It was F. Scott Fitzgerald who wrote, "There are no second acts in American lives." He clearly never imagined Phil Davis, founder and proprietor of Phil the Fire, the restaurant that introduced Cleveland to the southern homestyle delicacy chicken and waffles — a unique combination of golden-brown fried chicken atop thick, cinnamon-spiced Belgian waffle, topped with butter and syrup. Phil the Fire — a nickname based on the Peabo Bryson song "Feel the Fire" — took Davis from a dazzling rise to a devastating fall, followed by a seven-year sojourn in the desert of legal troubles and a low-paying job loading boxes in the middle of the night.
The journey began in 2001, when Davis began serving Sunday brunch in the basement of The Civic in Cleveland Heights. His chicken and waffles became a sensation, enabling Davis to open Phil the Fire restaurants at Shaker Square and downtown. Then, fatefully, he relied on the promises of an unscrupulous hedge fund manager, leading to the loss of millions of investor dollars and the closing of Phil the Fire in 2004, followed by a rash of lawsuits.
"In January 2004, I was a local quasi-celebrity, and within a week went from being the toast of the town to the talk of the town," he reflects. "That was very humbling, because when your fall from grace is very public, you have nowhere to hide."
During those dark days, Davis underwent a period of personal growth. He worked out a plan to repay his debts and spent time caring for his daughter, Machiah, now 10, all the while keeping in mind a line from his mother's favorite poem, Invictus: "My head is bloody, but unbowed." He spent endless hours in the kitchen perfecting his recipes, and drew upon his business-school training to launch new inventions (including "the world's smallest microwave") and plan how he would do things better if he had a chance to reopen Phil the Fire.
Davis' second act began in August, when he opened the new Phil the Fire restaurant at the Fairfield Inn in Beachwood: a warm, inviting space that serves up Davis' signature "comfort food for the soul" — rich, flavorful dishes based on the Sunday brunches his parents, Alberta and Sherman, cooked when he was growing up in Cleveland.
The location is one Davis had long been eyeing. "I'd always been a big fan of this area, and when I walked in, it just felt like this is it — this is the space I've been dreaming of." The new restaurant enabled Davis to bring back two of the original Phil the Fire chefs, hire a savvy general manager, and create 125 jobs.
"That's a great feeling," he says.
When Phil the Fire reopened with an all-day Sunday brunch, it was as though the place had never closed. People had been yearning for another taste of Phil's chicken and waffles.
"The support, love, and warmth we've received have been overwhelming. We've had people drive in from Columbus, Ashtabula, Canton. We've served about 10,000 people in the first month. We've had people create special memories here: wedding anniversaries, birthdays — one man proposed to his fiancée in that room over there. It's humbling and overwhelming.
"If I had to wait seven years for anything in life," he says, "this would have been it."
Davis made a conscious decision to limit the menu to "what we do best." That means that aside from chicken and waffles, there are such mouth-watering favorites as the creamy Three Cheese Mac N Cheese, fresh collard greens, buttermilk pancakes, rotisserie chicken, fried salmon strips, broiled salmon, and catfish (blackened, fried, or broiled), as well as Phil's signature desserts: Mom's Famous Double Butter Peach or Apple Cobbler, and Pecan and Sweet Potato Pie. As the weather grows colder, the restaurant will provide hot gumbos and a fireplace for people to gather around.
Every dish has what Davis calls a "signature flavor," and he is meticulous and demanding of his staff about achieving it. "We cook everything from scratch," he says. "Everything is fresh, not frozen. We honor the food."
But food is only one part of the Phil the Fire picture. "I asked the staff, what do we sell here? Memories. This food evokes memories, like the scene in the movie Ratatouille where the critic tastes the ratatouille and it takes him back to his childhood. This food is a daily reminder of the things I grew up on, and a way to honor the memories of my mother and father."
The restaurant business is a tough taskmaster, but Davis says it's addictive. "It's hard to get out of your system. I'm here 20 hours a day, but this is easy. I love to cook, I love to serve. It's a labor of love. I'm just having a ball." The entrepreneurial Davis has plans to capitalize on his brand with a line of Phil the Fire prepared comfort foods and Phil the Fire restaurants in other cities.
After only a few months back in business, Phil the Fire has already become a destination. "People are saying, 'Let's meet at Phil's,'" Davis says. "This is something you can't buy. Things like this keep me going."