For two years, the restaurant on the south bank of the Cotee River across from Catches and Hooters sat empty, its long pier gathering cobwebs and its dining room collecting dust.
Then Michael Simpson walked through the door, fell in love with the place, picked up a phone and made an offer to lease-purchase the whole shebang.
Simpson, 50, has been in the food business for years: His first restaurant job was at age 15 at a Sambo's, followed by 10 years of globe-trotting as a U.S. Navy chef and a career as a restaurant consultant and food distributor. But on July 20 came a first: The opening of his very own restaurant.
He called it Fatty 'n' Mabel's Riverside Eatery, in memory of his beloved late parents, George and Annie Simpson, whose nicknames for each other were, of course, Fatty and Mabel.
The venture has been a success beyond his wildest dreams.
"It's the quality of our food and our consistency," Simpson said. Everything on the extensive menu, except the french fries ("We couldn't get a consistent quality of potato for fries.) is fresh and from scratch.
"We even cut our own onions for our onion rings," Simpson said. The effort is worth it; those rings are awesome.
The "Loaded Baked Potato" is topped with freshly fried bacon, crisp chopped green onions, hand-shaved cheddar cheese and firm sour cream, all swimming in a boat of butter, well worth the extra 99 cents it costs as an entree side choice.
"The recipes are mostly my mom's, the sauces are mostly my dad's," Simpson said.
Simpson, kitchen manager Chris Raia and general manager Holly Sliz create the specials.
His target market is ages 35 to 85. The live bands in the open bar area on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons play classic rock, country and acoustic guitar.
The emphasis is on eating, not drinking, Simpson said, though he stocks two full bars with a wide array of wine, liquor and beer, including huge pitchers of beer for $7.
The menu has a full page of appetizers ($6.99 to $17.99), including raw oysters ($12.99 a dozen), steamed clams ($12.99), Mabel's Crab Cake ($9.99), Caribbean conch fritters ($8.99) and Fatty's Five Cheese Ravioli ($8.99), many fine as a full meal.
We tried the fried calamari ($8.99) and found the tentacles nicely crisp, though the rings were a tad soft.
Simpson's personal favorite is his pork wings ($9.99 and $17.99), which he's dubbed "When pigs fly." He serves them with mango chutney sauce.
The menu has several seafood pasta dishes ($13.99 to $17.99) and a choice of mahimahi, grouper, scallops, salmon or Ahi tuna, either grilled, blackened or sauteed ($12.99 to $14.99), plus three kinds of crab — snow, stone and king — in season and at market prices.
Our choice was the flaky beer battered cod ($11.99), a generous slab of fresh coldwater fish in a light tempura batter that melted in the mouth. On another visit, we got the yummy shrimp and scallops carbonara, with onion, peas and prosciutto in a Parmesan cream sauce (and secret spices) over linguine, which was even better the next day when the flavors had melded. (Note: The portions are very generous, so plan on taking some home.)
There are also pork chops, baby back ribs, sirloin and New York strip for meat lovers, as well as Mabel's Surf & Turf ($29.99) for the steak and lobster appetite.
Our sirloin ($12.99) with seasoned rub, in a garlicky scampi sauce, was tasty and fair-to-middlin' tender with the proper medium rare pink center.
Entrees come with a choice of two sides from a list of 10 items.
The romaine in our Caesar salad was marvelously fresh, though the croutons were a bit soggy on one visit. But unless you like your greens drenched in dressing (I do), ask for dressing on the side. .
For lesser appetites, there's a page of sandwiches, wraps, salads and soups, plus a kids' menu for ages 12 and younger ($3.99 to $5.99). For the sweet tooth, there are several choices, including creme brulee cheesecake, tiramisu and Grandpa's Chocolate Lava Cake.
Fatty 'n' Mabel's has three distinct seating areas for up to 240 people: the enclosed dining area with wide windows overlooking the deck and river; a semi-enclosed, roofed bar where the band sets up; and, my favorite, tables along the open dock to catch breezes and provide beautiful river vistas with boats coming and going.
An upstairs banquet room for 80 to 100 is scheduled to open in June.
Simpson gives full credit for his success to his staff of 38. "I couldn't do it without them," he said.
Michael Simpson has finally found his bliss.