After seemingly endless student speculation and a year-long delay, Gambier’s long-awaited fast-casual restaurant, Chilitos Fresh Mex and Margaritas, is finally open for business. The first customers gathered around a patio table at around 1 p.m. on Wednesday; the students said the restaurant had asked for a photograph of them to commemorate the moment.
The Gaskin Avenue restaurant, from Fiesta Mexicana owner Jose Avalos, has been just over two years in the making. The College first announced its plans for the new restaurant in August 2017 via a blog post that said Chilitos would open by fall 2018. Instead, for a number of reasons, mainly construction-related, the restaurant’s opening suffered a year’s worth of delays.
Avalos said that he finalized the lease agreement in early 2018, and was told his team would have access to the space in late August of that year. However, due to construction delays, they couldn’t actually move into the space until March or April of 2019. From there, Avalos had planned to have the restaurant open by the start of the fall semester, but the opening was delayed by a few weeks as he waited for food and liquor licenses to come in.
“Everything has been here for some time and we’ve been already ready on our side,” Avalos said.
Chilitos’ opening comes after a slew of dining and retail changes that have swept downtown Gambier in the past few years: The Gambier Grill, affectionately nicknamed “the Cove,” closed in early 2016, leaving the Village with only one consistent late-night meal option, the Village Inn. In November of 2018, the Deli took a year-long hiatus to relocate, further reducing Gambier’s dining options.
Chilitos fills a much-needed and long-anticipated space on campus: “Change is good, and we’re ready for change,” Sophie Barrio ’20 said of the restaurant’s opening.
Other students are just as enthusiastic about the restaurant opening its doors. “I’m really, really excited about the opening of Chilitos,” Helen Cunningham ’21 said. “I think it’ll be a great addition to our thriving Gambier downtown.”
For Gambier residents, students and visitors from Mount Vernon and surrounding areas, Chilitos offers the best of both worlds: Fiesta’s authentic Mexican food and famous margaritas, but with an American twist that adds supreme fries (with queso and bacon), Philly steaks, chicken tenders and burgers—among other items—to the mix. Avalos said that he is especially excited about the Philly steaks, which he’s never sold before.
Besides boasting a full bar, Chilitos’ beverage options differ slightly from its Mount Vernon counterparts. Rather than serving its margaritas in schooners, the restaurant serves them in 16-ounce mason jars. Margarita and beer pitchers are also available, along with draft beer by the glass.
Avalos repeatedly stressed the importance of one thing: Chilitos is not a full-service restaurant. Unlike Fiesta, waitstaff will not be attending tables, and patrons will have to walk up to a counter to order before seating themselves. As a fast-casual restaurant, the menu is limited, but the food comes quickly.
Food prices are comparatively cheap, Avalos said, with an average meal costing $9. Chilitos also has free Wi-Fi and plenty of charging ports — not to mention a plethora of flat screens to watch television from the bar.
Avalos plans to keep the hours from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m., with the bar open until 2 a.m. on weekends, though he said these hours may be subject to change. At least until November, when he can put it up for vote on the Village ballot, Chilitos will not be selling alcohol on Sundays.
For Avalos, who has never opened a restaurant in a college town, the Chilitos in Gambier is something of an experiment. It’s a chance to see what works, what doesn’t, and what best fits the needs of Kenyon students.
“Everything could change,” Avalos said. “We want to see how everyone wants [things]. That’s what we said in the beginning — that we would do [it] for the kids of the college, and that’s what we’re doing. We’re going to go with whatever they want — if the customer is there, we’ll be there.”