In these shaky financial times, Vaughn and Elizabeth Larsen are taking a chance and pursuing a dream.
The Bayville couple purchased the Ocean Gate House about six months ago, then began a rapid renovation of the landmark in this small town on the Toms River.
"It was almost in disrepair when we bought it," Vaughn said. "We had our contractors lined up. Where you would need 90 days, we did it in six weeks."
Today is the grand opening of Yolanda's River House, complete with a ribbon-cutting ceremony with Mayor Paul J. Kennedy, food and drink specials and live music.
The inside of the restaurant at 401 Monmouth Avenue has been completely redone. Windows in the first floor dining room have been replaced with larger ones, making the area light and airy. The sheetrock has been replaced, the rooms repainted.
"It was so dark in here," Elizbeth said.
There's also an outdoor courtyard off the main dining room. The upstairs banquet room offers a panoramic view of the Toms River, and also has an outdoor area for dining.
The restaurant features a mix of coastal and continental cuisine. There's a variety of menus - lunch, early evening dinners from 3 to 5 p.m., a dinner menu and children's menu.
There's also a Sunday brunch from 10:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., with an omelette station, waffle station and carving station, all made to order.
Yolanda's River House - named after Vaughn's mother, who died in November - will be a family restaurant, the couple said.
Make that family with a capital F.
"We are a family restaurant," Elizabeth said. "We want to keep it affordable. It's going to be a nice family place. We want to keep it year round."
Some of the items are named after family members. And the menu is not just burgers, pizza and paninis. The Larsens have a staff of six chefs, including two executive chefs, two line chefs and two sous chefs.
Some of the items on the menus are far from standard fare. There's coconut pistachio shrimp with raspberry horseradish sauce included in the appetizers.
The dinner menu has a wide variety of beef, seafood, poultry, pasta and even vegetarian choices.
Pecan-crusted salmon with Madeira cream sauce; pork chop Napoli pan-seared with white bean, tomato ragout, roasted garlic mashed potatoes and grilled asparagus; River House cavatappi pasta, with house-smoked chicken, sausage, mushroooms, roasted peppers and fresh tomato sauce are just a few of the choices.
The bar area has also been repainted and new floors laid. Bar manager Rich Lenkiewicz has been busy since the restaurant unofficially opened about a month ago.
"We've been busy," he said as he prepped for early evening clientele. "I'm usually busy until about midnight. We're starting to see repeat customers."
Mayor Paul Kennedy hopes the restaurant will succeed in this ratable-poor town of about 2,000 year-round residents.
"They are very nice people and have put lots of effort into this new adventure of theirs," Kennedy said. "And they are trying to keep it a family-type of place. I want any and every business in town - the few that we have - to be successful. I feel that's part of my job."
For more information, call 732-269-4300, or visit the restaurant's website at www.YolandasRiverHouse.com.