When Ryan Nelson first arrived in the Czech Republic about five years ago, he didn’t find many burger joints. “Some pubs or places that catered to younger people just put one or two on the menu,” he remembers. But times have changed. These days, there are enough burger options in Prague to fill an entire blog.
So Nelson filled a different need when he decided to open his Chicago Grill in Liberec: bringing quality burgers to the ‘burbs. “There’s a niche in smaller cities that don’t have this, or the opportunity to go to Prague,” he explained. Instead of trying to compete with Dish, Blackdog, or The Tavern, Nelson decided to keep his talent behind the grill in his own backyard.
And since opening in October 2012 the locals have shown their appreciation, packing the intimate forty-five-seat dining room on a regular basis. While Nelson didn’t plan on becoming a dining destination, he’s discovered customers who think his food is worth the commute from Děčín to Hradec Králové, and everywhere in between. The central location, just a two-minute walk from Fugnerova bus station, means that Prague customers interested in a taste can hop on a Student Agency bus (every hour on the hour from Černý Most) and be home again before they’ve even finished digesting.
The menu gives visitors ten different types of burgers to choose from including the BBQ Ranch (159 CZK), Spicy Jalapeño (159 CZK) and the Uncle Sam double bacon cheeseburger (199 CZK). Creative customers can take advantage of the recently launched “Build Your Own Burger” menu, giving guests unlimited options of bread, meat, toppings, sauces and sides.
American classics round out the rest of the extensive menu. Starters include Onion Rings (79 CZK), and nachos covered in chili, cheese, lettuce, tomato, sour cream and salsa (139 CZK). You’ll find various combinations of Chicken Wings in Buffalo, BBQ, Mango-Habanero or Garlic Parmesan Sauce dotting most tables on Wing Wednesdays thanks to a discounted price of 5 CZK per wing (normally 6 for 69 CZK/12 for 129 CZK). Other main course options include steaks, salads, soups, sandwiches, quesadillas and the chef’s personal favorite BBQ ribs, plus a daily lunch menu.
Chicago Grill has also become Liberec’s go to destination for American holidays – particularly Thanksgiving. From Thursday to Sunday last year, The Grill offered a special menu including butternut squash soup, spinach salad, mashed sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce and stuffing, plus turkey roasted to perfection and a choice of pumpkin cheesecake or apple pie. It wasn’t just the table of expats filling the rear dining room that made that Saturday their highest-selling day since opening. Czechs trying the traditional meal for the first time came back with rave reviews and had Nelson rush-ordering far more turkey than he had planned.
One thing that Chicago Grill brings to the table is a truly authentic American experience. “We do it how it’s done in America,” Nelson insists. And with over twenty years of restaurant experience, he’s a stickler for details – particularly his ingredients.
“At the beginning, maybe I didn’t do my homework enough. I just thought I could go out and find everything,” he admits. “But it really took some time to pin down the importers to bring it to the quality and standard that I need. I get things like cheddar cheese, maple syrup and real American bacon from a supplier in Prague. Even the burger buns are imported from England. There’s also huge Mexican influence in Chicago, so you see a lot of that on the menu, and that’s all imported.”
While finding supplies proved tricky, there were some elements of expat life that made the opening experience easier. “It’s much cheaper to get started,” he explained, “and there’s no bother about a liquor license. Seriously, that’s one of the biggest things about restaurant start-ups in the US, you have to prove your worthiness to the God of the Liquor Commission before he grants you a license, and then one small slip, and you lose it. Here you just need a business license to sell goods, and you can sell anything from Pepsi to absinthe and nobody cares.”
One of the most difficult decisions Nelson faced was whether to allow smoking in the restaurant. “Twenty years ago I was a heavy smoker,” he said. “One of the reasons I came to the Czech Republic was that I knew I could smoke in pubs or wherever.” But after consulting with multiple Czech friends and watching the trend of Western European countries banning cigarettes indoors, he decided to get ahead of the game. “The Czechs will hold out as long as possible, but the smoking ban will come.”
Nelson found a unique way to celebrate his first year in business. Just weeks after celebrating the one-year anniversary of the restaurant, he married his long-term Czech girlfriend. Now, after spending most of the first year devoted to the restaurant, he’s looking forward to taking a little time for himself and his new family. “When I can walk through the dining room on a busy night and see that the place is packed, everyone is having a good time and the staff is doing what they’re supposed to do, that’s really satisfying. Then we can go and have a quiet cocktail somewhere. It wasn’t like that six months ago.”
The restaurant continues to grow at a rate that has exceeded even his most optimistic estimates, and Nelson is now looking at plans to expand his current space to serve more customers. With a booming business and firmly planted roots, this expat has no plans to return to his restaurant’s namesake and hometown of Chicago. “This feels like home. I still hate the language,” he grinned, “but I feel comfortable here.”
With additional reporting by Lani Seelinger.
What’s your favorite out-of-the-way burger joint?