New Ownership Revives Monrovia's Wilcom's Inn
Cornfields and fine dining are rarely mentioned in the same breath, but Mark Fuster is working on making it happen. He’s the chef and co-owner, along with his uncle, Oscar Fuster, of the iconic Wilcom’s Inn. They reopened the restaurant as an international steakhouse and sports bar in March 2016, breathing new life into the peachy adobe-finished building with the stepped façade.
It is a lone outpost amid farmland and pastures that dates back to 1943, perched at the intersection of Green Valley and Fingerboard roads in Monrovia. It snuggles back-to-back with the beloved-but-fading ruins of its sibling, the 75-80 Dragway.
Both properties were part of Charles Wilcom’s farm before 1960. Over the next five decades, his sons, William and Jerome, turned this little corner of the county into a hub of activity. For generations, local families and regional racing aficionados turned out in the thousands each night to watch the spectacle of smoking tires and roaring engines.
Operating as Maryland’s oldest dragstrip, it featured both 1/8-mile and 1/4-mile tracks. Fans could pack a picnic or partake of concession stand chili dogs, then mosey to the adjacent inn for socializing, pool, music and drinks. The dragway first closed in 2005, but rallied back between 2009-2013, thanks to public support. Wilcom’s Inn shuttered about the same time.
The building lay dark until the Fuster family leased it in May 2015, taking full ownership last November. “I’ve known the building my whole life,” says Mark, a long-time Damascus resident. “I have memories as a kid of driving by with my dad, seeing the lot full of trucks and bikes.” The Fusters kept the vintage exterior and focused on giving the inside a facelift. “It felt wrong to change it.”
From the front door, it’s easy to envision the decades Wilcom’s Inn spent as a cozy, smoke-filled watering hole, loved by locals. Its character remains, as well as some of the high tables, sport-themed stools and dark paneling. New additions to the bar area are understated upgrades, such as the granite bar top and a wrought-iron wine rack.
The side room, once filled with pool tables and live music, is now a dining room with a dozen or so tables. The décor is spare, pairing rich accents of burgundy against natural wood. Unique metal wall art features pictures from the dragway’s heyday. Another nod to nostalgia, a patron’s graffiti remains carved into a support beam, circa 1963. At max, the establishment fits approximately 75 guests.
The biggest change, by far, is the menu. Formerly populated with typical bar fare, it now features house-cut USDA choice steaks and international dishes that consistently garner raves from patrons. Crafting the menu was a group effort. Family and friends, including sous chef Ramon Lara and another of Mark’s uncles, George Fuster, former owner of Rico and Rico in Gaithersburg, gathered to help with taste tests. “We compared multiple recipes for empanadas, coconut shrimp, mashed potatoes, every single thing on the menu,” says Mark. “We tried classic beer-battered fish and chips, but wound up liking a Peruvian interpretation, which is lightly floured and served with yucca fries and an onion sauce.” The house rub is a take on Montreal-style seasoning. Mark sighs. “I probably went through 50 different recipes for inspiration.”
Self-described “foodsters,” the Fuster family’s Peruvian heritage asserts itself in several dishes. It’s a food culture with influences from China, France, Spain and Africa blended with indigenous cuisine. Most popular is the lomo, a saucy steak-and-veggie stir-fry served over yuca fries with jasmine rice. “Who doesn’t like a good lomo?” Mark says with a laugh, noting that the chicken version, with the ceviche appetizer, is a personal favorite. “That’s what I order when I come here on my days off.”
There’s an Italian influence, too. It shines through in their caprese sandwich, seafood pasta marinara and porcini risotto. Wilcom’s Inn’s pasta carbonara is bathed in pancetta-infused cream sauce with a poached egg as its crowning glory. Even fried mozzarella is jazzed up as thick rounds of fresh cheese, made to order, with tangy marinara.
There are Greek gyros and All-American mac-and-cheese along with Cajun shrimp and grits. Test versions used chorizo or bacon for the dish’s smoky accent, but crisped pancetta won the part. It’s strewn over luscious cheddar grits (coarsely ground hominy), plump seared shrimp and a spice-laden sauce that brings the pork-shrimp-starch combination to rapture. The Maryland cream of crab soup is another fan favorite. At any given time, almost every table in the dining room will hold a bowl or two. The crab cakes get high marks, too.
Bottomless Brunch on Saturday and Sunday includes about 75 percent of menu items. Diners can explore tapas-style tasting portions to find their favs, choosing from eggs Benedict, pasta carbonara, chicken and waffles, tacos, or stuffed yuca (crisp-fried mashed yuca root, filled with tender pulled pork). Discounts on mimosas and bloody Marys complement the feast. Tuesday is taco night and Wine Wednesday features half-price bottles. On Thursdays, save a dollar off drafts. Fuster and his uncles arrange bi-monthly wine/dinner events, too. One of the inn’s goals is to earn the Wine Spectator award of excellence.
Wilcom’s Market is an evolving service. As Mark explains, “Essentially we provide a meal from our menu, but you prepare it at home. …You get the same flavors but it’s freshly made when you eat it.” For example, shrimp and grits would come with ready-made grits, raw shrimp and containers of pancetta, garlic, white wine, onion and a smidge of butter, etc., plus instructions. The idea germinated when guests asked for deconstructed tacos, uncooked kabobs and frozen empanadas to take home. “It’s great for date night or a small dinner party.”
Mark’s passion for food and family is clear. “I am extremely blessed working with my two uncles. They have knowledge on any subject you can think of and they are paving the path for me.”
Eventually the Fusters would love to expand, but right now they are focused on refining a foundation for long-term success. This will help as the surrounding property is slated to become the Monrovia Town Center in years ahead. Realignment of the intersection may consume the Wilcom’s Inn site, but Fuster is pragmatic and upbeat. “We hope to be included in the new development, but it would be awesome to keep the same vibe …” and, perhaps, the notable façade.
In the meantime, Mark says, “Perfection is hard to achieve, but we’re trying.”