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The Making of The Fat Ham, Part 1: Getting seated

Kevin Sbraga meets with Eimer Design.

Every chef wants his or her own restaurant. And after that happens, the chef wants another.

Which brings us to September 2013. With things humming along at his first restaurant, on Broad Street, Kevin Sbraga is planning his second.

Rather than clone the look and American menu at Sbraga, which opened in the Symphony House (Broad and Pine Streets) in fall 2011, Sbraga wants to showcase the tastes of the contemporary South. It's a cuisine, he said, that is not often found in Philadelphia.

The Fat Ham, pegged for fall, will occupy the former spot of a Tria Wine Bar at 3131 Walnut St. in University City. It's a modest space – perhaps half the size of Sbraga.

Sbraga is letting me tag along for at least the final couple of months of the project, to recount the decision-making process. "The Making of The Fat Ham" will appear here weekly (or so), as developments warrant.

Tuesday, Sept. 10: The "final" design

Kevin Sbraga and general manager Ben Fileccia take the elevator to the second-floor offices of Eimer Design, above the stores on 13th Street near Sansom.

It's a ride Sbraga has taken many times. Ed Eimer, a lanky guy with a salesman's handshake and a designer's eye, did the interior work on Sbraga, transforming a garish, short-lived Chinese restaurant into a wood-paneled showroom decorated with Edison-style antique lighting.

Back when Sbraga was on Top Chef (he won Season 7), Eimer emailed Sbraga to introduce himself. The men met over coffee at the Starbucks in Delran, near Sbraga's Willingboro home. Eimer took out his iPad and showed Sbraga some designs. "I didn't agree with them all, but I liked where his head was," Sbraga said.

When Sbraga started seriously looking at spaces, Eimer willingly visited every space. When Sbraga decided on the Symphony House, Eimer offered a sketch. "I knew at that point he was the man," Sbraga said. "It's not just about Ed, but about his entire team. I felt like there were a lot of similarities to Sbraga."

The day Sbraga learned that Tria was leaving 3131 Walnut St. – mixed-use building known as The Left Bank – he called Carl Dranoff, the developer. Coincidentally, Dranoff developed Symphony House. Sbraga says he likes the area because the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University are on a building streak and the student and faculty population are strong.

Sbraga called Eimer, whom he had retained earlier to sketch out a larger version of The Fat Ham for a different location. The men began going back and forth on ideas for this 44-seat bar-restaurant.

Eimer's team on the Fat Ham project – lead designer Chrissy Thompson and project manager Kevin Towey – had much to review, starting with the final design and seating plan. The space is tight, and it's been made even tighter by the addition of a kitchen. Tria had none.

Eimer flipped on the slide projector, and the image of a dining room filled the screen. Subway tiles. Wood-topped tables. A long bar with a large window behind it. This was a refinement of ideas raised at previous meetings.

Fileccia, who joined Sbraga in late 2012 after spending time in the Vetri organization, wondered if the designers could install two oak whiskey barrels – which the restaurant would use to age cocktails – behind the bar. The designers nodded.

Eimer and his people had an idea: add a row of three narrow tables between the bar and the seating area - six seats that would act as a separator and a buffer. Seats also mean revenue. On his $550,000 budget, Sbraga says he hopes that the restaurant will do $950,000 in its first year.

"This is going to be snug," said Fileccia, who helped open Amis and is accustomed to translating two-dimensional drawings to real life.

"No big plates," Sbraga replied, only half-kidding. Eimer went to another room and returned with sample plates and a tape measure.

The decision: Cut the 24x30 tables to 24x24. The saving of one foot - six inches times two – may be the difference between comfortable and squished.

"We want people to be comfortable but not too comfortable," Sbraga said.

"An hour for a deuce, 90 minutes for a four-top," Fileccia said.

They agreed on three kinds of lighting – in shapes of raindrops, a rustic cage and a farm light – and signed off on the chairs, whose backs are of different height. This will provide interest and contrast, said Thompson.

Sbraga, meanwhile, had the kitchen equipment down. Four years ago, when he was working for Stephen Starr in Hamilton Township, N.J., he went on Craigslist and found the contents of a restaurant: a 10-foot exhaust hood, a fryer, a Combi oven, a six-burner stove, three refrigeration units, six work tables, an ice machine and the like. He bought it all and put it in storage.

Before the Tuesday meeting, he and Fileccia took the hood out of storage and dropped it at a guy's shop for it to be rehabbed. New hoods cost in excess of $1,000 a foot; Sbraga got his for $2,500 total.

Aside from the installation of the kitchen and the décor work, he said, construction should not be difficult. Tria built the deck out front and did a good job with it. The contractor will need five to six weeks, followed by two weeks of staff training, Sbraga said,

But first – and at this point Sbraga, Fileccia were saying goodbye to Eimer, Thompson and Towey – Sbraga is taking his guys on an eating trip of the South. They'll visit a hog farmer who raises heritage breeds. They'll see the Tabasco factory, even though they plan to make their own hot sauce.

Sbraga says he has most of his menu in his head. He wants more ideas.