Bob Creager thinks Guy Fieri is going to be mad when he finds out about the move.
Back in 2008, Creager’s restaurant, Chaps Pit Beef, was featured on Fieri’s Food Network show, “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.” Opened in 1987 and located in a shack in a strip club parking lot, Chaps fell strictly in the “dive” category, Creager said. Fieri, the baby-faced, blond-haired TV host known as “the Mayor of Flavortown,” loved it. “He told me, ‘Don’t you dare change anything,’” Creager recalled.
For a long time, Creager followed Fieri’s advice, keeping the original Chaps the same even as the company added a new location in Aberdeen and franchises in Glen Burnie and Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. During a recent visit to the Pulaski Highway spot that proclaims “Guy ate here” on a sign emblazoned with Fieri’s silhouette, the walls were cloaked in a patina of dust. Oscillating fans provided only meager relief against a sweltering heat. In the kitchen, where staff tend to coal-fired grills to cook the restaurant’s famed beef, temperatures can reach 110 degrees, Creager said.
But 15 years after Fieri’s visit and subsequent trips by the likes of Anthony Bourdain, Creager has had enough of the heat. This fall, he and his staff will move to a new building just next door, one with bright lights, freshly painted walls, high ceilings, new picnic benches for seating and, yes, a fully-functioning air conditioning system. It’s a huge upgrade from the original location.
But a dive? No.
The timeline for the move has been pushed back a few times, from late spring, to summer, to now “maybe early fall,” according to a note in the window. Creager, who had been hoping to get into the new building before the summer arrived, chalked it up to equipment delays and other issues. “I want everything perfect,” he said.
Creager said he’s sure Fieri wouldn’t approve of the relocation — no matter how slight — even in the heat. “He would have told me to suck it up and stay here.” (A spokeswoman for Fieri did not respond to a request for comment.)
It’s a source of ironic pride to many Baltimoreans that one of the region’s most iconic sandwiches is sold in the parking lot of a strip club. The restaurant’s entrance is just a few feet away from a truck advertising fully nude girls seven nights a week, and the all-male “golden rods,” who appear on Fridays.
It wasn’t always so. In the 1980s, that club was also called Chaps, named the top singles’ bar in America by Playboy magazine, Creager said. That’s where he met his wife, Donna, who was the daughter of the club’s owner. “She was an excellent bartender and I was an excellent drinker,” Creager said. “It was love at first sight.”
At the time, Creager, then 21, had been working for a steel processing plant, but “I never really wanted to do anything but cook.” And pit beef was taking off on this part of Pulaski Highway in the 1980s, on its way to becoming one of Baltimore’s signature dishes, just second to crab cakes and right up there with egg custard snowballs. As a wedding present to the couple, Donna’s father, Gus Glava, gifted them $6,000 to help launch a pit beef stand in the lot of their nightclub.
The Creagers’ pit beef stand kept the name Chaps even after Donna’s dad sold the property to a new owner, who replaced the singles bar with The Gentlemen’s Gold Club. “They’re great landlords,” Creager said. “There’s never any trouble in our parking lot.” Mostly, there’s not much overlap in the clientele.
In the beginning, Creager “struggled a lot.” The shed where meat was sold had no electricity or running water. An extension cord powered up a cash register and exhaust fan.
Then Mike DeCarlo of Big Al’s, another pit beef spot that used to operate on the same road, took Creager under his wing and taught him the trade. The secret to good pit beef, Creager said, isn’t really a secret. Take a good piece of meat, grill it over charcoal, “slice it right” and you’re good to go. But the key is volume. “The more you sell, the better it is,” he said. If the beef sits around too long, it tends to dry out; no amount of tiger sauce — that horseradish and mayo hybrid — can save it. Perhaps it follows, then, that Chaps’ success has built on itself. The more people keep buying it, the better it tastes.
“This is like the American dream, what happened,” Creager said. “I had nothing [when I started]. No car, no money, no education. I dropped out of school in the ninth grade. … Imagine that.”
Creager’s dedication and big personality have also helped drive the restaurant’s longevity. Though he’s now 58 years old, he’s still in the kitchen, sweating it up with his employees. “I wanna be the best,” he said. “Plus, I like to work. I don’t know how to do anything else.” Donna still works with the business, too. “She’s the brains behind it all,” Creager said. “I’m just crazy enough to show up every day.”
During a recent visit, customers at Chaps didn’t seem too concerned that the upcoming move will impact the character of the business.
Pat Plummer, who visits the restaurant every other week or so (”Sometimes I’m too lazy to cook dinner,” she said), is looking forward to the new building, which will offer more space for customers to wait. She’s seen lines that snake out the door of the current spot, which can be miserable when it’s hot or raining.
”I don’t think it’s going to change anything,” said another customer, who came from Las Vegas and declined to give his name. “He’s wanted in four states,” quipped his dining companion, Jeanne Trombley of Minneapolis.
The two friends, both retirees, visit Chaps every time they’re in Baltimore. They learned about the restaurant more than a decade ago from “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.”