Tom Lutz has been the proprietor of Gamekeeper's Taverne (87 West St., 440-247-7744, gamekeepers.com) in Chagrin Falls since the restaurant opened on September 4, 1976. In advance of his restaurant's 40th anniversary, Lutz rightfully should be focusing on his past successes. Instead, he's concentrating on the future.
"We started with just myself, my partner Eric Heatwole, and one waitress," Lutz explains. "So much of what I see in various publications is about new restaurants, but we're doing a lot of those new things too. We've had to do that to stay current. We're looking forward, so it's nice sometimes to take a look back."
The cottages that now house Gamekeeper's were built in 1861 and bought by Life Savers candy creator Arthur Crane (the candies are stashed in bowls around the restaurant as an homage). Crane added a large expansion to the buildings and in 1927 opened Crane's Canary Cottage, a restaurant that served Cleveland's luminaries of the day, including John D. Rockefeller.
Today, Gamekeeper's still embraces a rustic cottage atmosphere. Meandering dining rooms with unique themes retain a 1920s bourgeois air, while the modern decor keeps the restaurant from feeling stuck in time. The addition of an updated patio and courtyard has increased the attractiveness and utility of the space tenfold.
"It's sort of like a classic sports car," Lutz says. "You have to maintain it and update it occasionally. We've always had the attitude that the restaurant is casually sophisticated. It needs to be sophisticated, but without the pretentiousness."
Take a look at the menu and you might recognize a few favorites from the past such as the pear and goat cheese salad, penne pasta, and cedar-planked salmon. "We keep looking ahead, but that's one of the tensions we have here; people have come for 40 years to order the angel hair pasta."
Michael Slater, five months into his executive chef position, has added a renewed focus on one the restaurant's core tenets: game. "We're going to try and get more game involved," he says. "I think that's a big niche we can carve out that not a lot of other locations do. We've got tons of booklets on emu, bison and boar, all of the different things that we want to be able to bring on. I'm looking at some pheasant and ostrich, the items that provide something that makes our restaurant a destination."
"What's interesting about game is it has been one of our themes, obviously, but it's also free-range, so to speak, healthy, high in protein, low in fat, and it's fresh," notes Lutz. "The public has become much more educated. People are eating less, and the portions that they want to eat have changed over the years. They are really into what they're eating and want to know what's going into their bodies. That's really important to us, because our bottom line is that we use quality products."
The cards seem to be in Gamekeeper's favor as they continue to reach new generations of consumers. The restaurant probably won't celebrate anything officially on its birthday, other than marking it as a day to remember. But they'll be hosting a food and beer tasting with Platform Beer on September 28 and celebrating each Saturday in October with a clambake, a tradition that they've kept up as they continue to create new partnerships and foster old friendships in the community.