You may be mourning the departure of Spats Cafe and Speakeasy from its former East College Avenue location, but the beloved local restaurant has found a new home just down the street. Spats at the Grill is the result of a happy marriage between two State College dining icons, as the Allen Street Grill recently acquired the Spats name and menu, as well as a few of the staff.
Joe Shulman, the CEO of Hotel State College & Company, which is the parent company overseeing Spats at the Grill, said he's known Spats owners Duke and Monica Gastiger for many years. Spats closed in late January, along with the Gastiger's All-American Rathskeller.
"When the opportunity became available — when they were no longer in their location — (I) made a call to talk with them about potential opportunities to merge," Shulman said. "I knew it would be a mutually beneficial arrangement.”
The opportunity came just at the right time, as Shulman had been considering a concept change for the Allen Street Grill for about four years.
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“We had good food, but we didn’t have unique food, in my opinion,” he said.
While he was leaning toward a family-style Italian concept, he was concerned about isolating some of his existing customer base with the dramatic shift. The Spats scenario, however, was the perfect opportunity to blend the American grill with cajun and creole cuisine, forming a new identity and attracting a more niche market.
“It enabled us to merge the best of both menus,” Shulman said. “Therefore I didn’t have to really risk losing existing customers. I just had the opportunity to add on incremental business through Spats’ customer base.”
While the combined menu is meeting rave reviews from loyal fans of both the Allen Street Grill and States, the process wasn’t as easy as just combining the menus.
“We had to bring over the talent,” Shulman said. “The executive chef is working with us, the sous chef ... we have four or five back-of-the-house folks in addition that are working with us, as well as seven or so front-of-the-house folks that have brought over (their) experience ... I truly think we have, at this point, the best talent in the area relative to the food that we offer.”
Creating a new menu did require cutting a few items, but the resulting selection is the best of both restaurants. Shulman said there were choices between various steak, chicken and salad items, in order to prioritize quality over quantity.
Diners will also notice, however, brand-new menu items. Among the “Tapas to Share” options is a tempting seafood nachos dish.
“It’s outstanding,” Shulman said.
Starting with corn tortilla chips, the dish features a sauce created from a sherry crab bisque base and queso, and topped with an abundant array of seafood — scallops, crawfish, crabmeat and shrimp. It’s finished off with a little pico de gallo, jalapeños and cilantro.
“We also developed a sashimi tuna taco — basically raw ahi tuna with a jicama edamame slaw and then there’s some sesame seeds, siracha and wasabi aioli and the actual taco shell is a fried egg roll,” Shulman said. “Both the seafood nachos and the sashimi tuna tacos have been big hits. That’s a credit to our kitchen and the talent we have, that they’re able to merge ideas and create additional items that have been big hits for us so far.”
The bar, which is undergoing some slight decorative changes for a more "N’Awlins" feel, features “various drinks that are indicative to the New Orleans lifestyle.” Specialty cocktails include a tequila blueberry smash, French old fashioned and espresso martini with a hazelnut orange foam.
And for dessert? You can still find the homemade favorites from both original eateries — from pecan, key lime and peanut butter pies, to the decadent tres leches and flourless chocolate cakes.