This fall, Williamsburg’s Merrimac Trail will become home to a unique new restaurant, Casa Pearl. Although its name suggests a Mexican eatery, it will not be just a chips-and-salsa kind of place. Rather, Casa Pearl — loosely translated as House of Oysters — will offer a playful, eclectic menu focused mainly on fresh local seafood joined by an assortment of Latin-inspired dishes, all served up in the fun and funky atmosphere of a former Texaco gas station.
From Carolina-style oyster roasts and Chesapeake crab boils on the patio to an extensive raw bar selection, most of Casa Pearl’s food will be fish. And, to keep it interesting, much of it will be wrapped in a tortilla. Taco offerings will range from grilled fish marinated with chimichurri, cilantro soy aioli, and Asian cabbage slaw to a non-fish, Southern-inspired fried chicken, cole slaw, pimento cheese, and bread-and-butter pickles.
Casa Pearl is the first-time venture of Chelsea and Mikey Maksimowicz, young chefs with fine dining pedigrees and a commitment to making this seafood restaurant with Latin and Southern tones a place that offers creative, fine dining food in a casual, family-friendly setting.
Mikey: From Crabbing to Cheffing. Mikey, 32, grew up in Virginia’s Northern Neck, where his dad, the owner of a trucking company, indulged his passion for crabbing by also becoming a licensed commercial crab fisherman.
“I literally grew up with the lower Potomac River at my back door,” Mikey notes. “During summers in high school I was pulling crab pots and selling crabs to local stores. Cooking seafood was our family’s hobby.”
The summer between high school and college, Mikey “lived the dream” in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, surfing by day and washing dishes for a local restaurant by night. In the fall, he headed to Virginia Wesleyan College planning to become a history teacher, but he was miserable. The summer after freshman year, Mikey headed back to the Outer Banks.
“It’s so bizarre,” Mikey says. “I remember the pinnacle moment the summer after my first year of college, when I was 18 and back working at the restaurant. I just fell in love with knives and fire. I was looking to the older cooks who were working the grill and sauté stations that summer. I slowly stopped washing dishes and was able to use a knife and do cut work. From there, I was absolutely addicted.”
Mikey decided not to return to college, and instead applied to The French Culinary Institute in New York City.
“I totally dropped everything and immersed myself in the restaurant culture,” he says. “If you don’t love it, if you aren’t 100% passionate about it, it’s miserable to work in a restaurant because it’s hot and stressful and tensions are high. But it was my passion for food and the lifestyle – the fast pace, the adrenalin rush when it gets really busy – that’s what I fell in love with.”
Mikey continued his training in France and worked at restaurants in Argentina, Florida, and then Washington, D.C. In 2012, he became Executive Sous Chef at the Blue Duck Tavern in D.C. He met Chelsea there and they married in 2016.
Chelsea: Following Her Childhood Passion. Chelsea, 28, spent much of her childhood in Oregon, where she developed a passion for cooking Latin dishes such as pupusas, tacos, quesadillas, and enchiladas from her mother, who is from Central America, and her maternal grandmother. Her Irish-German paternal grandmother also taught her to bake.
In high school, Chelsea nurtured her love of cooking by competing on the school’s culinary team.
“We would work on recipes and desserts for weeks; it was a very “Chopped” type of thing,” she explains. “I enjoyed the adrenalin rush, team bonding and team atmosphere. It was very inspiring to me — that kind of rush when you are in the kitchen and someone is judging you.”
Chelsea also was a top volleyball player, playing on the US team in high school before suffering an injury during her senior year. She decided to forego college to pursue her love of cooking by training at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in London, then finishing her program in Oregon. Her first job was with 2941, a fine dining restaurant located just outside Washington, D.C. Like Mikey, she fell in love with the restaurant culture.
“The chef at 2941, Bertrand Chemel, had won so many awards and was so inspiring,” Chelsea says. “I just fell in love with the way he manipulated food; it was so visually beautiful and it tasted amazing. And the camaraderie there was awesome. I knew this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
Ready for Restaurant Ownership. Working in a restaurant can be grueling, and for a brief period two years ago, Chelsea and Mikey decided to try regular, 40-hour jobs. They were both unhappy, and within six months were back in the kitchen, ready to move forward with a plan to open their own restaurant, a plan that had been brewing for years.
“I started planning for my own restaurant 10 years ago,” says Mikey. “The whole reason I went into this business was because I wanted to be my own boss. I saw my dad do this as owner of his trucking business. He worked very hard, but he didn’t have to answer to anyone else. My whole life I wanted to do that, to be my own boss and control my own destiny.”
Chelsea, also instilled with a strong work ethic by her parents, felt the same way.
“Mikey and I have that in common; it’s something we love about each other, that we both put our heart and soul into everything we do. It will be great to work so hard and see the results — not like when you work for someone else and they see the results.”
Mikey relishes the opportunity, noting that he is already well prepared for transitioning from someone else’s chef to chef-owner.
“There will be very little difference,” he maintains. “In D.C., I worked with an iconic chef and restaurateur Jeffrey Buben for many years. The most important advice he ever gave me was: ‘Now, when you are young and while you are in the kitchen, you need to start thinking like an owner, acting like an owner, and spending money like an owner, so when it comes time to do your own thing all these good habits will be instilled.’”
Mikey took that advice to heart. “At every restaurant, I’ve worked at during the past 10 years, I’ve put in long hours and worked like an owner to prime myself for when I would be an owner.”
Creating a Diverse and Eclectic Menu. From the time they began planning together, the couple knew their place would offer an unlikely but exciting combination of the types of food they cherished from their childhoods.
From Mikey’s perspective, the restaurant’s focus had to be on fish. Like his family, Chef Mikey, who will handle the kitchen and the back of the house for Casa Pearl, will take full advantage of the bounty of the Chesapeake, offering a raw bar and special seafood events such as oyster roasts and crab boils.
”On weekends during crabbing season, my Dad will be on the patio doing a crab roast,” Mikey notes. “He’s going to sell us the crabs he catches and bring the bushels for customers to buy what they want, along with appetizers and beer. It’s like a spin on farm-to-table; this is river-to-table.”
Among the seafood dishes that will be featured as a special on Casa Pearl’s menu is shrimp and grits.
“As cliché as it sounds, when I was in Charleston I became very fond of shrimp and grits,” Mikey says. “It’s a dish that’s so prevalent down there, and it can get kind of mundane, but if you elevate it, you can make it something special.”
“Also, my mom is making me put it on the menu,” he admits, laughing. “I started making it for her close to when I first started cooking, and she just fell in love with it. Now, when I cook for her, that is what she always requests.”
Although Chelsea had cooked shellfish in restaurants, eating it was a new experience. Now she especially loves shrimp and crab; Mikey calls her “addicted.”
Conversely, Chelsea took Mikey, who was not very familiar with ethnic foods, out of his culinary comfort zone with the Latin-inspired dishes she had made with her family. He now claims to have “fallen in love with those flavor profiles.”
Chelsea, who will serve as Casa Pearl’s General Manager and oversee the front of the house, will also make deserts, most of them inspired by her German-Irish Grandma Carol. Among the grandma-inspired confections planned for Casa Pearl are pot de crème, panna cotta, and a seasonal cheesecake. A special seasonal dessert that Chelsea’s mom makes – apple cake — will also have a place on the menu.
The restaurant will have daily happy hours with appetizers such as oysters and small bites. It will feature beer and spirits from local establishments such as Virginia Beer Company and Copper Fox distillery along with rose wine on tap, cocktails and Slurpy-style frozen adult drinks.
Choosing That Gas Station. The couple considered several locations for their restaurant: Richmond, Williamsburg, and the Washington, D.C. area. On a trip to Williamsburg to look at potential properties, they drove by a vacant gas station and inspiration struck.
“Chelsea and I both fell in love with the idea of creating our restaurant from an old gas station,” Mikey says, noting that Chelsea once worked in a Charleston restaurant that was a renovated gas station. Although the Williamsburg gas station was not on the market, they contacted the owner to negotiate a deal and closed on the 1,200 square foot building on a half-acre lot in February 2018.
What did they see in the old building that most of us would not?
“Honestly, the biggest thing was the roll-up garage doors,” Mikey explains. “Right now, it’s an ugly building, but I could just see in my mind’s eye some beautiful, clear window garage doors that roll up, with seating areas both inside and outside.”
“We wanted to keep the original awning for the covered outside areas, but it wasn’t structurally sound” Mikey adds. “Once we take down the awning, it will be kind of hard to recognize it as a gas station. But with the two massive garage doors spanning half the width of the building there will be no mistaking that it was once some sort of auto body shop.” The exterior will have a nautical theme, with gray siding, gooseneck lighting all around the building, and red awnings.
The outside patio will be dog friendly, and the couple plans to have activities such as cornhole games in addition to special food events.
The interior of the restaurant, which will be expanded to 1,600 square feet, will have exposed ceilings and concrete floors. “We’ll also keep the walls of original concrete block,” Mikey says. “And the station has some really cool, old school shiplap that we are going to re-purpose as the back of a bar that runs across the width of the restaurant. That’s where we will have a raw bar on display for fresh shrimp, clams, mussels, and oysters, with an oyster shucker behind the bar.”
The new restaurant will be open six days a week, for lunch and dinner; on Fridays and Saturdays, it will be open until 11:30 pm.
“We noticed that Williamsburg is pretty quiet after 11 pm on Fridays and Saturdays, although restaurant people are just getting out of work at that time and are usually hungry,” Mikey notes. “So we want to stay open later than everyone else and capture that late night business.”
What’s In The Name? Choosing the restaurant’s name was a family project, Chelsea says. . After a few brainstorming sessions and some pretty funny group text conversations, and we landed on Casa Pearl. We wanted something that was different and that encompassed tacos and oysters together. We wanted there to be no question about the concept.”
Chefs With A Mission. Chelsea and Mikey are clear about the type of atmosphere Casa Pearl will offer.
“Our mission will be to serve top quality product in a casual atmosphere,” Mikey says. “Hospitality, to me, is the most important aspect of a restaurant. So, for every single person who comes in our doors, we will welcome them, make them feel at home, and feel special. Because that’s why you go out to eat. Whether to a Michelin star restaurant or the place down the street, you’re going for the experience of it, and that’s what we want to provide.”
“All of our culinary careers, we have worked at the top echelon, the expensive restaurants, fine dining, stuffy atmosphere,” he adds. “You go there and ask yourself: ‘Should I wear a tie, do I need a jacket, am I allowed to touch this, am I talking too loud?’ That’s not how we want to be. We want to be a family-friendly establishment and a fun place. We want to have the quality of food and service of a fine dining establishment, but we very much want to have a casual atmosphere, a come-as-you-are place to bring your kids and be a little rambunctious.”
The couple has been living in Williamsburg for several months, delighted to make it their permanent home and to become immersed in their new community. They have family nearby, including Mikey’s parents on the Northern Neck and his sister and brother-in-law here in town, who are all silent partners in Casa Pearl. Mikey and Chelsea are currently commuting to jobs at Rappahannock Restaurant in Richmond, but plan to leave their positions to devote full efforts to Casa Pearl about 3 months before its planned October opening. Their excitement is infectious.
“There are very few things in life where you can get instant gratification,” says Mikey. “In a restaurant, after you pour your heart and soul into a dish, you immediately get to see a response from your diner, positive or negative. There are very few things in life that offer that”.
Williamsburg, Virginia 23185
Follow along with their progress on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/eatcasapearl/
and Instagram https://www.instagram.com/casa_pearl/
Best of luck to Chelsea and Mikey in the opening of their new restaurant. I hope to see you there in the future!
Psst, I’m a different sort of real estate agent.
This post was authored by local resident and REALTOR, John Womeldorf. John is known around town as Mr. Williamsburg, for both his extensive knowledge of the Williamsburg/ Hampton Roads/ Richmond VA area and his expertise helping buyers and sellers in the local real estate market.
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