When legendary South Jersey Chef Lisa Savage closed the doors of her beloved Egg Harbor City gastropub Leatherheads last year, the disappointment among locals was immediate. Since that time, the space sat vacant, a gorgeous restaurant in a historic building without anyone cooking inside.
But, in the last few weeks, all of that has changed with the arrival of a brand new restaurant: Firehouse Bar & Grill.
Though the name and ownership may be new, much of the staff running it is part of the old guard.
Manager Nelo Sarmiento worked with Savage for 25 years and runs the back-of-the-house operations at Firehouse Bar & Grill, while Devin Winkelmann, who manages the front of the house, is a former Savage employee who worked under her as a server and bartender. Each know the space inside and out, as they worked at Leatherheads when it was open and are looking forward to seeing what Firehouse’s future may bring.
“I started working with Lisa when I was 17 years old, and she taught me everything about the restaurant business and how important it is to make everything fresh from scratch,” Sarmiento says.
Eventually Savage sold the business to Antonio Roman, a friend and colleague of Sarmiento’s, and after a few months of getting things ready, Firehouse opened its doors in December.
“As soon as I got the call to come and work at the Firehouse, I was ready to go,” Winkelmann says. “Nelo and I have worked together for years and are so happy to be able to do so again.”
The foodThe menu at Firehouse Bar & Grill is as approachable as you might expect from a casual bar and grill, but it’s also a bit larger than what you may remember from the old days.
“The menu is a little bit fuller than the Leatherheads menu used to be,” says Winkelmann. “Leatherheads gave us a good starting point, and we are just trying to grow and expand from there.”
Standout appetizers include French onion dumplings, a twist on your standard dumpling made with both provolone and gruyere cheeses that brings the flavors of the classic soup to a sharable format; and the wings, which guests can have coated in a variety of sauces, from a supremely tasty buffalo sauce that is available in either mild or hot, to their Firehouse habanero, which is as blazing as the name implies. Thai chili, BBQ and gochujang sauces are also available. Sliders expand beyond just your standard mini beef burgers, as Firehouse offers shrimp, chicken parm or meatball varieties, too.
Burgers stick to mostly traditional options, such as the charbroiled angus burger, an 8-ounce patty with cheddar, charred onions, lettuce and tomato; but for those looking to avoid red meat, check out the turkey burger served with Asian slaw and a Thai chili sauce, or a vegan burger with a vegan veggie patty topped with lettuce, onions, pickled jalapeno, avocado and chipotle mayo.
The sandwich selection is vast with classics like chicken parm and shrimp po boys, but if you look a little deeper you’ll find unique concoctions such as the stuffed grilled cheese, a sourdough-based treat with cheddar and mozzarella loaded up with sriracha hummus, zucchini, artichoke, tomato and baby spinach; or the cheesy Cajun pork sandwich made with slow-cooked pork, sharp cheddar, provolone, spicy broccoli rabe and chipotle aioli on sourdough.
A list of brick oven pizzas runs the gamut from plain cheese to meatball and white options, but the game changer is the signature Firehouse pizza – a Mexican-inspired delight topped with chorizo, jalapeno, red onion, cilantro cheddar and Monterey jack cheeses that is not to be missed.
Entrees cover a lot of ground, with pasta favorites like spaghetti and meatballs, fettucine alfredo, penne vodka and shrimp linguine sharing space with the Firehouse stuffed chicken or Mom’s Perfect Pork Chops – a hearty serving of two pork chops with sautéed mushrooms and onions and melted provolone in a demi glaze served with mashed potatoes and sautéed broccoli.
The drinksHalf the attraction at Firehouse Bar & Grill is the bar itself, where a long list of libations awaits. Signature cocktails include the Firehouse Smoky Margarita, which swaps tequila for mezcal and adds triple sec, simple syrup, muddled jalapeno and lime with a Cajun salt rim; or the Nutty Mule, which starts with peanut butter whiskey (yes, you read that right) and mixes in lemon and ginger beer for a truly outside-the-box drink. Those who love a sweet sipper will do well with the Spiced Root Beer Float, a concoction of spiced rum, Rumchata and root beer that can go toe-to-toe with anything you might find at your local soda shop.
Beer lovers will do fine at Firehouse, too, as there are 20 taps pouring mostly craft beers, with selections like Yard’s, Left Hand Milk Stout, Allagash White and many IPAs from breweries such as Stone and Fiddlehead, as well as some fruit beers and more. Local brews like Tuckahoe and Three 3s are featured regularly as part of a rotating lineup of taps and bottles.
The spaceOne of the best reasons to stop in at Firehouse Bar & Grill is simply to have a look around at the building itself. A former firehouse dating back to 1918, it oozes a gritty-yet-pretty charm that really adds to the atmosphere. Pseudo-industrial lighting fixtures and tones of deep gray fill the space, as does a palpable sense of history that is enhanced by various touches of firehouse memorabilia.
“The firehouse is over 100 years old, Winkelmann notes. “It was renovated by Lisa Savage when she opened Leatherheads, so there wasn’t much we had to do in the way of updating anything. The building speaks for itself. It’s an important local landmark and a lot of the locals really appreciate it. It’s important to the town’s history, and it’s been put to good use.”