That Grille 754 bills itself as “the oldest new restaurant in town” is no surprise.
Originally built more than 60 years ago, the former Army barracks was moved to its present location in 1946. After serving as a small grocery store, it evolved into The Rustic Grill. When the Lemieux family purchased the restaurant, they changed the name to The Rustic Inn, and after local restaurateur Bob Hightower took over in 1989, the establishment was known as Hightower’s for the next 17 years.
Taking its name from the location’s actual address, Grille 754 specializes in creative American regional cuisine. Simply put, this means you’ll find old favorites on the menu, as well as inventive dishes with a witty twist.
WHEN FLORIDA NATIVES Regan and Lee Reid were ready to open their own restaurant, the location and opportunity intrigued them.
“This wasn’t just a building to us,” says Lee. “It’s an old neighborhood restaurant and that appealed to us. We really wanted to be a place for the locals, for special occasions and also for the family stopping in after work or soccer practice.”
After gutting the building and completely renovating it in less than four months, the Reids managed to create an atmosphere that is both trendy and classic. Best of all, they designed a menu that highlights the same type of intriguing dishes they enjoy serving friends when entertaining at home.
A striking bamboo “forest” greets guests just inside the entrance. Two dining rooms and a bar offer comfortable seating with both tables and tall-backed booths. Walls in rich shades of sage and cinnamon are the perfect backdrop for a varied display of paintings and photographs by local artists. Artwork is for sale and changes every four months.
The only painting not for sale is the impressive oil on linen which hangs in the bar entitled “To Have and Have Not.” Painted by Christopher M. Still, the piece represents Florida from the late 1800s through the 1930s.
“To us, this defines who we are,” explains Lee. “The original hangs in the State Capitol in Tallahassee. This is the only copy of the painting.”
REGAN AND LEE met during their studies at the Culinary Institute of America over 14 years ago. Food industry careers took them away from the Sunshine State for years, but it was Ocala — Regan’s hometown — that beckoned when they were ready to launch a restaurant of their own. Today, patrons of Grille 754 benefit from the couple’s enthusiastic philosophy about food and flavors.
“This is how we like to cook at home,” says Lee. “We love to have fun with food. Besides our children, this is our passion.”
It only takes one visit to discover the playful and inventive side of this husband/wife chef duo. Try the Crispy Little Pot Stickers on the appetizer menu and you’ll see what I mean. Won-ton bundles stuffed with tender prosciutto are sautéed with a sesame ginger sauce and presented over shredded onion rings. Unique and incredibly tasty, it’s no wonder this is a favorite starter for many guests. A squeeze of fresh lime juice adds just the right kick.
Homemade potato chips with kosher salt and malt vinegar are another popular appetizer, as is the Shrimp “Scargo,” a clever twist on the more predictable escargot. Served in the same dish, it features succulent shrimp — not escargot — bathed in garlic butter and nestled beneath a blanket of Swiss cheese.
Caesar salad fans must try the Grilled Hearts of Romaine Caesar. A unique take on the traditional, this unexpected salad features quartered romaine hearts that have been lightly grilled, then topped with Caesar dressing, shaved parmesan cheese, and served with crunchy slivers of garlic toast.
WHEN IT COMES TO ENTREES, the most popular item on the menu is found in the “House Favorites” section. All the veggies in the oversized 754 Rice Big Bowl made me feel almost virtuous after the wickedly delicious Crispy Little Pot Stickers. You can choose from grilled chicken or shrimp, which comes stir-fried with an abundance of snow peas, bean sprouts, carrots, peppers, mushrooms, and celery piled high over jasmine rice and topped off with a tangy soy lime vinaigrette, a fried egg, and a dusting of freshly chopped cilantro.
Fish and Chips, served with the tasty, but unusual 754 celery slaw — again, a pleasant twist on the expected — makes another good choice. If you’re in the mood for a burger that exceeds expectations, try the Burger Benedict. This hearty double burger, served minus the bun, comes dressed with sliced tomato, sweet applewood smoked bacon, and béarnaise sauce.
Those in the mood for seafood are also in luck. Grille 754 makes a delightful Coquilles St. Jacques, the classic dish brimming with tender scallops, shrimp, and mushrooms. Topped with a rich white wine sauce, parmesan, and bread crumbs, this entrée is one of the most frequently ordered dinners on the menu.
There are also several fish selections that change daily, depending on the fresh catch, that can be ordered grilled, blackened, or pan sautéed. Like all the entrees, these selections come with your choice of two sides, such as the roasted garlic mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, creamed spinach, and a number of other choices.
SEVERAL USDA CHOICE STEAKS grace the menu, including an 8-ounce filet mignon served with a light cognac mustard sauce. The gleaming Crocodile Dundee-sized steak knife is a gracious touch, but you certainly won’t need it to cut this incredibly tender cut of beef. Ditto for the 16-ounce Rib Eye, served with garlic shallot butter, or the 12-ounce New York Strip Steak with béarnaise.
Our server, Cherise, encouraged us to hold out for dessert, a challenge indeed in light of the generous portions of the starters and entrees. We managed to sample two desserts and made a note to save more room next visit. The Margarita Pie is an ingenious cross between key lime and cheesecake with tequila added for extra punch. It was hard to decide whether this or the Bourbon Bread Pudding, served warm with a sweet bourbon sauce, was our favorite.
Expect your server to tempt you by bringing the dessert tray to the table. Trust us, it’s harder to say “no” when you’re staring at a slice of Kentucky Nut Pie with pecans and chocolate chips, the Chocolate Mini Bundt Cake, or one of the other homemade specialties. You would do well to just give in, even if you have to share it with everyone else at your table.
Whether you’re looking for a great spot to eat before the theatre, a cozy place for a special occasion dinner, or a restaurant you can rely on when you just don’t feel like cooking, it’s good to know that Regan and Lee Reid have all the bases covered at Grille 754.
754 NE 25th Avenue
Ocala, Florida 34470