Chickie’s & Pete’s is No. 1

Chickie’s & Pete’s has come a long way since opening back on Nov. 15, 1977, at 4010 Robbins Ave.

A newspaper article chronicled the concerns of some residents. Wally’s Cafe, its predecessor, maintained a ladies entrance and didn’t have any bar stools, as owner Wally Nowacki figured patrons would get tired of standing and go home before getting tipsy.

Neighbors feared the place would become a disco, predicted that bar stools would encourage drunkenness and worried about a change in clientele.

“The next thing you know,” a man told the paper, “they’ll let women sit at the bar.”

Instead, Chickie’s & Pete’s became a neighborhood staple, expanding by adding upstairs seating and a bar.

By 1999, things really started to take off. That year, owner Pete Ciarrocchi — whose parents, Pete and Chickie, were the original owners — opened in Boulevard Plaza at the old Bay Street restaurant. That same year, Ciarrocchi opened a place behind the 300 level at the former Veterans Stadium.

Chickie’s & Pete’s was not done growing, as the owner built on his motto that, “It’s a lot more fun to eat in a bar than drink in a restaurant.”

Now billed as Chickie’s & Pete’s Crab House and Sports Bar, there are locations at Lincoln Financial Field, Citizens Bank Park, Wells Fargo Center, Philadelphia International Airport, Parx Casino, Liacouras Center, PPL Park in Chester, Dorney Park, Campbell’s Field in Camden, Mercer County Waterfront Park in Trenton, the boardwalks in Ocean City and Wildwood, N.J., and in South Philadelphia, Warrington, Audubon, Bordentown and Egg Harbor.

“No way in my wildest dreams could I have dreamt this,” said Ciarrocchi. “Nor was it my intention.”

As each new place opened, Chickie’s & Pete’s became known as the top choice in the Philadelphia area to watch the Phillies, Eagles, Flyers and other sporting events.

Recently, ESPN Mobile conducted a poll to determine the Best Sports Bar in North America. There were 5,000 nominations, which were whittled to 12 finalists.

In the end, Chickie’s & Pete’s was the winner, outpolling runner-up Hickory Tavern in Charlotte, N.C., and supplanting 2010 champion Real Sports Bar & Grill in Toronto.

Ciarrocchi was overwhelmed with the news.

“Really? We’re No. 1? We’re the best?” he said.

To celebrate, Ciarrocchi hosted a red- carpet event at his biggest location, a 24,000-square-foot property at a former Super Fresh at 15th Street and Packer Avenue in South Philadelphia, within walking distance to the sports complex.

The stars came out to celebrate with the wildly successful businessman on Nov. 14. Guests included Mayor Michael Nutter, former Gov. Ed Rendell and other political figures, some current and retired Eagles and Flyers and television and radio personalities. Live entertainment included a Ciarrocchi favorite, Shorty Long & The Jersey Horns.

It was a proud moment for the entrepreneur who got his start at a former all-male saloon in Lower Mayfair. Today, he employs almost 1,000 people.

“It’s a great, great day,” Ciarrocchi said. “It’s not about me. It’s about the employees, the managers and office staff. A lot of my great employees are from Mayfair.”

Ciarrocchi, a married father of three boys, keeps a busy schedule outside the restaurant business. He’s part of the ownership group of the Philadelphia Soul Arena Football League franchise, a member of the Polish-American String Band, is active with the Northeast High School Alumni and sits on the business executive advisory board of Holy Family University and the board of trustees of Aria Health Foundation. He also supports many charities.

The restaurant business, though, keeps him plenty busy. In a recent month’s time, locations opened in Audubon, Warrington and a terminal at the airport. There are four sites at the airport.

One reason Chickie’s & Pete’s won the ESPN contest is the number of sports-themed events at the restaurants. Among the weekly highlights, at least for now, is embattled Eagles coach Andy Reid’s radio show on WIP.

Sports fans, though, probably wouldn’t be flocking to the restaurant without its zesty cuisine. Menu highlights include mussels, lobster, clams, shrimp, crabs, calamari, cutlets, cheesesteak nachos, jalapeno poppers, wings, mozzarella sticks, salads, soup and, of course, the trademarked Crab Fries, a seasoned delicacy that is Ciarrocchi’s reinvention of the french fry.

The businessman puts the menu items at the top of the list for reasons to visit his restaurants.

“It’s the lighting, sound, atmosphere and employees, but first and foremost is the food,” he said. “We created this menu.”

The Warrington restaurant, located on Route 611 in central Bucks County, is already a popular destination. Before opening, Ciarrocchi told his suburban wait staff that patrons will know more about the restaurant than they do.

“All those people are Northeast transplants,” he said. “They don’t even have to look at the menu. The customers have already been groomed.”

Ciarrocchi also notices a lot of out-of-towners patronizing the restaurants and getting their pictures taken near the Chickie’s & Pete’s signs.

“It’s like stopping at Pat O’Brien’s in New Orleans,” he said. “It’s become that kind of place.”

Ciarrocchi promises that Chickie’s & Pete’s will continue to grow.

“We’re coming to a neighborhood near you,” he said. ••

Reporter Tom Waring can be reached at 215-354-3034 or twaring@bsmphilly.com