Steaks, sides, spirits, pizza, burgers & beignets – Oh my!
A few years ago, a trio of tried-and true eateries descended on us beach dwellers. And in spite of their Maryland roots, each one has garnered a loyal following of discerning foodies. The creator and owner of these eateries is none other than Chris Agharabi. He’s waaayyy too humble to tell you he’s a discerning foodie, but I’m here to tell you that he definitely is.
Chris was born in New York and attended George Washington University. After spending a bit of time in sales, he enrolled in the (now closed) L'Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md. It made such an impression on him that he still stays in touch with his instructor, Chef Gerard Pangaud, the youngest chef to ever be awarded two Michelin stars in France.
After adding to what he calls his “culinary toolbox” at L’Academie, Chris moved on to work with Chef Damian Salvatore at Persimmon in Bethesda, Md. Maryland foodies probably know that owner Damian and his wife Stephanie recently sold the restaurant to three of their longtime employees.
The hustle and bustle of Bethesda (Washington, D.C.’s culinary mecca) proved to be a bit too much for Chris, so this New Yorker opened Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar (named for his daughter) in the quiet town of St. Michaels on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I asked him when that happened, and he said, “I opened Ava’s at the beginning of the quiet season, and everybody said I was crazy. Well, of course I was; I wouldn’t be in the restaurant business if I weren’t.”
Chris, whom I refer to on the radio as the Energizer Bunny, currently owns and operates five successful restaurants, and his philosophy is interesting. “When we first opened in St. Michaels, we picked out a couple of key customers that were never happy. Our goal was to make them happy. So we went for those people. We figured that that person would bring his friends, and that person – well, I don’t want to be unkind, but – might be a jerk. Well, not only are we experiencing that jerk, but his friends at the table are experiencing him, too. We worked hard to make him happy, figuring that his friends would think, ‘If they’re making this guy happy, the place has gotta be good!’ We made him happy, they noticed, and everyone was happy.”
The first Theo’s Steaks, Sides & Spirits (named in honor of Chris’ nephew) opened in St. Michaels next door to Ava’s. The Rehoboth Theo’s opened in early 2020 on Baltimore Avenue in downtown Rehoboth Beach. And it’s been standing room only since then. “We want the guest to feel like he or she is walking into our home,” Chris tells me. “It’s the guest’s night out, and we want to make it special. We want them to feel comfortable. We don’t want to be a ‘no’ restaurant. We want to be a ‘yes’ restaurant … within reason, of course.”
The full menu is at TheosSteakhouse.com/RehobothDE, but I have to mention a few standouts that hearken back to the ‘70s, like Chateaubriand, Steak Oscar with béarnaise and asparagus (last time I saw that was at the old Oscar’s where the Hotel Rehoboth is now) and their famous Thanksgiving Dinner 365 – fresh roasted turkey with all the Thanksgiving fixin’s. Chris says they sell the greatest number of these in the middle of the summer, and the least number around Thanksgiving. Go figure. By the way, current specials include $15 Sunday suppers – and one of them is the Thanksgiving 365 dinner.
When Jakes Seafood closed at the corner of Baltimore Avenue and First Street, there were a couple of fits and starts in that location, but nothing seemed to catch on. Well, Chris Agharabi broke that trend, duplicating his first St. Michaels spot with the Rehoboth incarnation of Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar. The restaurant is modeled after his restauranting philosophies outlined above, and has been wildly successful as a result. By the way, this month marks Ava’s 15th year in existence and they’re celebrating with some cool specials.
One of the shining stars at Ava’s is Executive Chef Alisha Knosp. I believe Alisha has not yet decided what she wants to be: an executive chef or a goodwill ambassador. In fact, she does both very well. When things aren’t particularly busy, don’t be surprised if she brings your order to your table, along with an enthusiastic description of why it will be so very good. The other star at Ava’s Rehoboth is the Detroit Pizza. Trust me … you’ll love this very unusual take on the popular treat. Appetize with Ma’s Meatballs, and do not leave there without getting an order of beignets. Wait ‘til you see how they’re served.
I use the term “tucked away” a lot, but Hammy’s Burgers & Shakes on The Highway is in the ultimate tucked-away location. The structure of the center by the Safeway makes it difficult to see some of the stores. But take my word for it, if you venture into that huge parking lot, you’ll be rewarded with cleverly curated burgers broiled over open flame, dangerously addictive adult milkshakes, and some of the best darned wings around. (Get the Thai Chili or the Jerk Wings. You can thank me later.)
If you’re not feeling burgerfied, the “Not Burgers” section on the menu will make you happy. As an aside, Hammy’s is named in honor of Chris Agharabi’s adorable beagle, Hamlet; so named because he is, in Chris’ words, “a tragic dog.” Can’t be too tragic to have a fun restaurant named after you!
So many restaurants, so little time! It’s time for the locals to come out and play, so check out these well-run spots as you explore our tasty little towns.