Vickers Tavern: The lost art of tableside cooking

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For Digital First Media

Arturo Burigatto became a busboy more than 50 years ago because he thought it would be his only ticket out of his hometown of Venice, Italy. The ambitious young Italian was obviously prescient. His career choice has enabled him to travel around the world and to achieve success far beyond anything the teenage busboy could have dreamed, including ownership of one of the most opulent restaurants in Chester County.
The 70-year-old workhorse came across tourists every day while growing up in Venice and yearned to visit their homelands, although he could barely afford to travel across town. “I knew the only way I’d ever be able to travel to America and all over Europe would be to work in hotels and restaurants,” explained Burigatto. “That way they give you free room and board.”
In 1958 Burigatto went to a hotel/restaurant school in Zurich, Switzerland. After graduation came stints at hotels in Germany’s Black Forest, Venice, Frankfurt, the Channel Islands (between London and Paris), London, Wales and Bermuda. In 1969 he came to Philadelphia’s western suburbs because it was the home of his new wife, Theresa. Here he managed a restaurant called San Francisco before moving on to manage Le Champignon, then Philly’s top French restaurant.

Manager Michael Buono waited on columnist Len Lear and his wife when they first visited Vickers Tavern 30 years ago, and he is still preparing that scrumptious bananas Foster at tableside all these years later. Photo by Len Lear

Manager Michael Buono waited on columnist Len Lear and his wife when they first visited Vickers Tavern 30 years ago, and he is still preparing that scrumptious bananas Foster at tableside all these years later.
Photo by Len Lear

In 1972 Burigatto and two suburban businessmen formed a partnership and purchased a condemned farmhouse, built in 1823, at 192 E. Welsh Pool Road (at Gordon Drive) in Exton, Chester County, about five minutes from the intersection of Lancaster Pike and Route 113 and close to Exit 23 of the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The location was not exactly a magnet for hungry pedestrians, but Burigatto oversaw a dramatic transformation of the property and opened it as Vickers Tavern, named for the farm’s 19th century owner, John Vickers, a prominent abolitionist, when it was also a clandestine stop on the Underground Railroad.
Word-of-mouth soon spread, and Burigatto almost had to dead-bolt the doors to keep the customers away. In 1977 he bought out his partners and became sole proprietor. Forty-three years after its opening, Vickers Tavern is still a frequent destination for area customers and major area corporations. (In 1999 the entrepreneurial owner sold Vickers Tavern and moved to Palm Beach, Florida, where he had gone into the new home construction business, but nine years later, missing Chester County and the adrenaline rush of the daily culinary drama, Arturo bought back Vickers Tavern and got back into the driver’s seat.)
Vickers Tavern oozes class in the four intimate, elegantly appointed dining rooms as well as in the bar area and the outdoor patio. Dining at Vickers Tavern is quiet, romantic and genteel, not rushed. The exquisite experience comes at a price. Our three-hour dinner last month produced a bill of $342 (for three people) before the tip, but we all agreed it was well worth it for a celebratory dinner (a birthday in this case).
Vickers Tavern features a French-influenced American/Continental menu that one might find at other area palaces of gastronomy, but what sets it apart is the venerable tradition of tableside cooking, now almost an obsolete relic. “This is a lost art today,” stated manager Michael Buono, who waited on us the first time we went to Vickers Tavern about 30 years ago. “People want food in a hurry today. I can assure you that we make no money from tableside cooking, but we still do it because it provides such a memorable experience for customers that you just can’t get at restaurants anymore.”
We enjoyed three dishes that were prepared at tableside: a classic Caesar salad ($23 for two), whose familiar flavors sang in true harmony; steak Diane, beef tenderloin flambéed with a sublime sauce of mushrooms, Dijon mustard, brandy and cream ($38).
Also prepared at tableside was a dessert of bananas Foster, bananas flamed with liqueur and served over vanilla ice cream. The dish is a paragon of buttery sweetness that revealed itself in waves of flavor. It was ennobled by the liqueur and was more than the sum of its parts.
Not prepared tableside but also nonpareil was the escargots, an appetizer of uncommon richness, the languid stroll of the added garlic and champagne shooting flavor back like a boomerang ($14).
There is an extensive variety of cocktails and wines by the glass or bottle. I thought a glass of just-OK Duckhorn Chardonnay was overpriced at $15, but a glass of Federalist Cabernet was a velvety, full-bodied, scintillating partner ($13) to the steak Diane. (The bread that came with dinner was also not up to par.)
Our server, Hasan Ercek, a native of Turkey, has been at Vickers Tavern for a mere 38 years.
For more information, call (610) 363-7998 or visit www.vickersrestaurant.com.

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