By Frier McCollister
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer

The 700-square-foot Lucky Bird Fried Chicken in Downtown’s bustling Grand Central Market was Chris Dane’s first independent venture as a chef and restaurateur.

Following its 2018 opening, it latched onto the fried chicken craze and quickly established itself at the market. It proved to be an effective incubator and a competitive hotbed for young, ambitious and thoroughly talented chefs.

The pandemic proved to be challenging, as Dane and his wife, Christine, welcomed twin sons last year.

“We had twin boys, a couple of newborn babies,” Dane said. “We shut down three times in 2020. It was really tough for us for a while there. Things started to look pretty bleak.”

Five days before their sons turned 1, Christine received a message via LinkedIn from Elise Wetzel. She, along with her husband, Rick, are the masterminds behind the successful Wetzel’s Pretzels chain, and the Blaze Pizza empire. Fried chicken was the Pasadena couple’s latest obsession and Lucky Bird was targeted in their sights.

“We had been talking about different concepts,” Elise said. “We thought comfort food — and especially fried chicken — might do quite well in the times we’re in. So, we started doing research on fried chicken and we ate a lot of carryout fried chicken. Clearly, there was one concept — Lucky Bird — that stood out above all the rest.”

Prior to contacting the Danes, the Wetzels closed on a building on Jan. 15 on West Colorado Boulevard that previously housed the Eagle Rock Public House gastropub and the vegetarian bistro Fatty’s.

“We wanted a project,” Elise said. “We bought this building. We knew LA would revitalize itself. This virus wasn’t going to be a permanent state and we wanted to be a part of Los Angeles getting back on its feet again.

“We felt that we wanted to help open it up. It was very sad to us. So many restaurants had closed that we had loved. So, we said, ‘Let’s get one open.’ So, we bought the building.”

That said, the couple’s pandemic boredom inspired the turn, Elise said.

“We retired. We sold out,” said Rick, of the sale of their interests in Blaze Pizza in September. “The sale happened in the fall, and then the election was over,” Rick said. “Then it was just boring. We said, ‘We’ve got to go do something.’”

“And the city was falling apart,” Elise interjected.

Newfound partnership

After Elise’s introductory message to Christine, the couples participated in a Zoom call, which sealed the deal.

“We went on a blind date and then got married,” Rick said with a laugh.

“There’s so much to like. We love the Danes and their story. We just thought it would be a great partnership and they had demonstrated their abilities through GCM (Grand Central Market),” Elise added.

The partnership threw a critical lifeline to the Danes and allowed them to expand Lucky Bird’s menu. They could unveil the results of kitchen experiments brewing during the pandemic.

“When we had all this time off in the pandemic, I’d be at home cooking constantly,” Dane said.

“I’m constantly trying to make things better. How can we make our chicken better? How can we make this cornbread work? How can we make different sides that might be more appealing to people? I think we’re in a really good spot right now. We took a lot of time and thought about it. We came out the other side with some really great ideas and we’re really excited moving forward with what we have.”

The chicken at Lucky Bird is distinguished by its distinctive flavor and lighter crust. It’s brined for eight hours, rests overnight and then is double dredged in light Wondra flour with a buttermilk dip in between. The prepped chicken is then fried in a high-temperature pressure fryer for 8 minutes. Finished with a scattering of lemon zest, this fried chicken is a bird of another feather.

The chicken comes in boneless tenders, wings and pieces in various combo platters and sandwich options. Accompanying the orders are choices from an array of housemade dipping sauces. There are also spicy and tofu versions.

The GCM Chicken Sammie platter ($10.45) is a sampler of Lucky Bird’s original inspiration. It is a boneless fried chicken breast dressed with coleslaw, pickles and house sauce wedged into a butter bun and served with a choice of eight sides. There are also buckets and family packs. A half-bird bucket ($13.95) includes a whole breast and wing, along with a leg and thigh quarter. There are also value menu items that start with a single jumbo tender and sauce ($3.95). The menu is fully accessible for every type of fried chicken (or tofu) fanatic.

The side dishes and dessert offered on the Eagle Rock menu are not found at the Downtown stall. Highlights here include broccoli salad with bacon ($3.50); watermelon and cucumber salad with feta ($3.50); mac and cheese ($3.50) and gluten-free cornbread ($2). The banana cream pudding ($3.95) provides a breezy finish to the chicken.

“It’s definitely a fan favorite so far and definitely one of my favorites,” said Dane, a La Canada High School graduate. “We’re also working on a peach cobbler, which should make its way onto the menu in the next week or two.”

Dane said he doesn’t expect any further expansions.

“I think we’re all agreeing on the point of focusing on this one establishment for now, and the best chicken, the best service and the best atmosphere that we can in this community,” he added. “Once we accomplish that goal, then we’ll start discussing things further from there.”

Rick noted this is not a fast-casual concept.

“We’ll just see what the bird wants to do,” Rick said. “For us, this is another step out of our comfort zone. It’s just another learning experience.”

Elise added, “It’s a wonderful team that we’ve put together here and we’re creating a place with a culture where people feel like family.”