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.
Terri Henderson, 6, center, whose mother is El Salvador, attends a rally with members of Congress at Union Station's Columbus Circle to announce the Restore Opportunity, Strengthen, and Improve the Economy (ROSIE) Act on July 29, 2014. The legislation provides incentives for government contractors to pay a living wage and other benefits that would help low-income workers.