Openings and Closings

Terilli's Restaurant, Whose Regulars and Loyalists Watched It Burn, Reopens On Friday

It's been almost a year and a half since Amanda Ahern's telephone rang early one March morning, prompting her to turn on the television and witness the fire that would burn her mother's Greenville Avenue restaurant to the ground.

Ahern drove to Mom's house to deliver the news, and spent some time with family before heading to the restaurant. She surveyed the damage firsthand, alongside a large gathering of employees and regulars, many in tears.

Ahern cried too, but there was work to be done. Accounts needed reconciliation despite the destruction of paper records. Ahern worked from a second office, paying bills on ingredients and wine destroyed in the fire, with no revenue coming in. The work consumed the better part of a month, before she was finally able to relax and take stock of the situation.

Insurance money would keep her employees solvent while they looked for other jobs, but Ahern had a restaurant to rebuild. While she stayed back the other workers took their checks and moved on, working in other kitchens, restaurants and even on TV, most with a promise to return.

Monterrey Lopez took a job at Walmart -- a job he knew he could leave easily -- so he could come back to his post running the kitchen as soon as Ahern picked up the phone. Tiffany Clark, a waitress, took a job at Fireside Pies and focused on nursing school. She's wrapping up the degree but will return to Terilli's too, waiting tables when she's not working as a nurse three days a week.

Jennie Kelly caught the culinary bug while working at Terilli's. Some nights she'd help the kitchen staff prep instead of waiting tables out front. She'd worked at the restaurant since going to school at SMU, when a decent meal convinced her the place would make a good place to wait tables while she earned her degree. She ended up staying for 15 years, leaving just a few months before the restaurant burned, to follow her passion for cooking. She's one of the few not coming back, but she's still close friends with the staff and owners. "It's family owned," she says. "And people that are hired end up staying and joining the family."

Employees may feel familial, but you don't have to fill out a W-2 to belong. Customers who made repeat visits also talked about the communal nature of the restaurant -- regulars like Larry Young, who lived in the neighborhood and ate at Terilli's almost daily. Young moved to Dallas from Chicago two decades ago, after his home remodeling company relocated him. On his first night in Dallas, he asked the front desk worker at his hotel where he could find an upscale Italian restaurant; one where you could propose to a girl and enjoy a top-end meal, as he puts it. Later that evening he was sitting at Terilli's, unknowingly kicking off a love affair that would last more than 20 years.

Young's phone rang early on that Tuesday morning back in March, too. A friend alerted him that smoke was seen coming from the Terilli's building. Young, who lived just a few blocks away, ran over and watched with tearful friends and neighbors.

"It was a sad, sad day," he told me. "Not because we lost an Italian restaurant, but a gathering place."

Anita Bassinger gathered there, as well. She'd stumbled upon Terrili's after a long night at Zanzibar, across the street. Terrili's became her late-night haunt, a place to sip cappuccino and listen to jazz music, and then her favorite place to eat.

Bassinger works at the Dallas Police Department's property evidence warehouse, and also heard the news by phone. "My girlfriend called me and said, 'Anita your restaurant is burning down.'" She drove over as soon as she got off work to check on her friends. "It was devastating for me," she said.

Despite moving from the neighborhood since the fire, Bassinger says she'll be back as soon as the restaurant reopens. "Heck-yeah!" she exclaimed in her long Texas drawl "Terilli's is my home away from home."

It's a home Bassinger might not recognize if it weren't filled with familiar faces when she returns. Ahern has spun a negative situation into an exciting new space. The kitchen is larger now, which is necessary, considering a new private dining space that seats 50-70, depending on how they configure the space. There's also a roof deck that seats 90 and a dining room that hosts another 120 diners.

The whirlwind that started a year ago last March is almost over. While talking to Ahern this morning, she briefly placed me on hold. When she returned to the line, she told me she'd just received her Certificate of Occupancy. I asked her if in the midst of all she's doing whether she'd take any time to celebrate.

"Thursday night we're going to take a moment to sit back and we're just going to have a glass of wine and have a toast," she told me. If all goes as planned, she said, the restaurant will reopen Friday.

All photos by Danny Fulgencio Follow City of Ate on Facebook & Twitter. Follow me at @scottreitz