The farm-to-table restaurant Bolete has been open on the South Side for over 15 years. It can be found at 1740 Seidersville Rd, Bethlehem. (Photo courtesy of Aliya Haddon)

Bolete: a mushroom, restaurant, family


A bolete is a kind of mushroom. But for those who frequent perhaps the most famous restaurant in Bethlehem, it is more than that.

Erin and Lee Chizmar opened their farm-to-table restaurant, Bolete, on Seidersville Road almost 15 years ago in an old stagecoach inn.

“A Bolete is a type of mushroom, but you can’t farm it,” Erin Chizmar said. “It’s wild. You have to forage for it. So, it just seemed like there were layers of what that meaning could be for the restaurant.” 

Bolete’s foyer is covered in signatures and notes left there by many who have walked through the door.

Signatures of visitors cover the walls of Bolete’s foyer. (Photo courtesy of Aliya Haddon)

“Why are we doing this?” asked Erin Chizmar. “It’s community.” 

The Chizmars started their journey together while working in a restaurant in Boston. Their friendship quickly grew into love and their dreams into reality. The couple returned to Lee Chizmar’s hometown in the Lehigh Valley to open their first restaurant in 2007. 

Lee Chizmar has been Bolete’s head chef ever since its doors opened. He curates new cuisine daily, all of which comes from local farms. When it started, Bolete sourced produce from five local farms. Now, the couple works with 25 different farmers. 

“If you’re eating farm-to-table, you’re supporting your neighbor,” Erin Chizmar said. “If you’re eating locally, you’re connecting with those people. And the layers of what that gives you beyond just your dinner is very important. … It’s the way that we think everyone should eat, which is certainly a privilege, unfortunately, in our country.” 

The couple owns three other restaurants: Silvershell Counter + Kitchen, Mr. Lee’s Noodles at the Easton Public Market and Mr. Lee’s Noodles on Third Street in Bethlehem. All of them run farm-to-table. 

Operations manager Erica Wallace said Bolete’s dedication to buying local goes beyond its food. The restaurant relies on local shops like V. Murray’s Mercantile and Allium Floral Design to decorate the space. 

“It’s amazing how they are implanting themselves in the community outreaching and trying to bring as many people in as possible,” Wallace said.

Wallace first visited Bolete as a customer and was later hired as a server’s assistant, intending it to be a short-term job. 

Today, after nine and a half years, she said, Bolete has become her family. Wallace feels as though she grew up in the restaurant, beginning work as a 23-year-old and now having a daughter of her own. 

“It’s such a second family support system that is really rare, I think, to find in today’s world,” Wallace said. “You know, Erin and Chef (Chizmar) would literally give the clothes off their back if someone needed it.”

Beverage manager Stephen Pekarik said the Bolete family includes staff and guests. The consistency of employees and customers allows for relationships to flourish. 

Like Wallace, Pekarik first came to Bolete looking for a short-term transition job. He has now been working there for 11 years. Pekarik said once he started at the restaurant, he fell in love with the mission statement and vision that the Chizmars created.  

“First and foremost, it’s family,” Pekarik said. “It just breeds bizarre harmony.”

Regulars come to Bolete for weekly dinners and anniversaries, Pekarik said, continually showing their support for the dining destination. 

Wallace said the flavors also bring people back to Bolete over and over again. 

“The cuisine is really out of this world,” Wallace said. “Chef (Lee) is amazing. The things he comes up with, I’m just like, ‘What is going on in your brain?’”

The food is mainly categorized as upscale American, but the variety that comes out of Bolete’s kitchen makes the cuisine difficult to label. The chefs butcher and smoke their own meat and fish and prepare hand-made stock, sauces and pasta. 

Bolete has been recognized for its cuisine. Condé Nast Traveler named the eatery as one of its 105 Best New Restaurants in 2008. This was followed by Best Life Magazine’s award for America’s 25 Best Farm-to-Table Restaurants. In 2016 Open Table included Bolete as one of its 100 best restaurants in America. 

Most recently, Lee Chizmar was a 2019 James Beard Award semifinalist for best chef in the mid-Atlantic region.

Lee has embraced different cuisines over the years. Wallace said, recently, he has taken inspiration from Pennsylvania, Dutch and Japanese roots. 

Bolete is open Thursday through Saturday for dinner and Sunday for brunch. It closes its doors for preparation on Tuesday and Wednesday, with Monday scheduled as a day off. 

Erin Chizmar said there are no days off as a small business owner. 

“There’s a lot of sacrifice in this business for sure,” she said. 

Bolete opened its doors in 2008, just as a recession hit, and kept them open through COVID-19. The pandemic was challenging, but adapting to change as a team brought everyone in the restaurant closer together, Wallace said.  

During lockdown the restaurant functioned through curbside pickup. As restrictions were lifted, Bolete offered patio dining outside the church across the street. 

With cool weather last winter, they needed a warmer solution. They added 19 heated sheds — one at each table — made by Amish craftsmen and sponsored by other businesses or families. 

“People would come in and start crying, so it was pretty incredible,” Erin Chizmar said. 

Pekarik agreed. 

“It’s not just serving food, and it’s not just serving drinks,” he said. “It’s a connection.” 

Erin Chizmar said she, her husband and the staff used to spend every day together when they first opened Bolete. Things have changed as the Chizmars have expanded their businesses and started their family, but what hasn’t changed, she said, is the connection and community that is ingrained in Bolete’s culture.

The couple invites the entire staff to their cabin every year to enjoy each other’s company and take a break from the busyness of the restaurant industry. 

“They love what they do, and we love each other,” Pekarik said. “It really kind of shows in service, it shows with the food.”

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