Justin Dukes sits at a corner table in his new restaurant — named, fittingly, Dukes. He smiles as he surveys the high ceiling, exposed beams and wood walls.
“This building was waiting for me,” Dukes says of new eatery in the Barnyard Shopping Center on Clovis Avenue. “I don’t see how this couldn’t go right.”
The restaurant offers comfort food with tasty and interesting twists.
One popular item is meatloaf wrapped in AppleWood bacon and served with scalloped potatoes and seasonal vegetables. Another of the rotating entrees is a grilled pork chop served with seasonal plum sauce, rustic garlic mashed potatoes and sauteed vegetables — freshly chopped and cooked with each order.
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“We play and use our creativity with our dishes,” Dukes said. “We really enjoy it.”
As a teenager at Clovis High School (Class of 1994), Dukes and his friends would often come to the building that now houses his restaurant. Aldos Pizza was there then but eventually closed. Todd’s CookHouse Bar-B-Q and QN4U came and went at that location, too.
Dukes plans to make a go of it at 1414 Clovis Ave. by serving dinner only three nights a week — Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“If I can eliminate 60 percent of my overhead and be open the nights that people like to go out, it will be cost effective and we’ll be here for some time,” he said.
Another innovation: Dukes will vary its menu every month but always include a beef, chicken, fresh pasta and pork selection, sometimes in combination. Customers can keep up with the changes at the restaurant’s Facebook page.
In October, the entrees are a Tri Tip Plate, Cowboy Burger, Pulled Pork Sliders, Dukes Competition Ribs and Cajun Penne Pasta, which is made with Andouille sausage and grilled chicken breast. Prices range from $13.99 to $17.99.
By rotating the menu, Dukes hopes people will come back regularly to try what’s new. The restaurant opened in mid-August, and some dishes already are customers’ favorites.
The bacon-wrapped meatloaf is one, but Dukes stayed true to his plan and took it off the menu. “I’m sure we’ll revisit it, but I don’t want to become a one-trick pony,” he said.
Hand-breaded fresh catfish served with fried okra and homemade French fries also has proved popular. Dukes makes it in honor of his late father, Ron, who liked the meal.
The October menu also features several salads, including Caesar, Cobb and Tri Tip. Prices range from $3.99 (house salad) to $13.99. A strawberry spinach salad with feta cheese was on an early menu and will return.
The restaurant serves beer and wine, and its sangrias are popular. “We hand-build them all,” Dukes said. One white sangria features strawberries and watermelon, and another uses white peaches. The red sangria uses fresh wild berries. Each is $12.
As the holidays approach, the menu will include seasonal standards. Dukes expects to offer an open-faced turkey and mashed potato sandwich and, of course, pumpkin pie.
The restaurant is available for holiday parties. It has inside seating for 165, a 600-square-foot dance floor, and a small stage where a couple of singing guitarists regularly play.
“We want this to be a place where families can get together to have dinner, listen to a little music and enjoy each other’s company,” Dukes said. A kids menu is available.
Holiday gatherings helped make Dukes a foodie. “I got into the business because every awesome memory I have as a kid is always with family getting together around a meal,” he said. “We shared good times, and I thought if I could do that for other people, it would make me feel great.”
Dukes attended a local culinary school, choosing to stay in the area because he didn’t want to be away from his son, Jackson. (Jackson is now 13, and he and his dad race modified stock cars as a hobby.)
While still in culinary school, Dukes bought a sandwich shop in Reedley. After he sold it, he operated the restaurant at Cedar Lanes in Fresno until the bowling alley closed.
Later, he owned a sandwich shop near Chukchansi Park, plus a food truck inside the stadium. Dukes closed the shop but continues with the food truck during the Fresno Grizzlies’ season. He also takes the truck to tailgates at Bulldog Stadium.
In addition, Dukes owns Shenanigans Restaurant and Bar in Fresno and runs Dukes Custom Catering, which now operates out of the Clovis restaurant.
He has catered everything from backyard birthday celebrations to 400-person parties.
A man of many interests, Dukes rode rodeo bulls in the past. He sees a connection to his present.
“I’m a western guy, and I love the western feeling of this building — it’s a big barn,” he said. “This is where I’m from.”
But Dukes found more than a comfortable place when he opened the new restaurant. He found a new love.
He hired Sarah Patrinos as his restaurant manager, and she’s now his fiancee.
“One of my chefs cooked us a nice meal, and we enjoyed a nice bottle of champagne and got engaged right here,” Dukes said.
The restaurant’s telephone number is (559) 298-7309. It is open 4 to 10 p.m. Thursday to Saturday.