A new casual dining spot in Bonita Springs wants to transport guests to a simpler time with an all-day brunch from its scratch kitchen and cocktails hand-crafted at its full bar.
Corner Spot Diner + Drink opens to the general public Aug. 2 in the corner spot of a small L-shaped retail center anchored by C Level Restaurant & Cocktail Bar at 4450 Bonita Beach Road, about a mile from the Gulf beach. Chef-owner Noel Willhite planned his nostalgic menu around Americana classics using local produce for seasonal changes.
“It will be an all-day menu with a traditional diner fashion and that would include an all-day brunch menu and sandwiches and salads, and then we’ll have some dinner plates and we will be offering fresh bread service and things of that nature,” Willhite said. “Everything will be done from scratch in-house. The concept is vintage, traditional Americana cuisine, so we’re really kind of going after that early American cooking, Prohibition era-style cocktails, all hand-crafted, that will pair well and mesh with all the food that we’re creating, as well.
The menu offers classic, simple foods such as meatloaf and casseroles, berry cobblers and Mason jar pies, appetizers such as tavern ham and white cheddar dumplings, and sides featuring Sweet Duchess yeast rolls, German potato salad and roasted apple sauce. Some of the traditional cocktail party salads and appetizers are things one may have seen at early American dinner parties, said Wilhite, whose inspiration for cooking comfort food came from his grandmother.
“The pork tenderloin is my grandmother’s grandmother’s recipe,” he said. “We’re really, really excited about getting to the core roots of what cooking used to be. These are 100-year-old recipes that we’re bringing into a diner.”
Some of the recipes harken to historical times in America when food was rationed, so ingredients that are naturally sweetened will be used to limit the need for sugar. “There are very few canned ingredients in our kitchen. There are very few pre-fabricated ingredients in our kitchen,” Willhite said.
Willhite has the culinary chops to pull off the throwback concept in what he calls an upscale casual dining environment. He formerly was general manager and executive chef of Marlins Brewhouse locations in Fort Myers, a chef at Hyatt Regency Coconut Point and Spring Run Country Club and has had professional kitchen roles in Chicago, Las Vegas, Maui and Washington, D.C. He grew up in Kensington, Maryland, a town just outside D.C., and moved with his family to the Naples area when he was 15 before attending culinary school in Tallahassee. “I did some moving around before I settled down here and started a family,” Willhite said.
Opening his own restaurant is another effort to ground himself. “I’ve been cooking for over 20 years now, helped open other people’s restaurants, helped run other people’s establishments. I’ve never done anything on my own, so this is me saying, we’re here and we’re ready,” Willhite said. “This is my dream. Our heart and soul are going in this.”
Ironically, the COVID-19 pandemic nearly led to Willhite throwing in the towel on his longtime career. “I actually left the industry completely and I wasn’t planning on coming back,” he said. “I was burnt out, honestly.”
After about 18 months, though, opportunities arose to start a food truck, which Willhite had planned to do, but he pivoted to the diner concept when the restaurant space became available in Bonita Oaks Square. “I walked in here once. This place has great bones,” he said.
Sharky’s Pizza Pub closed there in April after operating for six years. The corner unit previously was home to Gatsby’s Pizza before the local pizzeria eventually reopened a short distance away on Bonita Beach Road.
Willhite noted the irony of throwing a Great Gatsby dinner and cocktail party in a space that used to be Gatsby’s. “If you were to google Great Gatsby dinner menu or cocktail party, it’s not far off from what we are doing in this building,” he said. “It’s Beef Wellington and gin martinis and things like that. It’s the kind of stuff we’re going after.”
Corner Spot will hyper-focus on classic cocktails, said Dave Allen, the venue’s general manager and mixologist, who moved from Ireland to Southwest Florida many years ago. “In that Prohibition era there was some really good stuff coming out of the woodwork,” Allen said. “I’m really, really excited about this.”
Corner Spot’s creators don’t want to brand the concept as fine-dining even though it’s creating elevated cuisine and cocktails. “We will serve fine-dining food in a casually priced environment. That I can promise,” Willhite said. “We will outcook anyone working in a Michelin-rated restaurant but at a casually rated price.”
One of the inspirations for the new restaurant is family. Willhite and his 13-year-old daughter enjoy eating breakfast food for dinner. After both Metro Diner and Perkin’s recently shut down on Bonita Beach Road, he came up with the idea to launch a diner. “I was kind of joking at the time, and here we are opening a diner,” he said. “We want this to be the kind of place you can bring your daughter, bring your kids, bring your family and, whether you’re going to the beach or coming off the beach and wearing sandals and whatever. This is a casual dining experience.”
Although the restaurant is rooted in a bygone era, Willhite will use modern techniques and plating styles to showcase homestyle cooking, drawing parallels between the macroeconomic conditions of yesteryear and today. “The goal was actually conceptualized around our current supply-chain crisis. It’s scary for a lot of people. We’re going through some very scary times,” he said. “We don’t intend to price people out of the market. We want to be a staple in the community.“
Corner Spot’s operating hours will be 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, and closed Monday. Outdoor dining is available.