Written by James Creange.
Photos courtesy of Neri’s on the Square.
The first time I walked into Neri’s on the Square in Jacksboro, I felt like I was walking into my own home for dinner. The decor was inviting, the lighting was perfect, and the staff could not have been any nicer. I was greeted with a “Hi, how are you doing?” and smiles from the entire waitstaff. This kind of familiarity and comfortability doesn’t happen by accident, and it all starts with the restaurant’s co-owner, Neri Gonzalez.
Neri, a student at The Culinary School of Fort Worth, opened her first restaurant in Graham, Texas, in 2009. Opened with her husband and co-owner, Jonathan Gonzalez, Neri’s on the Square fulfilled something of a lifelong dream for Neri. She began cooking when she was two years old and said that food was a huge part of her childhood and family life.
“Growing up, you would never visit our house and leave without eating,” Neri said.
She started working as a dishwasher at the age of 17 and has over 20 years of kitchen experience. Neri said that she knew growing up that there was nothing else in the world that she’d rather be than a chef.
As we ate dinner together at her restaurant in Jacksboro, Texas, Neri told me that her biggest inspiration behind this desire to be a chef was her mother. She even began to get emotional talking about what a hard worker her mother is and apologized to me for tearing up.
“My mom is such a hard worker, and I learned everything from her,” Neri said. “I knew that if she could do it, then I could do it.”
Both of Neri’s restaurants honor her mother’s cooking and her Mexican roots by incorporating the Mexican style into their new-American menu concept. Neri tries to incorporate citrus fruits and melons from her hometown into her menu in an effort to blend the two cultures. When Neri’s on the Square first opened in Graham, this type of menu was something that Neri and Jonathan were not sure would work in that area.
Graham is a small town that was used to barbecue and Tex-Mex before the Gonzalez family showed up. The building that they turned into the original Neri’s on the Square was formerly a tea room and flower shop. Neri knew that she wanted to keep some of that formal appeal and also explore some more formal dining options on the menu. Currently, the menu features dishes like mahi-mahi, catfish, and surf and turf.
“I wanted to create a restaurant that could be a special occasion night out for the people of Graham,” Neri said.
Neri went with a bit of a different approach for the restaurant in Jacksboro. What started out as a formal location quickly turned into a more casual place to grab some food and drinks. She traded top sirloin steaks for chicken fried steak and mahi-mahi for pork chops.
Despite some of the differences on the menu, the one thing that is abundantly clear with both restaurants is that they put their customer first and value creating a community within their restaurants. Just as I experienced when I first walked into the restaurant, most of the reviews on Google agree that Neri’s on the Square is a place that you want to be. This is true not only of the customers but also of the staff.
“One of the things that I am the most proud of is that we have had the same cooks in Graham since the day we opened,” Neri said. “They are all moms, so we all step up for each other when someone has to take a day off for a kid’s illness or school activity or anything like that.”
Neri and Jonathan even converted the top of the restaurant into a nursery to ensure that they could be with their kids all day when the kids were young, so family has always come first in the restaurant.
I asked Neri why, with all of the success she’s had with two restaurants and a catering business, she decided that she should go to culinary school. She said this was something that she had to do for her.
“I’ve always wanted to go to culinary school but ended up opening the restaurant and having kids first,” Neri says. “But I know that if you grow, your business grows, and I had the support of my husband and staff, so I knew I had to do it.”
And what about having her name on these properties with plans for more in the future? What does that success mean to her? Well for Neri, one of the most humble people you will meet in the food industry, it feels like just the beginning.
“It’s hard to talk about the success we’ve had because we’re just beginning,” Neri said. “I’m not the best chef, and we’re not the best restaurant, but I love growing every day.”
About Neri’s on the Square:
Location: 523 4th Street, Graham, TX or 111 East Archer Street, Jacksboro, TX
Hours: Monday through Wednesday 11am to 9pm and Thursday through Saturday 11am to 10pm
THE CULINARY SCHOOL OF FORT WORTH
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