Fitchburg’s The Local Spot Has Been Transformed into TLS/TJ’s BBQ, a Restaurant with All the Fixins’
FITCHBURG -- Two business partners, buoyed by faith in a resurgence of business downtown, have cooked up changes at the Local Spot/TJ’s BBQ.
On Friday, the establishment is holding a 3 p.m. soft opening after nearly four months of renovations to convert the space into a family-friendly barbecue restaurant with a full-service bar and space for functions, quinceañeras and beginning Monday, takeout.
“It’s a place where you can stay and hang out, especially on the weekend,” said Jay Nicosia, partner in The Local Spot/TJ’s BBQ with Ted Lappas.
The former game room, which once featured several pool tables and lime green walls, was gutted and rebuilt as a 60-seat dining room with warm a maroon motif and Americana flair -- Jim Beam whiskey barrel greet patrons at the entrance.
The bar side of the establishment has another 70 seats. Lappas opened the Local Spot in 2016, and from the very beginning wanted to open a full-service restaurant, but was stopped by the expensive renovations required, he said.
That is, until he met Nicosia by happenstance, when Nicosia walked into Lappas’ financing company, Triumph Capital, inquiring about financing for another endeavor.
“We just hit it off, and everything fell into place,” said Lappas.
The new business partners set off renovating the space at 480 Main St. They expanded one address up Main Street, and built a modern kitchen inside what was once Premier Subs.
Sensing the names of the best barbecue joints tend to bear the initials of their founders, Nicosia and Lappas landed on “TJ’s” a mash-up of their first initials.
The crown jewel of the kitchen is a smoker capable of turning 240 pounds of meat into tender barbecue, said pitmaster Bernie Watson.
On Wednesday, he sat inside the kitchen and discussed how he delivers barbecue that landed on several publication’s “best of” lists. Watson was co-owner of LJ’S Barbecue in Pawtucket, Rhode Island before bringing his talents to Fitchburg.
In 2011, Yankee Magazine named LJ’s the best barbecue restaurant in the state, a distinction Nicosia owes to Watson’s knowledge of blending spices and applying them to meat at just the right time in the cooking process.
If you ask Watson his secret to great barbecue, he doesn’t hesitate: “Low and slow.”
Watson said his brisket and pulled pork require 14- to 16-hours inside a hickory wood smoker. He specializes in beef ribs (“Those I consider filet mignon on a stick,” he said) and St. Louis style barbecue.
The kitchen at the Local Spot/TJ’s BBQ will serve homemade sides, collard greens, candied yams, macaroni and cheese, and red beans and rice. Entrees include grilled pizza, a slate of different sandwiches and a catfish dinner.
With 25 years experience, Watson said he learned much of what he knows from his father.
“He was a barbecue genius,” he said.
Nicosia said the Fitchburg State University’s recent investment in the Theater Block on Main Street encouraged him to invest in the Local Spot’s new restaurant.
He anticipates serving the lunch crowd from surrounding businesses, students, and those who patronized the Local Spot from the get-go. They also plan to have live music on the weekends.
“If you can cater to all demographics, you’re going to be successful,” he said. “Once you start thinking about it, the opportunity here is huge.”
Patrons can get a first look at the space and first taste of the food at the soft-opening Friday from 3 p.m. to about 1 a.m.
It’s been a long road to opening for Lappas and Nicosia, they said. Nicosia recalled working 11- and 12-hour days, mostly everyday, since renovations began in April.
But tenacity proved to be their secret ingredient.
“You can’t give up, you’ve got to stay motivated to get to the finish line,” said Nicosia.