Photo by Daniel Davis
Burger star lllegal Food expects to open its restaurant in early January. Previously located at Joystick Gamebar, Illegal Food has taken over the old Bar Meatball space in Virginia-Highland.
The restaurant is helmed by executive chef and partner Steven Lingenfelter, whose pedigree includes Veni Vidi Vici, the Spotted Trotter, and Antica Posta. He’s working with partner and general manager Laurie Dominguez, previously a bartender at Six Feet Under, sous chef Danny Benson, and investor/acting sommelier Didier Stahl. Together, the team will serve dinner Tuesday through Sunday, weekend lunch, and late-night burgers Thursday through Saturday. They share details below.
Looking back, how did you get your start?
Lingenfelter: I was working at Corner Tavern and making ice cream on the side. I lost my job, and my mother’s brother is one of the founders of the Lebowski Festival, so we had an in. We wanted to do a White Russian ice cream called the Caucasian. They didn’t want us selling alcohol, so we came up with a themed menu revolving around the festival and my love of In-N-Out and the Big Mac flavor profile. We had a Dudeareno burger that was like the Hank. The gist of the food started there. We served hot dogs with Asian toppings that evolved into the Okonomiyaki fries. Everyone was buying the burgers. We ground the meat in my house; it was very guerilla-style.
So how did you end up at Joystick?
Lingenfelter: Laurie and I were excited when Joystick opened. I love arcade games. They had a falling out with the guy they hired to do a menu for them. I expressed interest in renting their kitchen or doing a pop-up. You have to serve food to be open on Sundays, so it had gotten to be a hassle for them. We did food; they did front of house and bar. We didn’t expect it was going to get as big as it got. We went from selling $200 a night to $2,000 a night. We knew we had a good thing when people were waiting one-and-a-half hours for a burger and not complaining.
What made you leave?
Lingenfelter: To be blunt, we were more popular than they were. People were coming to eat our food and not hang out there. They didn’t like that. It was getting too crowded. We outgrew the space. They left us a voicemail at midnight asking us to leave in 60 days. If it wasn’t for them, maybe we wouldn’t be where we are now, so I really have to thank them.
Are you expanding the menu from your pop-up days?
Lingenfelter: The specials at Joystick will be making appearances. We’ll have the burgers and then some. Saturday and Sunday lunch will focus on burgers, plus a few items. At night, we’ll have higher-end entrees: poultry from Grassroots Farms, fresh fish from Charleston, shrimp, crudos, and open-ended steak frites. Depending on what part of the cow we cut and get in, we may have hangar steak, rib eye, brisket, top round, or flat iron.
We’re buying whole cattle from Brasstown [by the quarter] and pigs from Gum Creek. We’re doing all the butchering in-house. We’ll use the bones for stock and marrow, pig lard for frying, trotters for soups and stocks, head for headcheese, grinding the rest for terrines, pates, sausages, and burgers. We’re curing our own ham and making our own bacon.
Stahl: It’ll have what people expect from us—the burgers—and every couple of weeks Steven will have a blank canvas to do what he wants. One week he might have an Asian fetish and do ramen and Asian crudo. We’ll have things like roasted chicken with truffle butter, trout, maybe braised pork cheek or tongue. We’ll be making everything in-house: mayonnaise, ketchup, hot sauce, sour cream, and even mozzarella, and smoking and curing bacon, ribs, and brisket. We also want to bring back what people really used to eat: homemade Kit-Kats, buttermilk pies, ice cream, sugar pies, chestnut pies.
What do you have planned for the bar side?
Lingenfelter: I’d call it freestyle bartending. I’m from Kentucky, so it’ll be bourbon-heavy. I call them boozy cocktails—the kind you drink, and you know where your money went. We’ll have smaller craft spirits that are top shelf. No Absolute. We went big with the wines—we have a strong list of by the glass and bottles from all over the world.
How will the atmosphere differ from that at Joystick?
Lingenfelter: We want to give people a completely different experience. We’ll have cloth napkins, nice silverware—a nice experience done in a non-pretentious way. We’ll have an amuse every night—it could be fresh peas sous vide and cooked with herbs—just something to step up the game.
How are you changing the décor from when it was Bar Meatball?
Lingenfelter: We changed the lighting and built our own bar. We’re changing the tables—making them much bigger—and [some of] the color scheme. The white subway tile behind the bar and the black and white floors stayed. We really wanted to spend the money on the kitchen. We totally revamped it equipment-wise.
After this article was published, Joystick Gamebar responded with the following statement:
We’re very sorry Chef Lingenfelter still doesn’t understand why Illegal Food was asked to leave, but we cannot abide his continued disrespect of our business and his blatant disregard for the truth. Joystick’s split with Illegal Food involved Steven Lingenfelter’s public verbal abuse of a Joystick employee with a bullhorn during business hours. After a generous amount of warnings regarding such behavior beforehand, it became clear that Lingenfelter lacked the professionalism required to make such business partnerships work. At that time, we decided to end our still mutually beneficial arrangement earlier than planned. It was not impulsive or unwarranted. Here at Joystick, we consider our staff to be family. Good burgers might be good business, but family is more important.