The long-awaited opening of Chuck Lager’s American Tavern in Pike Creek brought an international celebrity chef to town, and he wasted no time putting on the apron and getting behind the line in the kitchen.
Top Chef star Fabio Viviani, a native of Florence, Italy, was here for the weekend-long opening for Chuck Lager’s, which is the first in a new chain of upscale tavern restaurants Viviani and his partners are launching across the US.
“It was awesome to see Fabio go into action … he took command of the kitchen and we really saw what he was made of,” said Craig Colby, a local restauranteur who along his twin brother Michael Colby is a co-owner with Viviani of the new eatery at the corner of Limestone and New Linden Roads. “It was very impressive.”
Family and friends got the first look at the appealing, classically American comfort-foodish menu on Thursday night, and VIPs were feted on Friday.
Then Saturday was the grand public opening, which Colby says was “flawless” from an execution standpoint. A computer system malfunction on Sunday was the only hitch in the successful kickoff, but that hasn’t affected early reviews of the food and service, which have been positive (we haven’t eaten there yet).
Chuck Lager’s décor – like the menu – is comfortable and welcoming, with attractive concrete flooring with a cool metallic finish, cushioned seating for 175 (another 40 seats will soon be available on the outside patio), tables and banquettes, and contemporary lighting fixtures throughout.
Expansive floor to ceiling windows facing the center’s parking lot are flanked by handsome brick walls where the Colbys have perched flat screen TVs (for sports fans) or large beer graphics that hark back to the 1950’s.
“Our graphic designer really hit it out of the park,” said Colby. Interestingly, the Colby brothers hired a west coast designer to create the golden beverage graphics before they knew what they would offer behind the bar. “We loved his work so much that we literally chose several of our beers based on the designer’s work,” he said.
The Colby brothers, who live just over the Delaware line in PA, jumped into the food biz in the 1990’s, at one point owning 15 Burger Kings. They now own several Red Robins in the state and other restaurants in Washington state, New Jersey and Florida.
Dixie Chix Southern Kissed Chicken
The Fabio-Colby team also have another dozen projects they are in development stages on throughout the country, including one in Delaware: a new all-natural chicken spot – Dixie Chix Southern Kissed Chicken – which will open between the Royal Farms and Border Cafe on Route 7 in September.
Viviani calls Dixie Chix a “chef-driven, higher-end hipster version of Chick-Fil-A.” Former World Series Phillies star Ryan Howard joins the team for the Dixie Chix venture.
Chuck Lagers has 24 beers on tap, 24 bourbons, and a variety of bottled and canned beer. Spiked milkshakes will soon be added. Their Smoked Mozzarella appetizer, an employee favorite, comes with a tasty tomato jam, arugula and parmesan cheese. Wings are smoked for hours before they are put in the fryer and served with three signature sauces. The Creamy Polenta app with roasted mushrooms was meant to bring in a little Kennett Square flair.
The pasta and meatball dish includes Fabio’s signature one-pound meatball. “It is delicious, and I have yet to finish one on a single sitting,” said Colby. Viviano gave an “Italian treatment” to the NY Strip Steak on the menu, “making it even better than what you would come to expect from a steakhouse,” added Colby.
We caught up with celebrity chef Viviani to find out how the heck he ended up opening this concept restaurant in the First State, and to get the low down on the mysterious Mr. Chuck Lager himself.
So why Delaware for your latest venture?
For me, Craig and Michael Colby — my business partners — we got together discussing hospitality about a year and a half ago. They are local. They are from here. They operate a few chain restaurants in the area, and they wanted to do something different. They wanted to do more of a classic American tavern, food made from scratch.
We are planning to do a lot of projects throughout the United States. Chuck Lager was one of the brands we discussed to own and operate with our business partner Chuck Lager. So what happened was very simple. We put together a business plan, we put together a menu, we tested a bunch of things. We searched for a location like this for about a year.
How did you meet Craig and Michael Colby?
Through many mutual friends in hospitality. They were looking for a culinary partner — an operating partner/chef for several concepts they had in mind. And we all contributed to the process of making this restaurant a reality.
The thing is that we own and operate a lot of restaurants in a lot of busy metropolitan areas. So for us to do concept outside of big cities – in a suburban area, more of a neighborhood restaurant – while still keeping the hipster, cool, rustic but a little bit refined aspect of the hospitality that we provide for downtown locations, it was a good fit.
You have several restaurants across the country —
This is my 31st restaurant. Everywhere from Chicago to L.A. and New York City, to Tampa, Detroit, San Diego, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Upstate New York.
How did you break through into the national Foodie scene?
Bravo Top Chef was the show that put me on TV. But since then, I’ve done countless shows. I’ve had a lot of fun doing those. Some of them I’ve won. I look good on TV, I think. But I’m not a TV guy. Meaning I will open a new restaurant all day over TV. If someone comes to me and says, “Do you want to have a new restaurant or a brand new TV show?” I’ll pick the restaurant.
You know, most of my colleagues will sell their soul to the devil to stay on TV and be famous. I don’t care. I would rather be unknown with a hundred restaurants than a celebrity with one burger joint.
What impresses you most about Delaware?
You know, I think there are a lot of B and C locations – and I don’t mean from a quality perspective. I mean from a density, a population, easy to reach perspective. I tend to focus on ‘A’ locations for hospitality because the concentration of people is very high, so there’s a higher likelihood of people being exposed to and enjoying your brand.
But for me, the B and the C markets are big opportunities because just like in Delaware, there is a good amount of people, and the best part is that there is not a ton of options. So when you come to town, it’s like the circus coming to town. Everybody goes!
And for me, that’s important because my goal is not to be famous. My goal is to feed people. And if I can be the “plus 1” in the area – “Oh, Fabio has a restaurant here. Let’s go check it out” – then that spells success to me.
Tell us about the menu and your choices there.
So, the idea of the menu is cravers that America loves.
I love American cravers. There is a hint of Italian. The Chicken Marsala is the best you will ever have. I will put my Chicken Marsala here up against any restaurant chicken marsala in the state. But we also have a great Tuna Tartare app with ponzu sauce made with Takarashi spice and staples like burgers, pizza and tacos.
We have things that are not American, but America loves. We have nachos. You know, America doesn’t have a thousand-year history for food and culture. It’s very recent as a country. So the reality is that there are a lot of influences on American cuisine. A lot of the food that America loves is not American food!
Think about Chuck Lager being the American melting pot of every single dish you dream about.
One of our guests said last night, “This is a hybrid between the best American food I’ve ever had and the stoner food I wanna eat whenever I’m off on a weekend and I want to get high!” I find it funny! Because the reality is it’s true! It’s the food that you don’t get to enjoy every day.
How would you describe a craver?
A craver is like “Oh my god, you have to try this.” A craver is a dish that’s well done that you want to go back for more.”
Tell us more about Chuck Lager. His name almost sounds fictitious – a name entirely perfect for your new restaurant.
Our business partner Chuck is an old family friend and a world-class traveler. He is a very successful American businessman – with investments in oil, gas and hospitality (hotels) – and with several interests abroad. As a matter of fact, he’s probably biking right now somewhere in Malaysia. Aside from Chuck Lager being The Most Interesting Man in the World alongside the man from Dos Equis (haha), Chuck is a world-class traveler and gourmand.
And yes, “Chuck” is also beef chuck, one of the tastiest parts of beef to make burgers. And “Lager” is like beer. So when we were thinking about a name for this restaurant, using Chuck’s name seemed like an obvious choice.