by Brandon Fox
If you notice that the lights are out at Caliente next week, don’t worry. The Devil’s Triangle restaurant will close after the Super Bowl and reopen two weeks later as Sheppard Street Tavern.
Caliente owner David Bender says he’s ready for a change.
When the recession hit in 2008, Bender had to get imaginative. Like other restaurants at the time, business dropped off precipitously. Bender responded by reducing the amount of entrees he offered and upping the sandwich selection. It worked.
Yet even as the economy rebounded, diners stuck to burgers and wings while the entrees languished. And Bender was tired of the misperception that Caliente was a Mexican restaurant.
“People would come in and ask for chips and salsa,” he says. “We really only have one spicy thing -- the stupid wings.” These are made with ghost peppers -- the hottest on the Scoville heat scale -- and were featured on the Travel Channel’s “Man vs. Food.”
The time had come again, Bender thought, to reinvent the restaurant. “I’m tired of staring at the same four walls.” he says. The staff has been a little apprehensive and others have wondered why he wants to tinker with a successful business. “What we’re doing, we do just fine,” he says, “but we could do better.”
When Caliente closes, Bender plan to renovate the interior. Diners will see new flooring, new booths and an extended bar. Outside, smokers will get their own lean-bar to discourage them from huddling around the front entrance.
But it won’t look like an entirely different space. “It’ll be more of a facelift and a boob job,” Bender says.
There won’t be many holdovers from the old menu -- the stupid wings will remain, along with a few other popular items, including the salmon burger and Texas Wisconsin Border Café chili.
Instead, you’ll find things such as chicken tenders cordon bleu -- the chicken will be wrapped in swiss and bacon before it’s breaded -- mac ’n’ cheese mini muffins and a lox Reuban. “I was trying to steer away from the fryer,” Bender says. He’s calling it upscale pub fare, but there will be plenty of traditional choices on the menu as well.
It’s another way to not only reignite Bender’s creativity, but to reenter the whirl of the Richmond dining scene, where a new restaurant seems to open every week.
Now, Caliente has two distinct sets of customers: families who come for dinner and a late-night bar crowd that lives in the neighborhood. “I’d love to see more of an overlap,” he says. “I’d like to see more of the bar customers eat and my dinner customers stay to hang out.”
CORRECTION: "Man vs. Food" aired on the Travel Channel. This article originally said that it was a Food Network show.