Introducing Siren: With the First Restaurant of Her Own, Chef Laura Fonner is At Last Fully on Display

Like many chefs, Laura Fonner has long dreamed of her own restaurant. She just never dreamed it would be this one. For much of her career, Fonner imagined taking over Duner’s, the Ivy institution where she worked for seventeen years, and which she hoped to buy when its owner retired. But, life and a pandemic intervened last summer to set her on a new path, culminating this week with the opening of her first restaurant: Siren.

The restaurant results from a partnership with Champion Hospitality Group, which she left Duner’s for last June, first to launch a food truck, and then to help with projects like Champion Grill and Brasserie Saison. During the pandemic’s disruption of the industry, Fonner saw the work as a bridge to what she really coveted: her own place. “It was a pause in my world to figure out what I wanted to do next,” said Fonner.

That opportunity arose this summer when The Shebeen became available. She and Champion leapt at it. Unlike newly built cookie-cutter properties Fonner had seen on the market, The Shebeen space had the character and history Fonner sought. She has fond memories of eating maraschino cherries and orange slices at the bar as a child when her father frequented its previous tenant, Random Row. The Shebeen felt right. “There’s nothing in Charlottesville like it,” Fonner said.

A Space That Became Fonner

While full of character, the dark and time-worn pub needed a lot of work to transform into a venue suitable for the dining experience Fonner envisioned. “I initially thought it just needed a slap in the ass and a face lift,” said Fonner, “but it ended up needing a total renovation.” And so, for months, the chef poured herself into tireless reconstruction: refinishing the bar, tables and floors; tearing out and replacing the kitchen; building new walls and ceilings; and, more.

Without any design experience, Fonner admits she had no specific vision for the renovation. “All I knew is I wanted it to feel like I invited someone over to dinner in my own house,” said Fonner. Paradoxically, that lack of vision forced a piecemeal, organic approach whose result captures Fonner better than any design plan ever could. Siren is Fonner. It has her blood, sweat, and tears in it. Literally.

Bit by bit, with the help of family and friends, Fonner made gradual refinements and additions, each one infusing a bit more of Fonner into the space. Throughout the restaurant, the décor tells of Fonner’s life: mementos from her parents’ travels, gifts from friends, her grandmother’s artwork. “There is a story behind everything,” she said, and the result is an image of Fonner. “This looks exactly like me,” said Fonner. “And it’s weird because I never knew that this is what I looked like.”

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The Food

Like the space, the food is all Fonner. Again, instead of using a formulaic template like many restaurants do, Fonner’s starting point was simply: what do I like to eat? Long days of renovation left food planning to nighttime, when a work-weary Fonner would fill notebooks with ideas for dishes. “Sometimes I would wake up in the middle of the night, and write down an idea,” said Fonner.

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In homage to Fonner’s grandmother’s Greek roots, the menu tilts Mediterranean, with some American thrown in, too. And, the focus is seafood, Fonner’s favorite thing to cook. Even as Executive Chef of Duner’s, Fonner would always work the seafood station. “It’s so delicate, and you have to do it just right,” beamed Fonner.

Seafood plus Mediterranean means things like shrimp souvlaki sandwiches, tuna tartare with Calabrian chili aioli, and bowls of mussels and chorizo in a broth of tomato, fennel, and citrus. (Menu here!) And, one thing Fonner could never leave off the menu is dumplings, for which she is well known. “Everyone would expect dumplings,” said Fonner. Regulars visited Duner’s just for her dumplings. Chefs have called them the best thing they ate all year. And, celebrity judges on the Food Network raved about them in competitions that the dumplings helped Fonner win.

At Siren, the Mediterranean theme yields chicken gyro dumplings, another nod to her grandmother’s heritage. Fonner’s signature handmade dough encases ground chicken, spiced like gyro meat. “From there, I wanted to try to make it as close to what you would expect from a gryo, but in dumpling form,” Fonner said. And so, garnishes are house-made tzatziki, microgreens, pickled onion, poached tomato, and tirokafteri – a spicy, feta-based spread.

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And then there is the Red Plate Special, Fonner’s joke at her own expense. A multi-time Food Network champion, Fonner’s only loss came when she was deducted points for serving her final dish on a red plate, which one judge would have preferred be white. At Siren, Fonner is using the gaudiest big red plate she could find to serve a rotating special of whole fish. “I try not to take myself too seriously,” said Fonner. “If I can’t make fun of myself, what’s the point?”

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Serendipity –> Siren

Sometimes things fall into place. If Fonner had taken over Duner’s, as she once hoped, she never would have created a restaurant quite like this. The history and following of Duner’s would have compelled her to carry on its legacy, leaving little opportunity for Fonner to make her own mark. But, Siren? Siren is all Laura.

Which is very good news for Charlottesville.

Siren opens this Thursday, December 9 at 247 Ridge McIntire Rd.

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