Essie’s, Clementon’s restaurant and music venue, is a tribute to patience — and a special aunt

It takes months, and in some cases a year, to open a restaurant, with design, construction, permits and staffing.

For Mike and Sherry Gillespie to create their upscale restaurant and Essie’s live music lounge in Clementon, it took 4 and a half years.

At the end of 2017, the South Jersey couple, who grew up in Camden and now lives in Molica Hill, settled in a former biker pub called JWalkers in Clementon. They knew they would have to fix the corner building on Berlin Road on Garfield Street, across from Clementon Park amusement park.

Then came the first delay. Shortly after a snowstorm in early 2018, “our engineer called us and said, ‘You guys need to come down here. ‘We got here and it’s all recorded,’ said Mike Gillespie. ‘The whole roof collapsed. You can walk in the door and see the sky.’

Some aspiring restaurateurs may have considered turning away, he said, “but we’re a strong believer.” “This is our goal. For us, this is a legacy.” Their son Michael works with them.

Gillespies raised the extra money moving forward. His background is in music and concert promotion, her experience is in nursing, and together they invested in real estate and owned a barber shop.

A married couple since high school, the Gillespies family share a common bond through Essie, their muse. It was Mike’s aunt, who took him in when he was four years old. Issei also greeted Sherry when she was a teenager.

The restaurant project was experiencing contracting and zoning delays, which they expected. “We didn’t want to rush this thing because we were trying to perfect it,” said Mike Gillespie. “People were telling us a restaurant could never be perfect, but we wanted to be next to perfect.”

Next up: the epidemic.

“I think at the time that might have been the case [the world] She tells us we weren’t ready,” Sherry Gillespie said.

“We used that as a learning experiment,” Mike Gillespie said. “We wanted the business to be sharp, so when those doors open for us, being first-time restaurateurs, I think we’d probably be better than the guys who’ve been doing it for 10 years. We’re not sloppy. We’re very strategic in what we’re doing.”

Before the pandemic, they looked to many chefs, even though they wanted Mike’s cousin Arlene Reynolds to head the kitchen. He said she wasn’t ready at the time, but had gained enough experience in the kitchen in the meantime to take on the role of chef when Essie opened in early June.

Reynolds’ American Creole menu features wings, sweet and spicy shrimp, and tacos as appetizers; Appetizers include blackened lamb chops over fried rice, 16 ounce ribeye with compound butter, seafood okra, blackened salmon, and chicken and shrimp etouffee.

The restaurant is open Tuesday through Sunday from 3pm to 1am, serves dinner until 10pm, and small plates are available in the lounge and bar until midnight. Weekend brunch will be launching later this summer. Live music is provided on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and DJs spin nights on both floors.

They said the decor reflects Essie’s elegant style. (She died right after they bought the building.) “She had to hold the pearls,” said Sherry Gillespie.

The first floor, with a lounge bar in the front, dining room and theater in the back interior, features slate gray floor tiles, sea foam green glass wall tiles, snakeskin lined wall (doubles as a sound suppressor), 3D wallpaper, and a glossy white frosted stripe top . The steps that lead to the upper floor are the piano keys. The second floor has a wall of gold records, a DJ booth, and a private dining room that can accommodate 12 to 15 people.

The music is mainly ’80s and ’90s and R&B, with jazz classics (Mike is a distant nephew of Dizzy Gillespie). “We keep it low and low,” Mike Gillespie said. “It’s real mellow. So when you’re done with work, you sip your drink and calm your mind and body.”

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