PINEVILLE, N.C. -- By the time my videographer Ken and I got to Sweet Tea's, there must've been at least 150 or more people in line, and crowding around the restaurant, trying to get in for the reveal dinner, or at least to catch a glimpse of the stars of the show.
A producer came over to me at one point and said, "Dion, this is the biggest crowd we've ever had at a reveal...must've been the story you did yesterday!"
We were all under strict rules not to shoot any of the reveal, any of Robert Irvine, or show anything that would give away the big surprise makeover. We couldn't even get access to people in line and had to pull them into the parking lot to interview them.
Having been there the day before to talk to the host, Chef Robert Irvine, I saw then there was opaque plastic covering all the windows and front door of the restaurant.
The big unveiling was supposed to be at 7 p.m., but it was about 7:40 p.m. by the time the plastic was ripped off. Immediately, there were "oohs" and "ahhs" from former customers, and even those who had never been to the restaurant before.
The decor inside looked gorgeous. Tan and brown and modern Southern, with light fixtures made from wooden spoons from IKEA.
Even though it was getting late, nobody in line seemed to care. We all started cheering as a teary-eyed Dana and David Cohen (the owners) came out of the restaurant.
After some very grateful, passionate speeches to the crowd, (I almost shed a tear myself, it was such an emotional moment) Dana and David welcomed the first group of reserved customers in.
Fortunately, one of my mentors and longtime friend Marc Summers is the executive producer of the show and helped reserve seats for me and my friends!
It was beyond exciting to be in the thick of opening night, since everyone, from the staff at the restaurant, to the production assistants and crew of Restaurant Impossible were on adrenaline rushes from the big reveal.
Even after the first set of reservations were seated, dozens of people were still waiting outside. Some were pressed up against the window to watch all the camera crews and hustle and bustle inside.
These were some dedicated fans of the restaurant and of the show.
It's always amazing to see how many people it takes to put on a show like this. Audio, cameras, assistants, producers...all of them were crammed into a fully occupied restaurant.
Robert came out at one point, and with his big booming voice, reminded everyone to be patient because the servers had just gotten the menu 5 minutes before the doors opened, and the kitchen staff had never cooked these dishes before.
Robert, being an active service member, took a moment to recognize all service men and women in the restaurant and thank them for their service.
The menu is definitely Southern with a modern twist. My party of 4 ordered appetizers of black-eyed pea fritters, crawfish macaroni and cheese, shrimp and grits and fried green tomatoes with feta cheese and balsamic.
It reminded me of Southern food kicked up a notch. Despite some delays in service, (we didn't mind since there was so much going on around us, it was like being at the theater, but real life!) everyone seemed to agree, the food was delicious.
At one point, the HGTV designer Tania Nayak stopped by our table to chat. She was not only super friendly and down-to-Earth, explaining how she designed on a dime (the show has a $10,000 design budget) and used bicycle rims on the light fixtures, but she was stunning even after a full day's work.
Producers were asking patrons questions about the food and the decor, and one even came over to me and interviewed me! (I can't spill the beans on that yet...we'll just have to see if my response gets edited into the show!)
Dinner entree items then came out, and included a smothered pork chop, chicken and waffles with Tobasco butter, country fried chicken and a burger with thick cut fries. My friends at another table tell me the rib-eye too was yummy. We were all stuffed by the end, but I ordered a bread pudding (one of my favorite desserts!) with a thick caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream to take back to the station.
We watched Robert shoot his closing statement (as he does at the end of every episode) and yes, even celebrities like him have to do a couple takes to get it just perfect! The whole place then broke out in applause and cheers. That's a wrap!
As I hurried out of the restaurant to get back to the station and prepare for the 11pm newscast, a good amount of people were still waiting outside, hoping to get seated. Fortunately for anyone who didn't get in, or just wants to check out the new, re-vamped Sweet Tea's can do it on Monday, when the owners will hold the official grand re-opening for their customers.