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How Four Long-Standing Cleveland Restaurants Have Adapted to the Times and Survived for Decades

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When the building that currently houses Don's Lighthouse Grille was constructed, Edgewater Park stretched all the way up to the front door. With no Memorial Shoreway to dodge, beachgoers would walk right up to the impressive three-story edifice to purchase taffy, hot dogs, barbecue and ice-cold Coca-Cola.

That building is approaching the century mark, and its daily, weekly, monthly and annual upkeep is just one of countless undertakings that ownership has been dealing with since Don's Lighthouse moved in 50 years ago. In addition to standard maintenance, the interior receives a complete overhaul every five or six years so that it reflects the fashion of the day, says owner Peter Strang.

"Don's Lighthouse Grille has always been known to keep changing to meet the palate of its customers," states Strang. "We strive to be as relevant on the restaurant scene now as we were when we first opened."

From the day they fling open the doors, restaurants are on the receiving end of a barrage of challenges, some that could not even have been imagined at inception. Changing dietary trends, the move away from fine dining, the birth of social media, an endless talent crunch and shifting demographics that see the rise, fall and rebirth of neighborhoods — and, yet, through it all, some restaurants manage to survive and thrive.

"The challenge for us is an aging clientele," admits Strang. "How do you stay relevant and attract some of the younger clientele while still maintaining your existing base, because you don't want to chase the older ones away in an effort to run after the 30- to 35-year-olds."

In addition to the periodic physical improvements to the dining rooms, Don's Lighthouse and sister establishment Don's Pomeroy House in Strongsville, employ what management calls the "75-25 rule," says Strang.

"For 75 percent of our menu, we continue the focus on our core items, but we are always trying to experiment with the other 25 percent," he explains. "We're not necessarily the first ones to jump on things, but we do want to be relevant."

That translates into the arrival of trend-conscious items like lobster nachos, poke bowls and plant-based hamburgers, which find menu space alongside classics like crab cakes, pan-seared scallops and crab-capped steak Oscar. Both restaurants also utilize "bar menus" so that customers can enjoy many of these same items in a more relaxed environment.

For a majority of his 28 years in business, Randal Johnson has been trying to outrun his reputation as a fine-dining operator.

"When we opened, we were definitely going after the fine-dining, higher-end," explains Johnson, who launched the Mentor mainstay Molinari's in 1991. "But now, no matter what I seem to do, we will always be branded with that, which puts us in that special occasion box."

Diners can still enjoy a very special meal here, but tweaks and changes to both the physical space and the menu over the years have been directed at attracting a broader and more inclusive clientele. Years back, Johnson added a pizza oven, which sits prominently by the bar, reminding guests that there's more to Molinari's than the veal Milanese and rack of lamb, not the least of which are delightful thin-crust pizzas and gourmet burgers. Mid-week specials are broadcast via the restaurant's Facebook page and more than 300 bottles of wine are available at retail prices (plus corkage) from the in-store displays — all maneuvers intended to remain visible and viable in a crowded marketplace.

"In our little corridor, from Willoughby to Mentor to Painesville, there have been a lot of new restaurants and we're all vying for the same dining-out dollars," Johnson reports.

When Jorge and Maria de la Luz Galindo opened Luchita's at the end of their block in Lakewood, they had light competition in the form of other Mexican restaurants. These days, some four decades later, the number of like-minded eateries has increased 20-fold, and staying top-of-mind is a daily endeavor. That responsibility rests largely with marketing guru Sandro Galindo, who juggles social media accounts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

Whereas Galindo's abuela was more inclined to post adverts in the daily newspapers, her grandson's media of choice are more likely to capture the attention of younger customers. And just as social media continues to evolve, so too do the tactics used to employ it effectively.

"I think social media has gotten to the point where it's not about promoting yourself," Galindo explains. "If you can put a smile on other people's faces and have your name attached to it, I think that's great. We like to post Instagram stories of people celebrating birthdays, our staff lets their friends know when they're working, and we like to post funny memes that poke fun at ourselves."

When Tartine opened for business 11 years ago, the Rocky River bistro did so with a kitchen lacking basics such as a stove and hood. They managed to "make do" using a few induction burners and a janky old oven. A few years back, the owners invested in an expansion and improvement project that netted a fully equipped kitchen as well as an intimate private dining room. That PDR appears to be earning its keep.

Tartine has always hosted wine dinners, but under executive chef Michael Grieve, they have become promotional powerhouses. These monthly dinners consist of seven- to 10-course prix fixe meals with beverage pairings. They are capped at 50 guests and routinely sell out.

"When I first started here, there was more of a focus on the wine," explains Grieve, who joined the team three years ago. "I think now, the food is riding upfront with the wine and we're getting just as many foodies as we are wine connoisseurs."

What's more, these folks tend not to be the bistro's bread-and-butter customers, but rather more adventurous folks who come to try something new and different. The chef makes a point of meeting these diners, soliciting feedback, and hopefully converting some of them to more consistent guests.

"These events are something that we've ramped up over the years," the chef states. "That's something that helps us stay relevant."

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