WESLEY CHAPEL — Wolf's Den, the newest restaurant on the still fast-changing real estate of State Road 56, has a bright yellow "O" on its sign, and its coffee — often a measurement of a restaurateur's love for his or her vocation — is served thick, rich and in real mugs.
This is the joint that has taken the place of Bagel Bagel Cafe, that dark cave of heady soups and goopy melts that closed on New Year's Day.
But Roger Wolf, the eponymous owner, has added lights, ripped out the center row of fixed tables and replaced them with lighter colors. Ranks of milk shake glasses now twinkle behind the counter. There's a flat-screen TV and free Wi-Fi. There's a big new pizza oven and a menu that makes a statement by its fare and its prices: This is a neighborhood joint.
"Nothing's over $8," Wolf said. "It's a mom-and-pop place. You know mom and pop? We're not going to get rich. We're not going to be Bern's Steak House. I like things like this … " and he draws a flat line in the air with his hand.
So you'll find fresh Boar's Head cuts and cheeses. Hearty American pastas. Cobb salads and kids' food priced at $4 a pop, cleverly pitched just below what Wolf believes you could get at the chain restaurants.
Because this place is a lone wolf at a crossroads of chains.
Wolf, 61, comes from a lineage of lone-wolf restaurants. He was 13 when he got his first job washing dishes and cleaning toilets at his parents' restaurant, the Auctioneers' Inn, in Caledonia, Wis.
Straight out of high school, he joined the Marines. "Third battalion, seventh Marine," he offers without missing a beat. When he got back from Vietnam and out of the corps, he married his girlfriend, Patty, and it has been a string of restaurants with her since.
They moved to Seven Oaks last year to retire but Wolf couldn't sit still.
"I got bored cutting the grass three times a week," Wolf said. "My wife told me I was trimming the palm trees until there were no leaves left to trim."
Then, around Christmas last year, he heard about the troubles at Bagel Bagel, whose owner couldn't keep the cafe afloat.
Six months later, Wolf finally waded through the thicket of county and state regulations and permits he needed to take over the joint.
"Six months," he said.
In May, the Times heard about his permitting woes and wrote a short story about them. He got in trouble for that. Some fire marshals told him they weren't sure they liked him complaining about the permitting.
It's hard to know if they were tougher on him for that. But Wolf never lost his sense of humor, and the marshals finally gave the Den the green light at 1 p.m. July 9.
Wolf opened July 10, and it's been hopping since.
Now he wakes at 4:30 a.m. to prepare gravies and soups and batters. Holds morning and afternoon meetings with his staff to coordinate work. Gets home at midnight.
And he's happy.
Any thoughts of maybe a second Den?
He laughs, shakes his head and looks mildly horrified at the prospect.
"My next stop is a slab shop," he said. And laughed. "I'm not going anywhere else."
Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 909-4613.