The Sandtrap Grill and Tap partners (from left) Mel Campbell, Chris Connelly and Manthan Desai are joined by bartender Corina Perez. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

The Sandtrap Grill and Tap, 31 Forest Ave., Riverside, opened in early September and the first-time restaurateurs have been perfecting their swing since opening their golf-themed bar and eatery. 

Riverside resident Chris Connelly occasionally visited the space’s former tenant, Mollie’s Public House, to grab a drink. When the bar shuttered suddenly, he found himself contemplating what his life might look like if he took over the vacant bar.

“I was attracted to the opportunity because I love the location,” said Connelly. “You’ve gotta take chances when you are younger, and the timing on this was just perfect.”

Connelly reached out to his longtime friends Manthan Desai and Mel Campbell to gauge their interest in making the career change with him. The trio grew up as friends, neighbors and basketball mates before graduating from Bartlett High School in consecutive years between 2002 and 2004. 

After a property walkthrough, the trio signed on the dotted line and dove into the food industry. 

A combination of hot wings and garlic-Parmesan wings are served alongside an ice cold paloma at The Sandtrap in Riverside. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

The new owners completed an interior renovation intended to brighten the dark space. Connelly, Manthan and Campbell completed the work themselves, tearing out half walls applying two distinct blue hues to the walls and trim. While some visitors have lamented the loss of the darker feel of the former pub, most guests appreciate the fresh look and clear sightlines through the entire space. 

The owners also hired local artist Erika Vazzana to complete a golf-themed mural. The triptych is a verdant rendering of the 12th hole at Augusta National Golf Course – home of The Masters tournament — and a nod to local talent as much as it is to Desai’s love of golf.

“I am an avid golfer and I thought a golf theme would resonate with people in the Riverside community,” said Desai.

Connelly transitioned out of career in human resources and work force solutions, while Desai stepped away from a 20-year career in web design and office management. Campbell, however, brings a valuable background in food service to the endeavor. 

A butcher turned chef, Campbell, designed The Sandtrap’s streamlined menu to have broad-based appeal and complement the bar’s thoughtful rotation of drinks. 

Chef Mel Campbell presents wings at The Sandtrap in Riverside. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

First time visitors to The Sandtrap would do well to try The Betty, a specialty drink named in honor Connelly’s girlfriend’s mother, who prefers to sip Malibu rum with a mix of pineapple, mango and cranberry juices. The vacation-worthy cocktail is joined on the menu by The Sandtrap’s popular paloma cocktail made with tequila, grapefruit soda, lime and spicy Tajin.

Daily menu items include hot wings, burgers, wraps and sandwiches, but the chef is eager to add menu specials including fried shrimp and fish and chips. Campbell and his partners are clear that guests are gravitating toward the chicken wings and feedback has been positive. The marinated and fried drums and flats are sauced with a choice of barbecue sauce, garlic-Parmesan or in a custom-blended buffalo sauce.

“People are saying they are the best wings in Riverside,” said Campbell. “The hot wings are hot, but not too hot.”

For now, the business owners have noted there are some nights when they have been “completely packed” and others when things have been a little slow. Carryout orders have been gaining in popularity, but figuring out the day-to-day rhythms of the business will take more time.

Mel Campbell (left), Manthan Desai and Chris Connelly stand in front of their custom golf-themed mural. | Melissa Elsmo/Food Editor

Connelly, Desai and Campbell want The Sandtrap to be place where people can hang out, grab a burger, enjoy a drink and catch up with friends and loved ones. Connelly envisions a family-friendly place where the kids can play darts while parents enjoy a cocktail.

“There are times where we wondered what we had gotten ourselves into,” said Connelly. “But this is definitely a fun journey. It is definitely a great experience being your own boss and controlling your own destiny.”

“It has been great finally interacting with customers,” said Desai, who you will often pouring behind the bar at The Sandtrap.