New Kate’s owner makes his mark

Changes to restau­rant in­clude sushi, live mu­sic, up­dated decor

Newark Post - - Front Page - By KARIE SIM­MONS ksim­mons@ches­pub.com

It’s been roughly six months since Gian­marco Mar­tus­celli pur­chased Klondike Kate’s and be­gan putting his stamp on the fa­mous eatery.

A sea­soned restau­ran­teur, he felt the pres­sure to im­press, but made sure to step lightly, care­ful not to make dras­tic changes that would up­set the stu­dents, alumni and res­i­dents who have been en­joy­ing Kate’s since 1979.

“It’s like you’re the new kid in school and ev­ery­one’s al­ready been here,” said Mar­tus­celli, who also owns Ches- apeake Inn Restau­rant & Ma­rina in Ch­e­sa­peake City, Md., and La Casa Pasta off South Col­lege Av­enue near Ne­wark.

The im­prove­ments he has made,

though, are no­tice­able.

Mar­tus­celli in­stalled new bar light­ing, hung vin­tagestyle signs and put up Univer­sity of Delaware mem­o­ra­bilia high­light­ing some of the school’s most fa­mous sports stars like Joe Flacco, Elena Delle Donne and for­mer foot­ball coach Tubby Ray­mond. Up­stairs, he gave the Rock­well Room a fresh coat of paint and new wall­pa­per, pol­ished the floors, added fans to keep pa­trons cool, put in vin­tage booths and light fixtures and ex­tended the up­stairs bar to in­crease ser­vice on busy week­end nights.

“My staff were jok­ing be­cause when I first started, ev­ery day there was some­thing new,” he said.

Some dé­cor, how­ever, Mar­tus­celli left un­touched. The photo col­lages of alumni still hang on the walls of the back stair­case, and down­stairs still boasts the Wall of Foam, which rec­og­nizes loyal cus­tomers and some of the bar’s fa­vorite alumni.

One de­ci­sion he strug­gled with was whether to keep Kate’s iconic ta­bles, which pa­trons have carved their names into over the decades. He ul­ti­mately de­cided to re­place the ta­bles in the din­ing ar­eas, but kept one carved ta­ble in the front cor­ner of the restau­rant as a nod to the cus­tomers who par­tic­i­pated in the tra­di­tion. He also built a ledge around the win­dow us­ing scraps from some of the old ta­bles.

“I thought peo­ple would want to come in and still see that stuff, like alumni would want to see their name and say, ‘I carved that,’” he said. “The new ta­bles are al­ready start­ing to get carved any­ways. It is what it is.”

Through­out the ren­o­va­tions, Mar­tus­celli made sure to keep Kate’s Vic­to­rian feel in­tact.

“It’s got a lot of his­tory,” he said. “You can’t make this place mod­ern.”

Kate’s dates back to 1880, when the cur­rent three­story build­ing was built as a pub­lic meet­ing space and post of­fice with the city’s jail in the base­ment — the cells still re­main in the cel­lar. Through the years, it has hosted a pool hall, court­room, bar­ber­shop, a skat­ing rink and movie theater, be­fore be­com­ing the restau­rant and bar it is to­day.

Its name de­rives from “Klondike” Kate Rock­well, a vi­va­cious dancer who moved to the Yukon dur­ing the gold rush and earned the nick­name “Klondike Kate, Queen of the Yukon.” She later opened a bar and was well­known for her gen­eros­ity.

The busi­ness’ more than two cen­tury his­tory made him a little ner­vous, but Mar­tus­celli said he’s pre­pared to see it live on much longer, so he added some new tech­nol­ogy to bring it up to speed.

Hostesses now use a pro­gram that texts cus­tomers when their ta­ble is ready, al­low­ing cus­tomers to pe­ruse the shops on Main Street while they wait in­stead of stand­ing in the en­trance. There is also a flatscreen TV on the back wall down­stairs that pro­motes food spe­cials and mu­sic and is also con­nected to In­sta­gram. Cus­tomers who use the hash­tag #KlondikeKate’s will see their photos fea­tured on the screen.

Aside from the fact that Kate’s needed a little spruc­ing up, one of the first things Mar­tus­celli no­ticed af­ter he and his wife, Gilda, bought Kate’s in Novem­ber from busi­ness­man Alan Burkhard – Kate’s owner since 2005 – was the restau­rant’s mas­sive menu. He said there were two sizes for ev­ery burger and more than 20 side dishes, from mashed pota­toes to fries to sev­eral dif­fer­ent veg­etable op­tions.

“It was crazy how much was on that menu, just from a busi­ness stand­point as far as or­der­ing the in­gre­di­ents and for the chefs to prep all of that,” he said.

He de­cided to keep the top sell­ers for the past two years and scale back the rest. Kate’s burg­ers now come in just a half-pound size, ex­cept for the new menu item “Call An Uber” burger, which is a pound of beef, dou­ble pat­ties, cheese, ap­ple­wood smoked ba­con, sauteed mush­rooms, let­tuce, tomato, onion rings and chipo­tle ranch on brioche roll. Food coma not is in­cluded, Mar­tus­celli said.

He also cut the sides down to just eight and added a sea­sonal veg­gie that’s up to the chefs to de­cide.

“It gives our chefs more cre­ativ­ity in the kitchen and a little flex­i­bil­ity in terms of the mar­ket,” he said.

Di­verg­ing from the typ­i­cal pub food, Mar­tus­celli took a risk and put sushi on the menu, start­ing with 10 rolls and re­cently ex­pand­ing to 20 rolls af­ter hear­ing pos­i­tive feed­back from cus­tomers. He also added a few fa­vorite dishes from the fam­ily’s other restau­rants, in­clud­ing Ch­e­sa­peake Inn’s mus­sels fra di­avolo and crab cakes, and La Casa Pasta’s home­made chicken parmi­giana and a pasta with shrimp, scal­lops and crab meat in an aurora cream sauce he re­named “Gold Rush Penne.”

Mar­tus­celli kept Kate’s ever-pop­u­lar wings, na­chos and burger night spe­cials, as­suag­ing fears from long­time pa­trons.

“If I had a dol­lar for ev­ery per­son who told me not to touch the na­chos, I could re­tire,” he said.

He did, how­ever, change the spe­cials’ pol­icy to dinein only. He said a del­uge of take­out or­ders on Mon­day’s burger night and Tues­day’s na­chos night backed up the restau­rant’s kitchen and put stress on the staff.

The DJ and danc­ing is still up­stairs for col­lege stu­dents on the week­ends, but now Kate’s of­fers acous­tic mu­sic down­stairs dur­ing the week for older adults and fam­i­lies.

“I don’t want peo­ple to think Kate’s is just a party place,” Mar­tus­celli said. “I want peo­ple to come with their fam­i­lies and have a few drinks. I want it to just be a great neigh­bor­hood restau­rant.”

The changes are go­ing over well with loyal pa­trons like Bill Thom­son, a UD alum­nus and Not­ting­ham Green res­i­dent who has been com­ing to Kate’s for decades. Ev­ery day around happy hour, he joins a group of long­time cus­tomers at the back cor­ner of the bar, where they share a few beers and watch the game on TV.

“No mat­ter how many own­ers change hands, they can’t scare us off,” Thom­son said, laugh­ing.

C.R. Bur­ris, a Ne­wark res­i­dent and UD alum­nus, said their group thought Kate’s was nice be­fore Mar­tus­celli took over, but it didn’t hurt to spruce the place up a bit. Although he hasn’t tried the new food yet, he has no­ticed the ren­o­va­tions and ap­plauded the new owner for all of his hard work.

“You can tell he re­ally knows how to run a restau­rant and bar,” he said.

Bur­ris added that it’s been a “smooth tran­si­tion.”

“It’s tough to come into an es­tab­lished restau­rant and make changes. It’s like walk­ing a tightrope,” Bur­ris said. “He kept things like the Wall of Foam, which is good be­cause that’s part of the charm of this place.”

NE­WARK POST PHOTO BY KARIE SIM­MONS

Gian­marco Mar­tus­celli has made sev­eral changes to Klondike Kate’s since he pur­chased the restau­rant in Novem­ber.

PHOTO COURTESY OF KLONDIKE KATES

New owner Gian­marco Mar­tus­celli in­stalled new light­ing to the down­stairs bar at Klondike Kate’s and cre­ated a weekly live mu­sic sched­ule, among other changes to the restau­rant.

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