For the past nine months, Lincoln County residents have flocked to one of Denver’s most popular dining experiences.
Since its debut last May, Chillfire Bar and Grill has become a staple in East Lincoln cuisine. Restaurant partner Jim Morasso said the restaurant has continued to gain popularity in the community.
Morasso and his business partner, Larry “Mooch” Sponaugle, teamed together with Larry Griffin to open the restaurant. This is not the first time Sponaugle and Morasso have worked together in the restaurant industry. The partners are also known for their downtown Mooresville restaurant Epic Chop House and Charlotte restaurant Mickey and Mooch.
“Restaurants are almost like having a baby,” Morasso said. “You think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in so much pain! Oh my gosh, this is so stress full! Oh my gosh, I’ll never have another one of these!’ And then a few years go by, and you start to think ‘You know, I think we need to have another one.’ You forget about the pain and just remember the glory of watching this thing grow up, so you do it all over again.”
The partners opted to open Chillfire in Denver after hearing such positive feedback regarding Epic Chop House.
“Denver is a growing area,” Morasso said. “People kept saying, ‘I wish you had a restaurant of this caliber on our side of the lake.’”
“We came to Denver because there wasn’t something quite like it; we wanted to be unique and not duplicate a restaurant already here,” Chillfire General Manager Tom Jones said. “We’re one of the best kept secrets on this side of Lake Norman, and I don’t believe it’ll be a secret much longer.”
After only eight months of renovation efforts to convert the former Blockbuster Video store into an upscale dining location, Chillfire opened its doors to the public. Morasso and Sponaugle chose Epic’s Executive Chef Jon Spencer to lead Chillfire’s kitchen. Morasso said the restaurant’s name alludes to the diverse variety of hot and cold dishes they offer.
“We wanted to offer our diners a variety of good cold and hot foods,” Morasso said. “We offer contemporary American cuisine inspired by the South. We’re not your standard big steak house. We try to use the freshest ingredients and incorporate all styles of Southern cooking.”
According to Jones, Chillfire is distinctive in that they offer fine dining cuisine for a more affordable cost.
“While a filet at Ruth’s Chris’ or another steak house would cost $40 and be a la carte, our steaks are just $28 and include a side item,” Jones said. “I would define Chillfire as ‘approachable fine dining’. It’s not a white tablecloth and crystal type restaurant, but we provide the kind of service you would find in fine dining. We’d rather you come here twice than go to a place like that only once. We want our customers to become more familiar and comfortable at Chillfire.”
According to Jones, the two most popular meals include the crab stuffed flounder and their array of steak dinners. Aged for a minimum of 30 days for flavor and texture, the steaks are charbroiled Pittsburgh style in the kitchen’s Southbend 1,800-degree broiler, offering a charred, crusty exterior with a tender center.
Morasso agreed with Jones, stating their seafood selection and braised short ribs are by far the most popular items on the menu.
“We prepare everything from scratch,” Morasso said.
Staff members have also crafted six original cocktails, including the 1673, which pays tribute to the nearby intersection of N.C. 16 and N.C. 73.
Chillfire also offers Limited Time Dining Specialties for those looking for lighter fare. The LTD menu is offered from 4-6 p.m. and from 9 p.m.-close. Customers are also required to sit either at the bar or the island table and have ordered an alcoholic beverage to order off the LTD menu. Morasso describes the menu as a twist on bar food, offering dishes such as French onion prime rib sliders, house fried Vidalia strands and a cheddar-jack “BLT” Flatbread.
Currently, Chillfire only offers its dining experience during dinner hours.
“It really came down to two things,” Jones said. “First, Epic Chop House is also only open for dinner. Second, lunch is pretty much covered by the other area quick-serve restaurants in town. The days of people having an hour and a half for a lunch break are long gone.”
While the restaurant has no plans in the immediate future to offer lunch on a regular basis, they are considering offering brunch.
“We’ve been contemplating offering a brunch every Sunday,” Jones said. “As of right now, we’ll definitely be doing an Easter and Mother’s Day brunch.”
In addition to the restaurant’s emphasis on quality food at an affordable cost, Chillfire also prides itself on providing guests with a welcoming and inviting atmosphere.
“We’re a very welcoming and approachable restaurant,” Jones said. “We tell our staff to treat our visitors as if they were guests in their own home, not just customers.”
With more than 90 percent of their employees from the area, the restaurant is able to easily maintain a friendly atmosphere.
“It was a good move for Denver, because we’re employing the sons, daughters, husbands, wives, girlfriends and boyfriends of Denver,” Morasso said. “It’s a good tie to the community.”
“Almost all of the staff we have is from Denver, Cherryville or Lincolnton,” Jones added. “It’s great having a staff that recognizes most of our customers from around town.”
However, with Chillfire being one of the few upscale dining experiences offered in Lincoln County, employees faced a sharp learning curve.
“Since they were local, they didn’t have super relevant culinary experience,” Jones said. “But over the past eight months, we’ve seen them become so much more mature and experienced.”
“After our first month in business, we saw our employees truly rise to the occasion,” Morasso said. “They saw our vision and helped us get the restaurant up and going.”
The managers and owners also play a role in ensuring customer satisfaction.
“The managers and owners make an effort to talk to the tables; if there’s a problem, we want to be able to fix it quickly,” Morasso said. “We’re in the hospitality business, and we want to ensure everyone has a great time here and wants to share their experience.”
In addition to their main dining area, the restaurant also offers a private dining room, seating 60 guests comfortably. The room also offers guests a flat screen television and sound system for business meetings and conference presentations. So far, Jones said the room has been utilized for business engagements, receptions and banquet dinners.
“We are a local restaurant, not a chain,” Morasso said. “Denver and Lincoln County have been a fantastic community. I am impressed with the number of people who come here and support us.”