Trio’s Dining Heads West
ARTICLE BY VANELIS RIVERA
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KELLY MOORE CLARK
Trio’s proprietor Jenifer Johnson, for the last eight years, envisioned the possibility of a second location of one of Monroe’s staple eateries. “We are definitely a neighborhood bar and restaurant,” says Johnson, “we thrive on repeat customers.”
“I have been looking really at the Ruston location for a long time now,” admits Johnson, who strived to find the “right fit” for the restaurant, particularly location-wise. She explains, “Pretty much, everything is downtown here, which is great. I love downtown, but for our business model it just doesn’t fit.” For two years, she kept a careful eye on their current location, and when she discovered that it was built for a restaurant and was close to a few neighborhoods, she jumped on the opportunity. It ended up a perfect fit, according to Johnson: “The building itself, the surrounding businesses, the traffic flow, and just every little thing around it, I think it’s going to be a really good location for us.” There’s even plenty of parking for those eager to try it.
Of course, there are concerns given the current state of things, but Johnson says, “I recognize it may be difficult to expand business during a pandemic, but the plans were already in place, and this was an opportunity I could not pass up.” Pandemic or not, there are risks with operating a business, and she knew Trio’s was ready for its sister location. It had been culminating for years, evidenced by her preparation. To decorate it, I’ve been collecting for years,” she says, owing her aesthetic leanings to many of her travels. Be it striking silverware, crafty chairs, or tasteful tables, Johnson would click away, saving pictures with the intention of envisioning her next restaurant.
In order to bring her collection of ideas to fruition, Johnson hired her good friend Gregory Hudgins of Great Detail. “We just work very well together. He understands exactly what I want,” says Johnson. Hart Designs: Lighting & Iron Works created the custom, circle ring chandeliers that hover over the main dining room area. Other local touch points include Louisiana-based artists’ paintings hanging from eggshell-white walls, like that of Doug Kennedy and Sue Sartor—their ethereal and abstract pieces providing pops of color to an otherwise sleek, minimalist interior layout. Also, a Noula Rodakis painting is the focal point of the restaurant when you come inside. It’s an interpretation of a relic from Mykonos. At night, a neon sign imparts another color accent by casting a whimsical hue on the restaurant floor. Bright pink, cursive letters spell out “This must be the place,” which is an apt motto that calls back to Johnson’s initial response to the location.
Quite the stark difference from the Monroe location—a chic, tavern-like hideaway—Trio’s Ruston is all about lighting and spaciousness. “That’s something I’ve wanted, and the space in Monroe, we can’t really do that because the building does not have all the natural lighting,” says Johnson. Her personal style is reflected in the two-tier floating shelves, smartly decked with rustic vases. “Having all this natural light in here was phenomenal,” continues Johnson. She credits Julie Rogers, a Ruston-based interior designer, with helping her establish a base to make optimal use of the sunshine. Rogers acquired the solar shades that inconspicuously minimize the amount of usual glare on any given Louisiana day. The interior styling echoes the outdoor dining area as well, with modern woven seating and sleek cafe-style tables—the ideal place to enjoy a beautiful fall day.
While this swanky new eatery’s composition has already started to build repeat lunch and dinner clientele, the acclaim is not all due to the beauty that meets the eye. Their one-of-a-kind menu, a blend of Mediterranean and Southern meals, has the Ruston crowd delighting what so many people in Monroe and West Monroe have kept coming back to, time and time again. Johnson, inspired to keep adding new swagger, sought the help of Toby Spring, a Ruston-based chef who gave the menu a bit of Ruston flair to a few items. A notable one is the Trios Steak Bites: grilled tenderloin filet bites served on grilled romaine with their house onion rings and horseradish sauce. Local fare also appears in the Rustic Peach & Veggie Salad, a refreshing fusion of roasted Ruston peaches, grape tomatoes, roasted diced sweet potato, charred sweet onions, bell peppers, pickled radish, and roasted corn tossed in a sweet onion dressing. On the more savory side, the Pulled Pork & Peach Quesadilla is a sure hit: a flour tortilla grilled with Trio’s pulled pork, roasted sweet potatoes, purple cabbage, pickled radish, sweet red onions, cilantro, halloumi cheese, drizzled smoked pepper, and peach aioli. Another touch of peach can be found in the Rustonian Sandwich, a flavorful medley of sliced ham stuffed with provolone and roasted Ruston peaches, charred, then served with spicy mayo and grilled sourdough slices. These enticing innovations to an already solid menu give guests more than a few reasons to make Trio’s Ruston a local hotspot.
“In the restaurant business, you have to go with the flow and change with the times, you know,” says Johnson, recognizing that it’s an odd time—one that could easily put a strain on any new business. Then again, sometimes the greatest risk is not taking one, because then, instead of expanding with the growth of experience, mobility is stunted and stagnates. Johnson’s fondness for Ruston’s culture and charm, alongside her admiration of the town’s ability to be progressive all while maintaining a “small town feel,” filled her with gumption. The cultural development of Ruston encourages her to grow Trio’s. “It’s very artsy, you know; big art community here. Then there’s just a lot of culture and the people are very friendly. It’s small, but it’s growing at the same time,” she says, adding, “I just feel like it’s a perfect fit for us. We’re just thrilled to be here.”
For Johnson, serving Ruston has a personal aspect because two of her sons are working alongside her. “I can’t even describe that because to have my family in it, to see them excel in the way they have, and I’m learning from them, you know. That’s been huge because Trio’s has always been a family restaurant. So it’s really nice to see my kids now be a part of it,” beams Johnson. Witnessing her sons excel in an occupation she is passionate about has been a learning experience for her. “I’m just amazed by them,” she continues. Michael, the oldest, is currently the front house manager. “The restaurant business must be in his blood,” Johnson jokes, since her eldest has taken naturally to tasks, like working the line and front of the house. Her son Lleyton, who is still in school, administers the host station. “He just automatically knows how to do that too,” explains Johnson with a chuckle. “He understands he’s the first face of the restaurant.” Sociable, often caught smiling, and chatty with customers, Lleyton naturally interacts with people, taking ownership and pride in his mother’s vision. Johnson is a proud mother, but she’s also surprised at the level of immersion her sons have been exhibiting. A few years ago when she was still learning the inner workings of the Monroe Trio’s, her sons didn’t show any interest in the restaurant business, though Michael had worked the Trio’s floor a few times. As far as their newly awakened interest, it may just be the right place, at the right time.
The feedback that Johnson has gotten thus far is not unlike the response to Monroe’s establishment. “It’s a place where you can come and have a glass of wine in the afternoon with a crostini,” says Johnson. Whether you indulge with girlfriends or watch a sport’s game with your crew, Johnson keeps returning to the key phrase: “It’s that neighborhood feel.” Even then, she also hears quite often how much Trio’s Ruston has a Dallas feel. “I’ve heard that probably fifteen times,” she muses. Ultimately, regardless of the comparison, she’s just pleased her restaurant is able to provide an experience, especially if guests feel that they are on a “little mini vacation.”
A long process, no doubt, and one executed at a really “crazy time,” Johnson is ecstatic to be open. Some have expressed their surprise at her move, but developing food experiences is more than an occupation to her; it’s ambition meeting creativity. The discoveries keep coming, and they keep Johnson invigorated with energy to share with her customers. What you get at Trio’s West is clean, modern elegant dining complimented by a soft interior and contemporary look, adding a gem to Northeast Louisiana fine dining.
Trio’s Ruston is located at 101 Pelican Blvd, Ruston, LA 71270, and is open Monday through Saturday between 11 AM to 10 PM. Follow them on Facebook for food and drink specials.