Life Cafe. And yet, the itch to be in the country nagged at them all the while, so Mary kept her eyes open for an out-of-town site.
Unfortunately, what brought them back to the State Road space 11 seasons later wasn’t good news. The West Tisbury building they first saw, which had housed a number of successful restaurants over the years (The Red Cat, The Ice House, Bittersweet, and most recently Deon’s), burned down on Thanksgiving weekend in 2007. “We think of this restaurant as the lemonade that came out of that [bad situation],” Mary says. After the fire, Deon’s relocated, which gave the Kenworths a second chance to buy the property, and this time, they had the means. A handful of longtime customers-turned-investors helped out, so they were able to start with a new design.
“We saw ourselves in the center of a great agrarian area,” says Mary. Sourcing local food had always been at the core of their philosophy, but here it became part of their daily routine. Jackson started doing business with some 30 farmers all over the island, bringing in everything from milk to bluefish.
Indeed, most of their dishes are attached to at least one island farm, the names of which are on the menu. Pan-roasted chicken comes from The Good Farm and bouillabaisse is teeming with Menemsha lobster, littlenecks, mussels, and monkfish.
Moving to West Tisbury also presented a challenging opportunity for the restaurateurs. Because State Road would be one of a very few establishments in the area, the pair needed to think carefully about how to function as both a fine-dining destination and a neighborhood spot. Staying open year-round and adding more affordable breakfast and lunch service (lemon-ricotta pancakes are a must) and Thursday burger nights in the off-season have helped attract locals. Still, for most budgets, $30-plus dinner entrees still means special-occasion only.
“It would be a much easier gig to run if we only did dinner,” Mary says, “but it’s not what we came to West Tisbury to do.”
Elizabeth Bomze can be reached