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Burning Desires 

Phil "The Fire" Davis rekindles a dream

Few people — let alone those in the cutthroat restaurant business, — get to take a second bite at the apple. But when Phil Davis opens the new Phil the Fire on August 8, he'll become the exception.

Ask Davis how long it's been since he last served his trademark chicken and waffles, and he'll respond with precision: "Seven years, four months, and some-odd days."

Seven years and five months ago, Davis was on top of the world. His bustling Shaker Square restaurant was doing brisk business, which led to a second downtown outpost bankrolled by a wealthy hedge-fund manager. That man turned out to be a swindler and a crook, causing both restaurants to fold within a week of each other. Davis' dreams were shattered, his reputation in tatters.

Walking around the spacious new home of Phil the Fire, an 8,600-square-foot, 280-seat behemoth that long housed a Houlihan's, Davis is notably moved. Not a day has gone by during those seven-plus years, he says, that he hasn't allowed himself to think of the day when he might rekindle Phil the Fire.

"It is a moment that I have always wanted to happen but wasn't sure would ever happen," he says. "And I certainly didn't expect that it would happen in this way."

Davis is not a chef by trade — he's an entrepreneur. While earning his undergraduate degree from Stanford University in California, he got hooked on a crazy soul-food dish that combined fried chicken and fluffy waffles. He introduced it to Clevelanders first through catered events and then at popular Sunday brunches held in a rented church basement.

The response was so enthusiastic that in 2002, Davis opened a 45-seat restaurant of his own on Shaker Square.

Done right, chicken and waffles is a greater-than-its-parts experience. Crunchy, salty fried chicken married with those fluffy, spice-scented waffles and doused in sweet maple syrup and spicy hot sauce creates a symphony of taste and texture. Since the days of Phil the Fire, of course, chicken and waffles has become downright ubiquitous, popping up on half the menus in town. That doesn't worry Davis one bit, he says.

"It only reinforces the fact that people appreciate the combination. Plus, there's more to it than just throwing chicken and waffles together."

And there's more to Phil the Fire than chicken and waffles. The restaurant will feature a menu nearly identical to that of the original, says Davis. That means diners can look forward to heaping portions of fried catfish and grits, macaroni and cheese, collard greens, candied yams, and black-eyed peas. For dessert there's peach cobbler, banana pudding, and red velvet cake. One of the few additions to the menu will be rotisserie chicken, for folks who want to lighten up the chicken-and-waffles experience.

Davis calls his fare "comfort food for the soul," a line he pulled from my long-ago review of the old Civic Sunday brunch. And that's just what it is. When prepared well, soul food classics like those served at the original Phil the Fire create lasting food memories. It is precisely those memories on which Davis is banking.

"People have strong memories of food, and people have fond memories of Phil the Fire," Davis says. "I don't want to fool people. I want people to have confidence that my food in 2011 will be as good as the food was in 2004."

To that end, Davis has, as he puts it, "gotten the original band back together." Co-executive chefs Jerron Nickens and Gregory Williams go back to the Shaker Square days, as does desserts wiz Meredith Woods. New this time around, however, is an experienced team of general managers, assistant GMs, and a staff of close to 100.

"Before, I was too deeply involved in every detail," he says. "I've learned to take a step back and appreciate the skills that others bring to the table."

After all, Davis knows that second chances don't come around all that often.

"The question is what do you do with that second opportunity?" he asks rhetorically. "I'm wiser, I'm better, and I'm humbled by my experiences. This time around, I will appreciate every single moment and every guest who walks through that door."

If that's not comfort for the soul, what is?

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