The Tasting Panel magazine

November 2013

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Page 123 of 152

The ideas for subsequent concepts stemmed from vacation destinations." Lucky Lounge Lemonade, with Stoli Razberi, muddled blackberries and lemonade, and the Mango Martini, with Malibu Mango Rum, Licor 43 and pineapple juice, are two crowd-pleasing libations at Ozzie's Good Eats in Fairfax, VA. W alk into any of Great American Restaurants' locations, and it's easy to forget that it's part of a larger outfit. "We don't think like a chain," says Director of Operations Jeff Gaiko, who cites examples like corporate partnerships with community philanthropic efforts, equal focus on employees' and guests' experiences and a steadfast effort to maintain and update venues' interiors, as definitive reasons that set his group apart. But this Fairfax, Virginia–based restaurant group, which employs more than 1,300 staff members, operates 12 wildly popular mainstays on the Northern Virginia dining scene. Multi-unit concepts such as the beach house–inspired Coastal Flats are joined by one-offs like perennial brunch favorite Carlyle and Jackson's Mighty Fine Food, which offers comfort food with an unexpected twist. Great American Restaurants' beginnings date back to 1974, when Randy Norton and Jim Farley opened a fledgling pizza joint in Fairfax City. The restaurant didn't survive, but Mike Ranney joined them the following year, and the partnership was formed. The trio worked to open what would eventually become Silverado, which serves up "cowboy fun and the world's best fajitas." The ideas for subsequent concepts, according to Gaiko, stemmed from Norton's vacation destinations. A trip to the Florida Keys rendered the relaxed, beach vibe and seafood focus of Coastal Flats; a sojourn in New Hampshire's Lake Winnipesaukee led to Artie's, where guests dine on classic American fare and seafood amid handcrafted scale models of wooden boats; and time spent in Santa Fe was the impetus for the three locations of Sweetwater Tavern, which has garnered national acclaim for liquid offerings brewed onsite, including Crazy Jackass Ale, a German-style amber rye beer. Through the years, management and staff have seen a lot of changes in the area's dining scene. "The D.C. area has really grown into a restaurant town," notes Gaiko. "The clientele has become more knowledgeable, guests are more adventurous and they are looking for a dining experience." Area liquor laws have also changed dramatically since the opening of Silverado. In the early 1970s, Virginia passed a law that allowed liquor to be sold by the glass in restaurants; before that, it had to be sold in private clubs, notes Vice President of Human Resources Jill Norton. Today, some of Great American Restaurants' concepts have distinctive beverage focuses, depending on their theme as well as proximity to the District. At Carlyle in Arlington, a closer suburb to D.C. than Fairfax, wine is popular, while at Artie's and Mike's American, the steakhouse cuisine calls for classic cocktails and big reds. Cocktails are popular at Coastal Flats, which was one of the first area restaurants to handmuddle mint and lime for Mojitos; in one year alone, the Fairfax location sells 50,000 of them. Both Norton and Gaiko point to an overarching goal of consistent, fast, friendly and efficient service, as well as a great, memorable experience for guests. For Norton, sometimes it's more personal. "It's rewarding to have a prep cook tell you that his daughter graduated from the University of Virginia." Great American Restaurants has plans to expand into the Montgomery County, Maryland suburbs, with another location of Coastal Flats scheduled to open in late 2014. november 2013  /  the tasting panel  /  123 TP1113_109-156.indd 123 10/24/13 9:17 AM

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