It’s taken five years, but the White Pillars restaurant is about to make its delicious return to Biloxi.
On Monday, Austin and Tresse Sumrall with Sumrall Restaurant Group signed a long-term lease with Mladinich Holdings and COMVEST Properties in Biloxi to operate the restaurant at 1696 Beach Boulevard.
The Mladinich family operated the fine dining restaurant for years and made it the place to go to celebrate family, business and special events. The building needed a complete restoration after it was damaged during Hurricane Katrina.
Work still needs to be done before the first table is seated. It will take five or six months of construction, then hiring and training staff before the grand opening, said Austin Sumrall, who is aiming to open by New Year’s Eve.
The rest of the building was restored, but the kitchen was left untouched so it could be finished to the chef’s specifications. “That’s going to take the longest and the most work,” he said.
While the construction is under way, he has a Mississippi woodworker signed to build tables for the restaurant and a pottery artist from Mississippi crafting the plates. He plans to feature Mississippi artwork on the walls.
His wife, Tresse Sumrall, grew up in Gulfport and he said, “It’s always been our plan to one day open our restaurant in Mississippi.” The couple and their toddler son moved to South Mississippi from Birmingham, Alabama, where he was head chef at Hot Hot Fish Club.
Ultimately, the most important part of getting the restaurant reopened was finding and recruiting a candidate who had the training and experience to operate a restaurant of that complexity, said Brooks Holstein, managing member of COMVEST Properties. He and his wife, Debbie, made a commitment to her father before he died that they would return the building and the restaurant to the prominence it had when John and Virginia Mladinich operated it and he and Debbie worked there.
The restaurant will continue to operate as White Pillars and he said, “It’s just a really great fit for the vision John had for the property.”
Chef Sumrall grew up in McComb and graduated from the hospitality program at Ole Miss and The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
“We’re going to have a changing menu,” he said, and he’ll look to his roots (half Cajun, half Mississippi) and his love of Asian food and fresh pasta for inspiration.
“We’re planning on using Southern ingredients and worldly cuisine on the menu,” he said. He’ll serve farm-to-table cuisine and source from as many local farmers and fishermen as possible, he said.
And what about Eggplant Josephine that was the most famous dish on the White Pillars menu?
“I’m one of two people on this earth who know how to make it,” Holstein said, along with Virginia Mladnich, and they have the recipe in safe keeping.
Sumrall said he’s considering an ode to Eggplant Josephine in season and knows people who remember special dinners at the restaurant will be looking for it.
The reputation and name recognition is what drew he and his wife, an emergency room nurse at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, to the White Pillars, he said.
“Everybody has a White Pillars story,” he said.
Initially, the restaurant will be open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday brunch, he said, and possibly Saturday lunch will be added.
“White Pillars has a spectacular bar,” he said, and a farm-to-glass selection of seasonal craft cocktails is planned, along with a separate menu of fun food in the lounge.
He expects to hire about 50 part-time and full-time staff members later in the year, closer to the opening, he said.
“I really believe the quality of food and attention to detail is gong to be unparalleled on the Gulf Coast,” said Holstein. His company will be overseeing the painting, wallpapering and other high quality finishes ahead of the opening. The Sumralls licensed the name and website and signed a lease that allows them the opportunity to eventually purchase the property, he said.
It is the momentum of development in Biloxi and the improved political leadership up and down the Coast that Holstein said he believes convinced the Sumralls to take the financial risk and reopen White Pillars.
“We wanted to make sure we got it right for everyone involved,” said Wendy Peavy, director of marketing for COMVEST Properties. It took five years, but she said, “It’s going to be worth the wait.”