Upbeat chef won't let sun set on Reynoldsburg tavern
Magnus Duruji has returned to the restaurant business, a willful surrender to the industry he loves.
The eternally optimistic Columbus chef, who had a renowned fight with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency many years ago, is now in charge of the kitchen at Sunset Grille, 1921 Baltimore-Reynoldsburg Road.
"This place here, I didn't know the shape it was in," Duruji said. "This is a landmark in Reynoldsburg. It needed help."
Owner Mick Mandabach purchased Sunset, in business for nearly 25 years, five years ago. At the time he bought it, he owned a business selling electronic security equipment. He closed his company a year ago to focus on the restaurant full time. It was an eye-opening experience.
"I had to learn a lot in a short period of time," he said. "And I did."
He said when he interviewed Duruji, who started eight weeks ago, they shared a common goal: rebuild the menu by providing high value at a reasonable price.
"It was bar food," Mandabach said of the previous menu. "We're doing more than that now. But I didn't want to lose the neighborhood feel to it."
Some of the new menu highlights: beef and pork barbecue ribs slathered with Duruji's homemade sauce; seafood pasta with a house-made tomato sauce seasoned with fresh herbs; chicken pasta with asiago cream sauce; and a Mediterranean-style mixed-grill platter.
Mandabach kept some of the mainstays, such as wings, burgers and subs.
Dishes are priced between $8 and $16, the latter for a ribeye.
Both Mandabach and Duruji put their menu to the test at the Aug. 6 Taste of Reynoldsburg event. The crowd response was encouraging, they said.
"It was exciting," Duruji said.
"People were coming back for seconds and thirds," Mandabach added.
They've also done some cosmetic improvements, refurbishing the bar, painting the walls scarlet and gray and adding Ohio State paraphernalia.
Duruji's troubles with federal immigration officials date to 1983, when he was arrested for having a part-time job while a student at Ohio Dominican University. The case, however, was never pursued.
In 1997, when he was working at Cap City Fine Diner, Duruji made an application for U.S. citizenship, which tipped off the feds of his previous infraction.
That's when ICE, then called the Immigration and Naturalization Services, arrested Duruji and tried to deport him to his native Nigeria.
After an outpouring of support, Duruji was released from prison and became a permanent U.S. citizen. He has worked in several local restaurants and opened and closed three restaurants of his own.
He was struck by tragedy not once but twice, having survived cancer -- he was diagnosed as cancer-free in 2008 -- only to lose his son, Magnus Jr., who died in 2010.
So when Duruji finally was granted U.S. citizenship in February 2012, it was bittersweet, he said.
His triumphs and travails served as the inspiration of a memoir called the Audacity of Courage, which will be released in the fall.
He got out of the restaurant business for a short time while he pursued a master's degree in criminology and management.
Now in a doctoral program in human services at Walden University, Duruji said he wanted to return to the restaurant business.
"I love what I'm doing," he said. "Money is very important in my life, but it's not my driving goal.
"My driving goal is to be happy and be at peace with God. And I have those."
Sunset Grille is open for lunch and dinner daily. For more information, call 614-863-1004.