Checkers Bistro became an instant favorite with Lancastrians when it opened 10 years ago. Owners David Payne, Masami Kawano and Jeff Thornton have worked to create a dining experience that combines a welcoming ambiance with a finely crafted menu.
Checkers Bistro, which was originally located at the corner of James and Mulberry streets, moved to its current Champion Forge location in February 2014. “A lot of our ‘regulars’ were concerned that when we moved to the larger space, we’d lose the intimate feel we had [at the previous location],” David explains, noting that seating capacity grew from 110 to 160 as a result of the move. “We took those concerns to heart and feel that we’ve not only maintained the ambiance, but we’ve gone beyond it.”
Alison K. McIndoe of A.K. Interiors, who crafted the look of the original restaurant, took on the job of creating a unique look for the Champion Forge locale, which had previously been home to an Italian restaurant and was awash in marble and tile. Taking a cue from the building’s 19th century industrial heritage, brick walls were exposed. Windows throughout the restaurant exude an industrial look, as does the lighting in the bar area. The sweeping bar is topped with stone. A wall is hung with historic photos and framed bills of sale that relate to the Champion Blower & Forge Company, which was founded in 1875 by 17-year-old Henry Keiper, who revolutionized blacksmithing with his innovative products.
The industrial theme is balanced by elegance. The entry area is a focal point and features a gas fireplace (surrounded by a beautiful mantel and surmounted by an elegantly framed mirror) and a portrait of Henry Keiper. Earth tones – brown and gray – define the color scheme in the dining areas and bar. Dark wood abounds. Chandeliers bring sparkle to the dining areas.
Varying levels and partial walls serve to create the intimate spaces that defined the original location. A casual seating area provides a place to await friends or enjoy a drink. Seating in the dining areas includes tables and banquettes. Wine buffs often request the table for two near the glass-enclosed wine room. A private dining area is used for weekend dining as well as social functions. Finally, there are no TVs to be found, not even in the bar. “We want people to engage with one another; when there are TVs in a restaurant or bar area, the gentlemen are usually focused on sports rather than their companions,” David observes. As a result, “We’ve found that our ‘regulars’ have gotten to know one another.”
It may seem a bit odd to speak about restrooms, but even here the attention to detail stands out. The door to the restroom area playfully proclaims “the loo,” which is a tribute to David’s U.K. background. The ladies’ room is decorated with striking vintage evening bags; like pieces of art, they are framed.
As for the culinary side of the restaurant, David notes, “Our goal is good service and good food – consistently. To meet that goal, we do a lot of training. Servers spend nine months to a year in training and, every day before lunch and dinner, we have a pre-meeting where they get to taste the specials. Our chefs rotate through different kitchen stations, so they’re familiar with the entire process. We’re all still learning.”
The menu pays homage to Asian and French influences, as well as traditional American dishes with a twist. For example, Peking duck tacos have become a signature item. The free-range chicken is stuffed with croutons, mixed mushrooms, thyme and truffle oil and is served with sautéed spinach and smashed potatoes. The dry-aged New York strip is drizzled with cranberry chipotle demi-glace. The seared diver scallops (from Prince Edward Island) are accompanied by truffled creamed leeks and are finished with a port wine reduction. The menu is updated seasonally; David estimates that about 25% of the menu is changed out to take advantage of fresh, local items, including vegetables. The dessert menu is equally as adventurous and includes items such as crème brulée and house-made ice cream.
The bar serves up signature cocktails, cordials, port, sherry, cognac and whiskies. There are also a number of beers available, including draft and bottled craft beers (a selection is from Lancaster’s Wacker Brewing). The wine list includes a number of wines by the glass as well as an array of bottled wine.
Checkers Bistro is located at 398 Harrisburg Ave., Suite 700, Lancaster. Lunch hours are 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. Dinner hours are 5-10 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday, and 5-9 p.m., Sunday. Saturday brunch is offered 11:30-2 p.m. The bar is open until 10 p.m., Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, and 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Dining reservations are recommended and can be made online. Call 509-1069 or visit checkersbistro.com.