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Southern comfort food comes to Claremont

Chef Phil Lee

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

For the past several weeks, chef Phil Lee has gotten up in the early morning hours at his Los Angeles home to make the 33-mile drive to Second Street in the Claremont Village. Each time he’s made the sometimes 45-minute trek, chef Lee, the founder and owner of Honeybird, has gotten one step closer to making his third southern comfort food joint a reality.

After months of labor and reconfiguring the former vegan restaurant that once occupied the space, Lee’s newest Honeybird location is finally set to open in Claremont, next Friday, October 8.

“Southern hospitality and southern comfort food … that’s kind of what Honeybird is in a nutshell … Fried chicken and all of the classic southern comfort sides like mashed potatoes, collard greens, mac and cheese, biscuits and stuff like that — the whole nine yards,” chef Lee said on Tuesday.

And Honeybird offers all that and more, including their crowd favorite banana cream pies. While his restaurant specializes in crispy, fried chicken, chef Lee insisted that the southern food joint will have something on the menu for every Claremonter to enjoy.

“If there’s a group of four people that come in, some of them might be like ‘dude I’m totally for the fried chicken,’ and we might have a vegan or vegetarian [among them], we have these salads that say ‘Hey, you’re all included as well,’” chef Lee said. “We try to cook with the seasons, too, so we’ll have seasonal salads and sides that are fresh. We have sandwiches, too, ‘cause it’s a thing.”

Everything on the menu is made fresh and from scratch daily by Honeybird’s kitchen staff and incoming chef, Daniel Gee, and the chicken is locally sourced from Los Angeles Poultry. Chef Gee said that Honeybird’s original La Cañada location alone can go through up to 2,000 pounds of chicken per week.

Fried chicken has played an important role in chef Lee’s life. He shared two childhood memories that revolve around him and his family eating the fried bird.

The first memory was when he realized for the first time that his mom made fried chicken for dinner at home, which blew his seven-year-old mind. “I was so used to going to KFC, Popeyes and places like that and I remember when my mom made it, it was bomb!”

The second memory was when he took a trip to South Korea to visit his grandmother and the pair went out to get a bite to eat. Stopping at a local poultry vendor, a young Lee saw a live chicken get prepped and fried right before his eyes. “It was kind of traumatizing but at the same time it was kind of cool ‘cause I saw the whole process from start to finish and him frying it off. And again, it was like, ‘This is so good,’ and it’s so fresh.

“Those two things always kind of always stuck in my mind in terms of like fried chicken. But I didn’t know at the age of 10 or 11 that I wanted to do fried chicken.”

After graduating from culinary school in 2005, Lee began working in the restaurant industry, training under some of the most high-profile chefs in and around Los Angeles for a decade. When it came time to establish a name for himself on the restaurant scene, he said something just spoke to him about southern comfort food.

“I wanted to set out to be my own man and do food that’s relatable. Especially in time like during COVID when people want comfort food. Whether you’re happy, sad or whatever spectrum of emotions, comfort food is comfort food. That’s how we ended up landing on this,” he said. “Conceptually, whenever I think of Honeybird, I think of my own family and my kids, like where would I like to go out to eat, and it’s always that local, neighborhood restaurant.”

Lee opened his first Honeybird location in La Cañada in 2016, five minutes from where he grew up. His second location at the University of Southern California’s Village came two years later.

Both Lee’s landlord and his wife, a frequent Claremont shopper, had urged him to expand Honeybird to the east, but it wasn’t until he actually visited the city himself that he saw potential for a third location. He said the city’s classic, nostalgic vibe reminded him of his first location and was what eventually sold him on the area.

Knowing that Honeybird has competition in the fried chicken department around Claremont, Lee said that his staff members’ personability and the restaurant’s overall great food and setting are what sets it apart. “For us, we try to treat customers as guests, like we’re inviting them into our house,” chef Lee said.

Lee wants his stores to maintain their small-town, mom-and-pop business feel, and to not only serve great food with a great attitude, but also to give back to the community through hosting fundraisers and supporting local schools and foundations.

“We want to be woven into the fabric of a community…We want to be like around [for a long time],” he said. “‘I grew up on Some Crust,’ people would tell us that and yeah it would be cool to be here for long enough where it’s like…‘I remember going here as a college kid and now I bring my kids here.’ That’s the hope.”

For more information, contact the store at (909) 447-2010 or visit www.honeybirdla.com. Honeybird is located at 175 North Indian Hill Boulevard, Suite 102A, in between I Like Pie Bakeshop and Jamba Juice

An eight-piece family pack of fried chicken from Claremont’s newest southern comfort food joint, Honeybird, on Tuesday, September 28. COURIER photo/Andrew Alonzo

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