It's 10 a.m. on a Friday and George Nichols is in the kitchen at Hereford's newest restaurant making colossal crab cakes. While the main chef, Elvis Bachelor, is busy preparing homemade soups, pasta dishes and entrees, Nichols knows how to transform crabmeat into the signature dish of Casa Mia's Restaurant and Pioneer Pub in Hereford.
"I go through 30 pounds of crabmeat during the week, and between 50 and 60 pounds on the weekend," said Nichols, who has wanted to buy the Pioneer Pub for years. "I used to come up here all the time and this place looked like a great location with great people."
The restaurant on York Road in Hereford has always been a family operation. Tom and Carole Meadowcroft had owned the Pioneer House since the early 1970s. Their daughter, Kim Polley, took over in 1998. She refurbished the bar and rear dining room and changed the name to Pioneer Pub. She and family members ran the business until they sold it to the Nichols family this summer.
The Nichols — George, his wife, Cathy, son Mark, daughter Lia and fiancé Chris Reamy — are fixtures at Casa Mia's.
"I was just about born into this business. My parents opened their first pizza place in Parkville when I was 6 months old," said Mark Nichols, 37, of Hunt Valley. "We are all hands-on. If I have to wash dishes, I'll wash dishes. Just last night, my sister and I were both cooking. We'll do what it takes."
Casa Mia's opened Sept. 17 and its current menu features appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, wraps, pasta dishes and entrees that include crab cakes, salmon and filet mignon.
"Casa Mia's is casual dining with a little bit of everything, Mark Nichols said. "The menu will change as we see what the community wants."
He acknowledges the restaurant had a rough start, trying to open with a six-page menu, but said those "growing pains" eased when they reduced the number of dishes offered. Some Greek specialties, such as shrimp Athenian and rack of lamb, will be added in the future.
A pizza oven was installed in early October. On the other side of the bar there is now a liquor store that is open seven days a week, from 11 a.m. until the restaurant closes. Chris Reamy, who will wed Lia Nichols next June, is in charge of the liquor store. He is a former general manager at Libertori's Restaurant and was a salesman for Southern Wine & Spirits distributors.
The old Pioneer Pub was closed for six weeks this summer while the Nichols family oversaw major renovations. They decided to keep thee Pioneer Pub name on their menus as a tribute to the long-standing eatery.
The Nichols' added large windows in the main bar section and polished the cement floor to a high gloss. After ceiling tiles were removed, exposed pipes were painted black. But, the bar became too noisy, so red ceiling panels were installed recently to deaden sound.
Six televisions surround the bar, which attract plenty of sports fans, including the Ravens Roost No. 118.
"We meet at the Pioneer Pub, but we were always in the back room, away from everybody on game days," said Roost president Nicole Topper. "Now that it's Casa Mia's, Mark has been fantastic to work with and we're out front at the bar. It's been great."
The dining room next to the bar has wooden floors and a working fireplace. Glass partitions separate it from the bar.
The Nichols family has also upgraded the 65-seat back dining room. Mark Nichols said it has two televisions and is ideal for families or individuals who want quieter dining.
For now, the restaurant's wall are bare, but Nichols has already contacted Hereford High School's art department. He'd like to display student art on a revolving basis.
He said he wants to cultivate a good relationship with the high school and recently donated 50 sandwich wraps to its homecoming activities.
"Everybody has welcomed us with arms wide open," Nichols said. "Being here has exceeded our expectations. This is a great community and we're happy to be part of it."
Casa Mia's Restaurant and Pioneer Pub is located at 17417 York Road, Hereford. For more information, call 410-357-4231.
The family has sold its interests in their restaurants in Parkville and White Marsh, but still owns Casa Mia's in Towson and Casa Mia's on Ridgebrook Road in Sparks.