The unchained chefs want to liberate your appetite.
For Watertown-area diners, the pull of chain restaurants is getting harder to avoid as franchises continue to pop up, especially along Arsenal Street. They are different, but they are the same: From the low-cost pizza place to beer and burgers served up by girls in low-cut tops, they dish out what they are corporately told, assembly-line style.
But at Ives Hill Country Club, 435 Flower Ave. W., the chef invites you to take a seat, relax, and consider the special of the day, which could be whatever you're craving.
“I like to focus on what the customer actually wants to eat that day,” said chef Henry Fischer. “So I ask them, 'What are you in the mood for?' As long as I have the stuff — no problem. I like to accommodate the customer, rather than accommodating myself.”
The Times interviewed a half dozen chefs who thrive on such creativity and work extremely hard to cater to diners with a taste for something outside the chain experience.
“Sometimes I dream recipes,” said Lori Wells.
Ms. Wells was sitting in front of a fireplace in an overstuffed chair late one rainy spring afternoon before the night's rush at Cafe Mira in Adams. The chef and co-owner of the restaurant at 14 Main St. was asked about her inspiration. Cafe Mira is described on its website as “being just a little different but not over the top.”
Ms. Wells said she never follows a recipe at the Main Street restaurant she owns with her partner, Lisa Reed.
“It all just kind of comes to me; intuitive cooking I like to call it,” she said.
But she enjoys doing special requests.
“That's what is nice about a small restaurant like this as opposed to a chain,” she said. “You can call up and get whatever you want.”
Cooking, Ms. Wells said, is “an expression of love.”
“I think when people go into a restaurant and someone is just there working and they don't care, it's going to reflect on the plate. We send our plates out looking as good as they taste,” she said. “We care. There's just a passion behind it.”
She believes such individual attention is hard to duplicate at a chain.
“I don't care how good they are, because they got five cooks back there making whatever they pay them and they're there because they need a job. We're here because this is what we do.”
The life of a chef is one of long hours on the feet with lots of pressure. But the chefs said the creativity involved makes it worth it.
“There's not many professions in the world where you can express yourself creatively every day,” said Mr. Fischer, the Ives Hill Country Club chef. “If you're stuck at a desk every day at a 9 to 5 job, there's only so much creativity you can have.”
Changing a menu on the fly is something at least one local chef says provides an advantage over national competitors.
“I update my menu due to seasons and what's fresh,” said Brenda T. Cavallario of Cavallario's Cucina, 133 N. Massey St.
She also has a small garden and works with local gardeners to add the freshest ingredients to her dishes.
Her fish, Mrs. Cavallario said, from Pacific waters, is flown in daily from Hawaii, and she is in constant contact with her supplier.
“You find out what the fish is about, then I just start to think, what would taste good with that?” she said.
Finding the right recipe is often a matter of trial and error, explained Michael L. Simpson, chef and owner of the Clipper Inn, 126 State St., Clayton.
“You just pick up things that make sense to you and that you like, keep them and throw away the ideas that don't make sense in your operation,” he said.
Chef Sarah R. Brown of the Sackets Harbor Brew Pub, 212 W. Main St., credits her active imagination.
“Before I create something, I know what it's going to taste like in my mind before it comes out on a plate,” she said.
For Miss Brown, a magazine article could act as a springboard for an idea.
“But I'm not the type of person who will take a recipe and follow it step by step, ingredient by ingredient,” she said.
Matthew J. Hudson, chef at the Great American Grill at the Hilton Garden Inn, 1290 Arsenal St., wrote its menu with owners Patrick and James Donegan.
“We're trying to do things that nobody else is doing,” Mr. Hudson said. “We want to step ourselves out a little bit from all the other restaurants in the area.”
For example, he noted the inn's deep-fried lobster tails and homemade funnel cake bites.
The restaurant Mr. Hudson oversees belongs to a chain hotel, but he said he has the freedom to be independent in the kitchen.
“I like being the guy who is a little bit out of the box,” he said.
Reasons to return
Food may be the main element in getting customers to return, but the chefs said the dining experience has to involve more than that.
For Mr. Simpson, the key to successful casual dining, besides the food, is a staff with an at-ease attitude. At the Clipper Inn, a close-knit work crew makes that happen.
“There's more than one way to run a business, but for me, it's to have a pleasant work environment for everybody involved,” Mr. Simpson said. “I don't see too many reasons why my blood pressure should be elevated. It's just not worth it. And the people who work here kind of have that feeling. It's better for everybody, including staff and customers.”
The Sackets Harbor Brew Pub has an obvious attraction in its craft beer brewed on site. But Miss Brown said the little things add a distinctive atmosphere, such as live entertainment and fresh flowers placed year-round on tables.
“That's something that when you go into a chain restaurant, you're not going to always see,” she said over coffee in the restaurant's dining room, which overlooks the harbor. “And you're not going to get this view — anywhere.”
At Cafe Mira, making guests feel at home is key.
“I've heard more times than I can count that this is the kind of place you walk into and you don't want to leave,” Ms. Wells said. “You walk in from off the street and you feel like you're somewhere far away. It's very relaxing and laid back.”
At the Hilton Garden Inn, Mr. Hudson has to fight a stigma about hotel food generally not being up to snuff.
“At most hotels in general, the food is good, but not spectacular,” he said. “But we get a lot of repeat guests that constantly come for dinner instead of trying anywhere else.”
When hotel guests ask front desk workers if they know a good place to eat, there's an obvious answer.
“We let the front desk people try all the food,” Mr. Hudson said. “We want them to be as proud to sell our restaurant as we are.”
Repeat diners, said Mrs. Cavallario, don't like unpleasant surprises.
“Meals with us are consistent because we are hands-on owners/operators,” she said of herself and husband Peter, who manages the front end of the restaurant.
And once people are seated, they must feel relaxed, Mrs. Cavallario said, without a “get them in and get them out” attitude.
“Competition arises,” Mr. Cavallario said. “But you can't deviate from plan.”