More than 40 years ago a man named George Stephen had had it with battling wind and rain every time he wanted to barbecue in his open brick grill. So Stephen, a metalworker at Weber Brothers Metal Works for about a decade, invented a covered metal kettle that was easy to start, regulate, and maintain in any type of weather. Today you can find Weber grills in backyards and on decks and balconies all over.
But at the Weber Grill Restaurant on Wheeling’s restaurant row, you’ll find them in the kitchen. First opened in 1989, the chaletlike, 136-seat Weber Grill says it’s the only restaurant in the world where nearly everything is prepared on indoor Weber Kettles. Head chef Michael Varanelli remembers when the Palatine-based Weber-Stephen Products company, the restaurant’s owner, approached him. “My first reaction was shock,” he says. “I said, “You’ll never be able to keep up with the charcoal. And it will take up too much space. As a cook I can’t watch charcoal.’ But once we sat down and decided what we’d be able to do, I realized I could get this product to work in a commercial environment.”
What was needed was an enormous supply of consumable oxygen to maintain temperatures of up to 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit and an efficient way to handle large amounts of charcoal. To do this they came up with “an elaborate exhaust and makeup air system,” says Robert Fox, director of operations. “I could tell you everything about it, but I won’t. I don’t want to give competitors the edge. It took a lot of time to design properly. It created quite a challenge. We can eject [smoke and steam] from the building quickly without “freezing’ the food or accelerating the burn time of the charcoal. We can control the air going in and out. It’s just basic physics–but it’s very complex.”
The Weber Grill uses approximately 1,000 pounds of charcoal a week; three black stovepipes heat the charcoal so there’s a ready supply for the grills–two 37.5 inches in diameter, four 26.5 inches. If the power goes out–and thus the exhaust–the grills are hastily wheeled outside and kept there until the power heats up or they cool down. There are seven overhead double-nozzled sprinklers. “We caution people never to try this at home,” says Varanelli. Burning charcoal in the house, he says, is asking for trouble.
But patrons can Weber indoors vicariously at the restaurant: the cooking can be observed through two large windows–white-clad chefs scurry around with food and charcoal, occasional puffs of thick smoke clouding the air and dissipating quickly. Wait staff wear black Weber-emblazoned backyard-chef aprons and white shirts and black ties. Ashtrays are little Weber Kettles. The ingredients for Irish coffee–a house specialty–are wheeled over on a grill and mixed right at the table, slowly swirled and warmed by a flame.
On the menu is basic comfort barbecue (chicken, ribs, pork chops) plus baked Alaska, ostrich, steaks stuffed with oysters, rack of lamb–but no hot dogs. Varanelli’s favorite is pork roast: “It takes a third less time, the juices and flavors are well maintained, and it turns out a very nice color.”
“When people walk in the door,” says Fox, “they perceive us as how they use their grill at home. If they make steak, they think of us as a steak place. If they do hamburgers and hot dogs, they think we must be a hamburger and hot dog place. We’re considered a fine dine, but we don’t want to take the next step and be a Le Francais”–a neighbor on restaurant row.
The Weber Grill also does some nongrilled items: not only key lime pie and tiramisu but dishes such as chicken marsala and sauteed trout. The kitchen has two conventional stoves and two ovens. “If six people come together, maybe one won’t have a taste for grilled,” says Fox.
But it’s the grilling that brings people back. “We have 95 percent repeat business,” says assistant manager Judy Varanelli, who is married to head chef Michael. About 600 dinners are grilled on a typical Saturday night. As many as 50 food items are grilled at a time.
“Most restaurants are busy on Mother’s Day and empty on Father’s Day–fathers take mothers out; mothers cook for fathers,” says Fox. “But on Father’s Day we’re packed. We’re perceived as a man’s restaurant. Grilling is perceived as a “male function.’ And when the weather gets cold and other restaurants are empty in January, we get very busy–people get cabin fever.”
The Weber Grill Restaurant is located at 920 N. Milwaukee in Wheeling. Call 847-215-0996 for more information.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Mike Tappin.