Fine-Dining Chef Pivots to Perfecting Philly Cheese Steaks

At Gabarelly's in Stockton, Brian Held is back behind the stove.

“We’re hoping to be open seven days a week,” says Brian Held of his new casual eatery, Gabarelly’s, in Stockton. Photo by Frank Veronsky

Waylaid by a thunderstorm that knocked out power at one of his two Lambertville restaurants, Brian Held made his way up the road to Stockton to check progress at his latest venture. There, he fretted over the yet-to-be-delivered walk-in refrigerator while admiring the new green awning and red-and-white sign announcing Gabarelly’s, where cheese steaks and hand-cut french fries will be king.

The new roadside eatery (named for daughter Gabrielle) represents a significant departure for the classically trained chef, known for artful dishes such as fanned slices of duck breast in fig sauce and cubed tuna tartare on chopped avocado drizzled with soy vinaigrette.

Those were among the refined dishes I sampled at a recent dinner at Brian’s, one of Held’s two upscale restaurants in Lambertville, the other being Hamilton’s Grill Room, which he acquired in 2018 after the death of legendary restaurateur and theater-set designer Jim Hamilton. An exacting chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Held, 51, has earned a reputation for sophisticated cooking in Hunterdon County over the last 10 years. But in February, when burst water pipes shuttered Bistro Rouget, his fine-dining spot in Stockton, Held decided it might be time to change gears.

“We’re going for something a little retro,” Held says of Gabarelly’s. “Kitschy signs and a ’50s-style front counter where people can order their food and take it to eat wherever they want. People will mingle; there will be no servers.”

Casual “is not my normal wheelhouse,” Held admits, but it’s where customer feedback has led him. “Not everybody is a complete foodie looking for something so specialized,” says the T-shirted chef, tugging his blond ponytail. “It’s a criticism I have heard more than once, that my places are not diversified enough. And it’s something I wanted to address.”

By making food he believes in, but that can be sold at easygoing prices, “I’m putting myself in a position to be seen by more people, and I’m excited about that.”

Like many restaurateurs, Held has struggled to stay afloat during the pandemic. From March 2020 through this summer, there was never a time when all three of his restaurants were open, an obvious concern for this father of four children, who range in age from 16 months to 27 years. “There was always a restaurant [where] the rent was being paid, but it wasn’t operating,” says Held.

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For the first several months of the pandemic, only Brian’s was open, offering just take-out. When outdoor dining became viable last summer, Held shifted attention to his two other restaurants, which both have large patio spaces. By this spring, business at Hamilton’s Grill Room and Brian’s had begun to rebound, but the flood-damaged Bistro Rouget was still sporting a “gone fishin’” sign as Held formulated plans for a less formal place.

This is not the first time Held has repurposed one of the several restaurants he’s opened over the last 20 years. Born in Levittown, Pennsylvania, he started his career at age 22 at Sol d’Italia, a traditional Italian restaurant in Newtown, Pennsylvania. He quickly advanced from waiting on tables to running the kitchen, then left to seek formal training as a chef. After graduating from the CIA in 1995, he spent a few years as chef de cuisine at the River Club in New Brunswick, and then in 1999 bought a small Pennsylvania deli, turning it into a Provençal-style restaurant called Juliana Rose. He closed that restaurant in 2007, then purchased a tea house in Newtown, which he converted into a critically praised French restaurant, Rouget’s.

By 2011, Held shifted attention to the Jersey side of the Delaware River, purchasing  No. 9 Restaurant in Lambertville, renaming it Brian’s, going with a gourmet-pizza theme, and later shifting to the more upscale prix-fixe menu that continues today. His first venture in Stockton, in 2015, was NoLa, short for North of Lambertville. Unfortunately, “most people didn’t get” the name and came in expecting New Orleans cuisine. Renaming the place Bistro Rouget didn’t help attract a large clientele, something he’s hoping will happen with Gabarelly’s, where focusing on the iconic Philly cheese steak seems a safer bet.

“I’ve always liked places that showcase one item and do it really well,” he says.

Held plans to remove Hamilton from the name Hamilton’s Grill Room. He says the menu will retain some dishes associated with the late Jim Hamilton, a longtime friend. “I have so much respect for Jim,” Held says. “He’ll always be part of the conversation.”

While Covid-19 has suppressed business, it’s given Held the chance to rediscover fishing and attend to his personal life. In October, he’ll marry Judith Francois, an attorney from Queens, New York. The reception will take place in the courtyard of Hamilton’s Grill Room.

Though he’s excited to be operating his full slate of restaurants again, the perfectionist in him worries about maintaining his own high standards. “It’s hard to run multiple restaurants and have the level of care you would have for one,” he admits. Eventually, he’d like to step away from the stove, but with Covid-19 still causing a staff shortage, “I’m wearing multiple hats right now. There was a period when I was off the line and able to come out and talk to people, but now I’m back behind the line. I love that, but at some point, I’d like to get to do things I haven’t done for a while.” Like what? Fishing, for one, he says, and more time with his growing family.

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