Rik’s Cafe earns fan loyalty with hearty portions of tasty, creative food.
By April Bartel and photos by Turner Photography Studio
Find a geode and it looks pretty much like any other rock, plain and unassuming. It’s not until you get into it that the beautiful crystalline surprise is revealed, a literal hidden gem. That’s Rik’s Cafe on Maryland Avenue. It shoulders up to a line of other businesses – a liquor store, discount grocer, and thrift shop – in a strip mall built circa 1962. It’s not a place to stroll and take in the scenery. It’s a destination and one that fans return to again and again.
Friends Rick Chalker and chef Arik Mills met while working at the local Longhorn Steakhouse and opened Rik’s Cafe in November 2013. The place made it onto Hagerstown Magazine’s Hot List of readers’ favorite restaurants soon after and has been a contender ever since. This year, popular votes rank Rik’s Cafe tops in no less than 15 categories, including Best Chef, Best Overall Restaurant, and Washington County Tradition.
Rick and Arik are humbled. “We want to let people know how grateful we are for keeping with us over the last two years,” says Rick. “It’s been tough on everyone, for sure. We got to a point where we were close to losing it. Hagers-town brought us through. During those hard times, when our food was only to-go, they continued to support us.” He pauses to reflect, “We wouldn’t be standing here right now if it wasn’t for them. Our guests are phenomenal.”
The feeling seems to be mutual. Online reviews echo Hot List results, giving this casual eatery consistently high ratings. Diners mention their “epic” crab grilled cheese and blackened fish tacos, jalapeno popper dip, and a variety of stand-out drink specials like the apple cider mimosa.
Arik says he’d never take their popular Blackened Chipotle Chicken Pasta off the menu. “That is a staple. We make a chipotle paste and add that to the cream. Everything is made from scratch, to order, so the sauce doesn’t sit around.”
Seafood, especially crab, is a star here. “Like, my crab pretzel,” continues Arik, “that will stay on the menu.” One relatively new addition, the Chesapeake Cheesesteak is chopped ribeye under a river of creamy, luscious crab dip with melted Monterey Jack cheese and green onion on a sub roll. This hot seller comes with fries or chips, but its over-the-top richness more than satisfies.
Chef Arik says his experience on the corporate side of the food industry helps him appreciate the creative freedom that comes with being an independent business owner. “They want to appease the mass population. With us, we want to stretch the envelope and give people what they can’t get at an average place.”
He likes to reimagine traditional styles and worldwide flavors by mixing them in new ways, such as the cafe’s mash up of Cuban sandwich with sweet barbeque and an all-American burger. Dubbed the Havana Burger, it’s also Rick’s favorite dish. This monster stack starts with a fresh angus burger and shredded BBQ pork under layers of grilled Black Forest ham and two melty cheeses, pickles, and mustard on a brioche bun. We tried it with a side of thick sweet potato fries and couldn’t resist dipping this two-handed sandwich into the apple butter that comes with them.
For vegetarians, there’s a house-made black bean burger with colorful chunks of corn and soybeans that uses ground flaxseed as a binder. It’s crisped on the grill, with or without a panko coating for gluten-free dining, and vegan sans the cheese.
Mussels are usually on the menu, too. Now, they are paired with shrimp in a mango-habanero sauce, but the chef occasionally features them in an enduring favorite recipe of his own, Blue-Sky Mussels. “These are savory. They have a bacon and blue cheese butter sauce that surprises people because it is really well balanced.” He looks forward to offering the dish more regularly once the restaurant can be fully staffed but always includes daily and evening specials to keep selections lively. Arik chuckles, “We have some regulars who don’t even look at the menu. They just get the special.”
Return customers also know that prime seating is along the back counter, because that’s where all the action is, according to Rick. “When we first opened, we couldn’t get a soul to sit there. Now it’s the most popular place because you get dinner and a floor show.” The counter abuts “Server Alley” where Rik’s friendly servers hustle through. It overlooks an open window into the kitchen, too, which Rick exclaims is like “poetry” in its orchestrated bustle.
The overstuffed sectional near the front door serves as a waiting area, but plenty of folks opt to lounge and take meals there, too. “It’s like home,” offers Rick, noting that he is particularly tickled when kids happily grab a book from the shelf and sit down to read.
The cafe space is pretty evenly split between dining room and lounge/bar, but Rick insists they are not the late-night party bar, even though the place is known for its well-appointed wine list and happy hour specials. “We are a restaurant that serves alcohol, not a bar that serves food. We have a nice bar crowd but almost everyone eats.”
That said, the granite-topped long bar is a notable feature that harkens back to Rick’s days as a bartender. “We set it up to be warm and comfortable.” The antique oak-framed mirror that gazes back at patrons was a gift from an encouraging friend. “It came out of a bar in Missouri from the 1880s,” shares Rick. “My friend said, ‘you can have it if you put it in your restaurant when you open it.’” And he did.
While Rik’s Cafe location isn’t posh outside, parking here is a distinct plus. The huge, shared lot is free and well-lit, so there’s no need to worry about change for meters or walking through secluded spaces. And it is easily accessed from the freeway. As Arik is quick to point out, “I believe that, if you have all the essence of being a great restaurant, from the food to the service to the atmosphere, people will come no matter where you’re located.”
As the season transitions from winter to spring, Arik and Rick will refresh the cafe’s offerings. They are planning unique additions featuring bison and Tennessee-raised yak. Their craft beer taps will flow with lighter blonde ales and bitter IPAs in place of baritone porters and stouts.
One thing the pair asserts will never go out of style here is creativity. That flexibility extends to staff. “Because we are not a corporate structure, I want all the guys in the kitchen to know that if you have an idea, no idea is a bad idea. I want them to create something we can sell and to know that their opinion is valued,” says Arik. “We want them to feel like part of our family, not just an employee.” It’s an atmosphere that seems to be appreciated on both sides of the table. “Our success doesn’t come from me and Rick. It comes from the people who work for us and the people that care.” That’s hot.