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When Cuisine Runs in the Genes

Stephen Cheung is replacing an electrical switch plate on the wall of Lavagna, his new restaurant on Barracks Row, just hours before the Italian eatery is set to serve its very first guests. 

Cheung is a baby-faced 27-year-old, and Lavagna is the first restaurant that he has ever opened, but he’s calmly attending to all the details, even as the minutes until the grand opening tick by.

It’s not exactly his first rodeo. Cheung’s parents have owned and run Fusion Grill, just a few doors down the street, for almost 30 years. The young restaurateur’s knowledge of the food business and his familiarity with the neighborhood — he grew up just a few blocks away — bode well for his Italian eatery.

Inside the freshly painted storefront, the decor and menu hew to a concept that general manager Mark Walsh sums up with the phrase “fresh, simple Italian.”

Cheung and Walsh have transformed the space formerly occupied by Starfish Café into a welcoming dining room. Gone are the undersea-themed knickknacks and the downstairs bar that dominated the space. Instead, warm terra-cotta walls, simple wooden tables and exposed brick walls provide a neutral, convivial backdrop. 

Lavagna means “chalkboard” in Italian, and the name is meant to connote a menu that changes frequently with the seasons. The restaurant’s namesake shows up as soon as diners are seated. Waiters hand them a small chalkboard with the bill of fare handwritten on it — there’s little chance this hefty souvenir will walk away in someone’s purse.

The fare certainly lives up to its “simple” billing, and the menu’s format is refreshingly direct: Appetizers are $7, pastas are $15 and entrees are $19. The starters include classics such as a Caesar salad tossed in a pleasantly garlicky dressing and a caprese salad that features layered slices of milky mozzarella and tomatoes, slightly roasted to coax maximum flavor from the flesh. 

Pastas, though, steal the show. All are made in-house and have the airy-but-substantial texture that only a freshly rolled noodle offers. A classic dish of spaghetti and meatballs adds parsley-flecked beef and a bright tomato sauce to the mix. And the seafood pasta dish was a standout, with hunks of lobster, scallops and shrimp tossed with radiatore pasta and a creamy tomato sauce. 

“It’s like a tomato bisque with seafood,” the waiter promises, and he’s right. 

Entrees are straightforward, including a beef filet and a roasted branzino, all served with a rotating daily vegetable (it was grilled asparagus on a recent visit). 

The upstairs bar provides a spot to sip a glass of wine (the list, naturally, spans Italian varieties and ranges from $7 to $14) or a cocktail, but Cheung is careful to appeal to young families, a demographic he thinks will be key to his success. Lavagna is sandwiched in between a storefront church and the new Playseum (a kids’ play space), and Cheung bets the early dinner hour will be busy. 

“So many people strolling up and down the avenue have young kids,” he says. “We wanted to welcome them.”

And though he’s a natural at the restaurant business, Cheung didn’t always plan to go into the family business. In fact, once upon a time, he wanted no part of it. 

Though he spent much of his childhood knocking around his parents’ restaurant, answering phones and washing dishes, he went to college to study engineering and dreamed of a career far from the kitchen. But his parents lured him back, asking him to run Fusion while they went back to their native Hong Kong. 

Soon, he was hooked. “Every day in a restaurant is different, and that’s fun. You’re never bored,” he says.

Dreaming of taking his family’s Asian-fusion restaurant to a higher level, Cheung took jobs as a waiter at some of the city’s top restaurants. At places such as the Mandarin Oriental and Acadiana, he learned the ropes of fine dining. 

He thought someday, he’d open a place of his own, but the opportunity arose more quickly than he predicted. His family also owns the building that houses Lavagna, which for years had been leased out and run as Starfish Café. When Starfish’s owners announced they were getting out of the business, the space was suddenly available. 

And so Cheung assembled a team, recruiting some friends — including Walsh — from his stints at other restaurants. He enlisted Lance Hanan, who has worked in the kitchens of nearby Zest, as well as other restaurants in Baltimore and D.C., as executive chef. A few months later, Lavagna threw open its doors.

While one might expect a 20-something restaurant owner to have starry-eyed visions of success, Cheung says he’s aiming for consistency, a sophisticated benchmark that belies his years.  

“Really well-run restaurants have systems that keep everything going smoothly,” he says. “McDonald’s is successful not because their burgers are good, but because they’re consistent.”

Lavagna certainly isn’t a fast-food chain, but it offers neighborhood diners the promise of many happy meals to come.

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