July 16, 2003 News & Features » Cover Story


The Restaurant Mafia 

Our annual restaurant issue takes you inside the organization. Meet the people behind the food you can't refuse.

The Bosses

Michael Ripp, 41
Angela Whitley Ripp, 38

Restaurants: Havana ’59, City Bar & Chophouse, O’Brienstein’s, Wildcats
Previous restaurant: Chico’s Mansion
Restaurants in the works: Tijuana Country Club (expected to open in 2004), Butcher shop/wine store (expected end of 2003), both at the Farmers’ Market.

Michael Ripp is a man of exquisite taste. His steaks are dry-aged at City Bar — the only restaurant in town where you’ll find that quality. The wood and ironwork at O’Brienstein’s are exact copies of those he saw at pubs in Dublin, he says. His bagels are the real deal, boiled just like in New York. His cold cuts are roasted in-house. He doesn’t mess around when it comes to food, atmosphere or quality. All of which, he hopes, creates an experience for his patrons that they can’t get elsewhere in Richmond.

Ripp’s father, Richard, owned a slew of restaurants while Michael was growing up, including Crab Louie’s, Hickory Hearth, The Abbey, Cattle Town and C.C. Chicanos. Today, the elder Ripp’s business, The Restaurant Co., includes a Vie de France, a Bullets and 18 Arby’s — five of which are among the top 10 most successful Arby’s in the country. The newest, in Short Pump, features an extended menu, a ski-lodge motif and even shrubs sculpted into animal shapes. He sees it as a model for Arby’s future direction.

Michael Ripp’s three brothers are in the business, too. The youngest, Vincent, is director of marketing, John is the CFO and Chris is being groomed to take over the company. Chris, who, like his father, studied to be a chef at the Culinary Institute of America, spent the last six years working alongside some of the nation’s top chefs in New York.

“Dad’s always had the entrepreneurial spirit,” says Vincent, who explains that the company’s strategy to move Arby’s away from “fast food” into what’s called “fast casual,” a category pioneered by Boston Market.

Vincent says he sees his father’s entrepreneurial spirit in Michael. “He’s willing to take risks,” he says. “He kind of likes to be his own boss. He’s not the best with authority.”

By the time Michael opened Havana ’59 in 1994 he already had 29 years of experience, working in just about every aspect of the restaurant business. Today, he has the uncanny ability to identify ingredients in the food he’s eating, a skill he attributes to years of working alongside chefs in his dad’s test kitchen. Michael designed the menus for his restaurants and hires cooks rather than chefs to execute them. “That’s the biggest farce in Richmond,” he says, “they call themselves chefs and basically it’s a cook with a title.”

His wife, Angela Whitley Ripp, is an attorney and recently studied interior design at Virginia Commonwealth University to help out with designing their new endeavors. The two have a passion for travel and say they keep up on trends and get ideas from eating at all the hot spots. Some of their favorites are Burns Steakhouse in Tampa, Fla., Tantra in Miami, Frontier Grill in Chicago and Le Colonial Vietnamese restaurant in New York. (Locally they go for Edo’s Squid, Mamma ’Zu and Millie’s Diner.)

Although Michael began his restaurant business with all the advantages that came with the Ripp name — like being friends with the Lovings of Lovings Produce – it hasn’t always been a smooth road. Seven years ago he declared bankruptcy — he was $1.95 million in debt two and a half years after Havana ’59 opened, including more than $600,000 in federal, state and local taxes. He says that was due in part to the failure of Chico’s Mansion, a French/Mexican-themed restaurant he opened with his wife in Shockoe Bottom. It lasted just nine months. Ripp says he still kicks himself for opening Chico’s instead of taking the Havana name around the country. They’ve had many offers to do so, he says.

Today, Angela Ripp says everyone has been paid back 100 percent plus interest, and they’re forging ahead with new ventures. Wildcats opened in May. The barbecue-and-chili joint camouflaged in a safari décor, is an attempt to attract young professionals who might find City Bar or Havana too expensive. The couple has plans for two other restaurants at the Farmers’ Market in the next year. In addition, they hold several leases in order to regulate who moves into the neighborhood. “Michael’s always wanted to make the market a destination and it’s starting to work,” Angela says. “My goal is to make him slow down and take a break for a while.”

Along with rejuvenating the Farmers’ Market area, Ripp hopes to change local attitudes about eating. “Richmonders are not very discriminating when it comes to food,” he says. “If it’s around the corner they’re going to go to it. To me, that’s the worst thing about dining in Richmond.”

Ripp hopes to create a dining experience. His restaurants don’t just create the illusion of being in another place — they’ll also take you back in time. He wants you to forget you’re in Richmond. But not everybody’s ready for that, or for the price tag that goes along with it. That’s why his restaurants cater mostly to tourists, business dinners and special occasions.

“If there’s one thing I’d like to see in Richmond,” Ripp says, “it’s that the diners not settle because it’s just going to make the restaurants better.” — Carrie Nieman

Johnny Giavos, 39
Katrina Dikos Giavos, 37

Restaurants: Sidewalk Café, Stella’s, Kuba Kuba
Formerly part-owners of: Banditos Burrito Lounge, Ernesto’s Creperie
Properties he owns: Helen’s building, Sticky Rice building, Border Chophouse & Bar building, Out of Bounds building.

“If that drinking crowd starts getting on my nerves I’ll shut down at 11 p.m. — I’m a tired old man,” Johnny Giavos says from behind a desk in his office above the popular neighborhood grill he started with his wife, Katrina, 12 years ago. Sidewalk Café, which once attracted a rowdy bar crowd, today has grown up a bit, just like its owners. And Giavos is glad; he makes more money from food sales anyway. That’s why he’s trying to add seating outside for the lunch and dinner shifts, but he’s been trying for so long he’s almost tired of the fight.

The Giavoses were bred to be a successful restaurateurs. Johnny began working the register at Gus’s Corner, his dad’s lunch place downtown, when he was 9. Katrina started waiting tables at her parent’s Village Café at Harrison and Grace streets when she was 8. Although they learned the lesson of hard work from their parents, the second generation runs their restaurants differently. “I put more trust in people, I let others be responsible,” says Johnny, whose parents never left their restaurant. He had to talk Katrina’s mom, Stella, into leaving a couple of shifts to another cook at their Mediterranean café named in her honor. “I like my time away, I like to coach the soccer kids, something my parents never had time to do,” he says. Yet Johnny still regularly cooks at both Sidewalk and Stella’s, and sometimes he simply can’t get away.

“You go through your times where everything is going good, then you go through times like now where I’m trying to find people to cover shifts.” Johnny says he’s supposed to go on vacation, but will be forced to send his wife and children without him because he’ll have to pick up shifts.

For him, there was never any question that he would go into the restaurant business. It was just what he knew. “Most people go to college and learn a trade,” Johnny says. “I learned to cook, bartend.” Although his 13-year-old son, Dean, has bused tables, Johnny says he’d rather his kids not get into the family business. “I’m trying to make them go to schools; that’s what I’m going to preach.”

Today, Johnny feels maxed out. With two restaurants and a partnership in a third, Kuba Kuba, he’s not interested in opening any more. “This has become too much, I’m tired. Two dogs, two kids, a wife, soccer practice, swim meets. I can’t do anything anymore; I’m killing myself.” So instead of running restaurants, he has begun buying Fan buildings that house restaurants. He also helps those restaurants when they need it, like putting a new air-conditioning unit in Sticky Rice.

As for his own restaurants, Johnny’s secret is using the same ingredients in many entrees to keep food costs down. “Here I take a chicken breast and cook it 40 different ways,” he says. At Sidewalk, he’s cheaper than Arby’s, he adds. “You come to my place, and hopefully you’ll get a deal, and you’ll say that was nice and you’ll come again.” — Carrie Nieman

Made Men & Women

Jared Golden, 34
Michelle Williams, 30

Restaurants: The Hard Shell, Europa, The Hill Café

When the history of Shockoe Bottom and the Slip is finally written on bar napkins and coasters, the names of Jared Golden and Michelle Williams will be two of the first mentioned.

The restaurateurs own and operate the The Hard Shell and Europa, two anchors in the Slip whose combined age of 13 years makes them venerable residents of such a tumultuous area.

But long before the two opened their own establishments, they learned what to do and what not to do in other Bottom spaces with their silent partner, Ted Wall.

Wall and Golden manned the taps and served the crab legs at Awful Arthur’s when it opened in the late ’80s, and Williams cooked and ran the Island Grill. The Bottom was on the rise back then. “I’d been working in the slip since 50-cent highballs at the Bus-Stop, where I worked,” Golden says. “It was crazy.”

Golden and Williams “talked all the time about opening our own [place] someday,” Golden recalls. “Mark Merhige had just finished developing this area, and after a while we settled on [the Hard Shell] spot, mainly because it had the patio, but because it was about the size we were looking for.”

With help from investors, family and the bank, they opened The Hard Shell in 1995, when it was the only place on the block besides The Frog & the Redneck. Europa followed a few years later. Golden runs The Hard Shell and Williams runs Europa, and they bring a personal style to each. “The theory ... was that it would be easy to open restaurants right next door to each other and promote the area as well,” Golden says. “They kind of play off each other in certain ways, with very different menus, but similar presentation and style.”

Could be a case of seniority, but The Hard Shell definitely gets the most attention. In fact, it’s become a bit of a haven for celebrities passing through town. Gwyneth Paltrow and Philip Seymour Hoffman have been spotted there, and people still talk about the time Tom Berringer bought a Hard Shell hat and wore it all over town.

Europa is also gaining a reputation with its nightlife. The restaurant’s downstairs lounge has become a hip stop for the older and better-heeled club set looking for a classy place to hear new dance music.

In 2000, Williams, Golden and Wall bought the Hill Café. The place had a 10-year history to uphold. Golden says they kept the comfort food and neighborhood feel, but made the menu and hours more consistent.

With the Canal Walk getting more attention every year, and development going on all over downtown, the Bottom and Church Hill, Golden’s sustaining belief in the Bottom seems to be paying off. “It just seemed like development would happen all around us,” he recalls thinking when he first went into business. Time seems to be proving him right. — Wayne Melton

Bill Cabaniss, 52
Amy Cabaniss, 33

Restaurants: Cabo’s, Julep’s New Southern Cuisine

It was a setting he couldn’t refuse: Dark wood, a high ceiling and a gorgeous spiral staircase in what may be the oldest commercial building in the city, nestled deep within the historic layers of Shockoe Bottom.

There are some seriously old buildings in the Bottom, and owner Bill Cabaniss is pleased that he might have found the oldest for his newest restaurant, Julep’s New Southern Cuisine.

Cabaniss and his wife, Amy, sitting in Julep’s office during a rare sunny day in late June, say they were actually looking for a place in the West End when they found this one. “But our first love is old buildings with unique architecture,” Bill explains, “and it just wasn’t out there.” In fact, you get the feeling talking to these two that if they love serving people good food, they love creating the settings at least as much, if not more.

They first got into the restaurant business in 1997 soon after they were engaged. Amy was visiting her father in Maryland when she got a call from Bill, telling her, out of the blue, he’d just bought a restaurant.

She recalls being floored. “I said, ‘What?!’”

Yet she and Bill ended up perfectly matched to roll the dice on the restaurant game. Amy had been a hostess and waitress for years before receiving her marketing degree from Virginia Commonwealth University. Bill brought management experience to the table as the former owner of the Cornerstone catering company and Bacchus and Beef, a wine and fine meats wholesaler he owned with his brother Bob.

Bob Cabaniss also moved further into the food and drink business as the new century dawned. He owns Williamsville Brewery, the makers of Work beer, and Main St. Beer Co., the upscale Fan brew pub and restaurant near Meadow Street.

The two brothers now keep their business interests separate, and Bob, who runs Williamsville with his sons, Rob and Jay, is a hands-off restaurant owner, leaving the day-to-day operation to managers. But he echoes the family’s love of fabulous spaces when he explains how he gutted an old grocery store and filled it with modern-looking bright steel and wood so he could have a cool place to sell beer: “I had a building. I wanted something different and unique for Richmond, so I hired a designer.”

Conversely, you get the impression that Bill and Amy practically live in their office at Julep’s. When they bought Cabo’s, Amy says, “I explained [to Bill] that we’d have to work 80 hours a week just to break even in the beginning.”

Does the hard work pay off? Drive by Cabo’s on Broad on any given night and it seems to be jumping from street level. Julep’s will be a real test. Shockoe Bottom has a reputation as a fickle mistress. But Bill is confident. He thinks that providing a dining setting that’s just as satisfying as the food (note the quick move of Cabo’s to its much larger Broad Street locale) is the key to keeping the doors open. “I’m just a firm believer,” he says, “that if you give people what they’re paying for they’ll come.” — Wayne Melton

The Garcia Family
Restaurants: Six Mexico Restaurants

It all started in Guadalajara, Mexico, more than 30 years ago. José Garcia was a grocer who owned a small taco stand. From humble beginnings, great things grow. Immigrating to California, Garcia hooked up with family member Jesus Arellano to get into the restaurant business. The two packed up the family recipes and headed to Virginia. And soon a dynasty was born.

Arellano went on to found the El Rodeo chain of Mexican restaurants, which now can be found in Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, North Carolina and West Virginia. Garcia founded the Mexico chain of restaurants, five of which are in the Richmond area (and one in Maryland) and growing fast. All of these restaurants — more than 50 on the East Coast — are still family-owned, and the third generation of the Garcia-Arellano clan is ready to take the top spots in the family business.

Maria Garcia, José’s daughter, knows the secret of their success: “It’s the power of family,” she says. “People coming together and working hard.” She and her two brothers oversee their father’s work. Maria says she grew up in the business, acting as a translator for her father who still doesn’t speak much English. Her work is a labor of love, but it wasn’t always the salsa train of success they are now riding.

“When we first came to Richmond, the first year was really hard,” she says. “We didn’t think we would make it. But little by little people started coming in.”

The appeal is authentic Mexican food that’s reasonably priced. The large menu has all the favorites: tacos, enchiladas and burritos. But the fajitas remain the best-seller. Everything is prepared fresh daily, Maria says. And, she boasts, “We have the best margaritas in town.”

The family is never complacent about business and it continues to expand. Next on their to-do list is opening a new location on Hull Street in 2004. It’s easy to find employees — they just look around the breakfast table. Maria can’t even count how many relatives are involved. She just promises there will always be someone named Garcia to welcome guests at every location.

Yet achieving the American dream of owning your own business comes at a price: very long hours. “It’s like working two full-time jobs, and that’s the reason I only have one child,” Maria says. She’s recruited her husband, Javier Lara, into the business for help — and to keep their relationship healthy. “If he didn’t join,” she says, “we would never see each other.”

Her nephew José, 24, grew up with the grueling schedule and doesn’t seem to mind the hard work. Already an assistant manager at the Mexico restaurant on Horsepen Road, he says, “I’m stuck here for life, but that’s a good thing.” As for the future, José will not change a winning formula and is against franchising the business. He’s very protective of his legacy. “I don’t see us letting anyone buy into it,” he says. “We’re going to keep it strictly in the family.” — John White

The Associates

Rick Lyons, 38
Sean McClain, 36

Restaurants: Bandito’s Burrito Lounge, Star-lite Dining and Lounge

An easy way to stump Rick Lyons, owner of Bandito’s Burrito Lounge and Star-lite Dining and Lounge, is to ask him why he wanted to go into the restaurant business. “Oh Lord,” Lyons says. “I guess you’re just born into it, really. Something happens and it just takes you by surprise. It’s like, all of a sudden, you’re just good at it.”

But becoming a success in the restaurant business didn’t happen overnight. He started working for restaurants when he was in high school back in Oregon, and since then he has worked every imaginable job in the industry. “I started off as the dishwasher,” Lyons says. “Then I was the fry guy and the line cook for a while. I was on the floor waiting tables for a while. Then I was a bartender, and then all of a sudden I was manager and I just figured, well, this is something I’m good at so I might as well keep going.”

Lyons gained his real restaurant experience at R.H. Cars, a bar with “light fare” outside of Philadelphia. He quickly moved up the ranks and knew that he wanted to own his own bar/restaurant one day. The problem with opening one in the city of Brotherly Love was the difficulty in getting a liquor license. In Pennsylvania liquor licenses are privately owned and issued in accordance to population. When a license is sold it goes for several hundred thousand dollars, so Lyons knew he had to relocate. He has a brother in Richmond, so he came here and has been working in the local restaurant business for 11 years.

When Lyons joined the Fan Rats soccer team he met Sidewalk Café owner Johnny Giavos. They got to talking about business. Lyons quit his job as general manager at Memphis Bar and Grill in Shockoe Bottom and teamed up with Giavos and former Sidewalk employee Sean McClain to open the original Bandito’s in Oregon Hill in 1997. After three successful years, Lyons and McClain bought Giavos out, then two years later moved the restaurant to a bigger spot in the Museum District, where it is today. Along the way, he and McClain, who, Lyons says, “handles all the back-of-the-house stuff,” also started popular Fan bar/restaurant Star-lite.

Lyons’ experience in the restaurant business means that he knows a good thing when he sees it. When he goes out to eat you can find him at either Stella’s or Zeus Gallery. “Both places have excellent atmosphere,” he says.

When it comes down to his own restaurants, Lyons says that Star-lite and Bandito’s offer something a lot of restaurants don’t. “I think we have consistent quality in our food and consistent quality in our service,” he says. “It’s our consistency that makes us different and is really the key to our success.” — Francis W. Decker

Ed Vasaio, 38
Restaurants: Mamma ’Zu, Edo’s Squid

Ed Vasaio is not a man who’s comfortable with too many questions. Pithy conversation just isn’t his thing. “I’m not good with the instant quip,” he admits. Instead, he lets his food do the talking. Owner of Mamma ’Zu and Edo’s Squid, the latter with his partner Brad Wein, Vasaio has been a force in Richmond’s dining scene for the past nine years. With two popular restaurants under his watch, he’s become a staple in the turbulent here-today-gone-tomorrow restaurant game.

A second-generation Italian-American, he learned the restaurant business from his family (his parents have run several eateries in the Washington, D.C., area since 1948). Continuing the tradition, Vasaio serves Italian food from all regions of the fabled “ba-da bing” peninsula. With marinara sauce in his blood, he admits he’s a hands-on owner and that his work is an inalienable extension of himself. “It’s my life; it’s not work for me. I don’t separate my work from my home life.” This may be a necessary attitude when you work an average of 15 hours per day.

His secret for success is to personalize his establishments — to do something authentic that people will remember. “Restaurants should be an extension of your personality,” he says. “It should reflect the personality of the owner and not just be an industry standard.” Priding himself on fresh seafood and meats, he keeps nothing frozen. He doesn’t cut corners. He admits that with the demands of his job, he seldom ventures out, taking his three meals a day chiefly at Mamma ’Zu. Yet when he wants a change of pace he eats Chinese at Full Kee, which he claims to be the best restaurant in Richmond.

When asked why people should eat at one of his places, Vasaio is tight-lipped: “I’ll let them answer that.” Yet he courts a healthy cross section of customers. Of course, you have to like Italian food. And, frankly, who doesn’t? There is also the chance that the family tradition won’t end with him. Vasaio has three young sons whom you may see passing out rolls or filling water glasses once in a while. Does he have any ambitions for them to go into the family business? “I don’t want to force them into anything,” he says. “I want to see what they are interested in and gently encourage it.” — John White

Khalid Bennajma, 40
Restaurants: Rivah Bistro, 1421 Ristorante Italiano & Bar

Khalid Bennajma has made a name for himself as one of the few purveyors of Moroccan food in town. Although he was born in Morocco, he wasn’t born into the restaurant business. Back home Bennajma had worked for the Moroccan state department in the protocol office for three years, but when he turned 21 he decided to come to the United States. “My father wanted me to go to France since I was already fluent in French,” Bennajma says. “But I was young and I wanted to see all the glamour and glitz that the U.S. had to offer.”

When he arrived in America the only English he knew consisted of the lyrics to some Bob Marley songs. “When I went into a restaurant in D.C. looking for a job, I was only able to say ‘need job,’” Bennajma recalls. “The manager asked me if I wanted to be a busboy, and I thought, ‘What? Am I going to be working on a bus or something?’” Through working and attending school, Bennajma picked up the language and soon became acquainted with every job in the restaurant business from cook to bartender to waiter. It wasn’t long before he was working at some of the best restaurants in D.C., including Paper Moon in Georgetown and Odeon Café on Upper Dupont Circle.

In working at these restaurants Bennajma began to form an idea of what kind of restaurant he wanted to open. After he chose the spot in Shockoe Slip, he had a lot of work ahead of him — from painting to rewiring — to get the look he wanted. And he still keeps a tight rein on what comes out of the kitchen. “There’s only one way to do it — it’s my way or the highway,” he says. “I joke to the chef, if you want to be creative, open your own restaurant and you can be creative. I give them the full freedom to be creative in the specials, [but this is] my vision, it’s my thing.”

While upscale French/Moroccan and Italian restaurants might at first seem to be exclusive, Bennajma’s vision for the place was far more pedestrian. “The way I wanted to do it was to make it open to everybody and anybody,” he says. “That’s why there’s butcher paper on top of the tables. The idea was that when you look at my restaurant you won’t think that it’s too expensive, and you’ll feel very comfortable when you walk in.”

So what does a connoisseur of some of the finest European foods eat when he’s not working? “I could pretty much survive off of pasta and mussels,” Bennajma says. “Whenever I go to Paris I go to this place that specializes in mussels. They have about thirty-five different mussel dishes there, and they’re just wonderful.” Needless to say, mussels can be found as both appetizers and entrees at Rivah Bistro, and they frequent the special list at 1421.

Bennajma also has a list of favorite Richmond restaurants. “I love Acacia in Carytown,” Bennajma says. “I also like Pomegranate in the Slip. And when I want to be bad and crave a good burger I think T.G.I. Friday’s is the best for that. They have crayons for the place settings and my kids love that.”

When it comes back to his own restaurants Bennajma has gone to some extreme measures to give them an authentic feel — like what Bennajma calls a chef exchange. “On July 15th, I’m sending the chef of 1421 to Italy to work with my friend in Mondovi, and his chef will come here,” he says. The hope is that both chefs will return with knowledge to help their craft and their restaurant.

Bennajma prides himself in offering something a little more than just good food — a sense of being in a different place. “At 1421 you get the sense of Napoli, and at Rivah Bistro you have the sense of the French Riviera,” he says. “It’s about the whole experience.” — Francis W. Decker

Carlo Gaione, 43
Restaurants: Amici, La Grotta

Carlo Gaione’s entrance into the restaurant business was really by chance. As a young man in Italy, Gaione wasn’t a great student and his family wanted to find him a trade to make a living. “I barely passed my grades, but all of a sudden I wanted to be an accountant. My mother said, ‘No way, I’m not going to spend any money on school.’ So she pushed me instead to go to hotel school, which was free.” Gaione admits he hated the school at first, especially learning the ins and outs of waiting on people. Yet in time, he says, “It turned out to be a very good profession when I learned the art of it.” Mama knows best.

Gaione spent the next few years working in hotels as a waiter. He met his business partner, Antonio Capece, while the two worked in a hotel just below the Matahorn in the small town of Cervinia in Northern Italy. Antonio was a cook, Giaone a cocktail waiter. Together the two set out for America to try their luck.

Speaking no English, Gaione worked in various restaurants in Florida and Washington, D.C., finishing as a wine steward at D.C.’s well-regarded Galileo restaurant. He perfected his English by talking with customers. Never a chef, he considers serving to be as much of an art as cooking. “Even the eye wants its share,” he says, quoting an Italian proverb and summing up his commitment to fine presentation with delicious food.

In 1991, the Italian duo opened their first restaurant, Amici, which has become a ubiquitous stop in Carytown. It serves Northern Italian cuisine, and everything that appears on your plate was made in-house, including breads, pastas and desserts. In 1994, they opened La Grotta in Shockoe Slip. Giaone says he hopes both restaurants have a friendly European feel, “like in Italy, people talk with each other like a big old party.”

Gaione admits the restaurant business isn’t easy. He averages about 12 hours of work most days. That comes with sacrifices. Yet he’s learned that spending time with family is as important as serving up spaghetti, and he takes two days a week off to concentrate on raising his daughters.

Going out on his own, Giaone likes to get away from Italian food. He likes to eat Japanese at Hana Zushi, Chinese at Full Kee and red meat at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

Gaione’s philosophy about restaurants is fairly simple: Look carefully at service and promote good communication between the waitstaff and customers. Ultimately, the goal is for “everyone to be happy, eating and smiling, then leave smiling.” — John White

Tom “Hondo” McGrath, 43
Restaurants: Enzos Restaurant and Tavern, Hondos
Previous restaurant: Dakotas

Tom McGrath did it for the fun and the money, he says. No doubt he liked looking at those waitresses in black, too. Back in the ’80s when he graduated from college, he went to work for the Tobacco Company as a bartender. His brother, Jack is the controller and hooked him up with the gig.

“It just kind of blossomed from there,” he says. “I didn’t go to culinary school, but I’ve been in the kitchen of just about every place I’ve worked.” Next McGrath was a part-owner of Dakotas, a Southwestern-themed restaurant/club in Innsbrook. At 12,000 square feet, it was the largest nightclub in the city at the time, he says. “It was a huge undertaking — almost too big. Trying to maintain a club that size seven nights a week is just tough in Richmond.” The club lasted for three years, and today its claim to fame is that the country band Lone Star used to play there once a month (when they went by Texasee).

After briefly starting a catering business, McGrath was called back to restaurants in 1998 when he opened Hondos steakhouse in Manakin-Sabot with partner, Steve Lewis. He named the place after the old Boston Celtic basketball player. “Hondo” had also been McGrath’s nickname since his days on his fifth-grade basketball team. After three years, the people behind Innsbrook lured McGrath to their strip dining spot, and he says the decision was a good one. Today, Lewis runs the steakhouse and McGrath has become a partner at Enzos Restaurant and Tavern on Route 250 in Manakin-Sabot.

After being in business for seven years, Enzos owner Doug Elliot called McGrath when he wanted to expand the menu at his Italian restaurant. In the last two years, they’ve added a tavern area where they offer big-screen TVs, a stage and live music. “It’s a nice mix because you can come in and have a quiet dinner,” McGrath says. “Then if you want to party you can watch the ball game or listen to a band in the tavern.” McGrath tweaked the menu to include prime steaks from Chicago, fresh seafood, ribs and barbecue. Today he says it’s probably the biggest menu in the city with close to 50 items.

McGrath estimates he spends about 70 hours a week at Enzos. During the day he works on the line in the kitchen, and at night he’s on the floor, interacting with customers and keeping an eye on the staff and the general flow.

“There’s probably not a harder business to be involved in because you’ve just got to be there all the time,” he says. But, he adds, “it’s never dull.”

McGrath believes that consistency and service are the keys to a successful restaurant — “even if you’re consistently mediocre,” he says, laughing. But he’s quick to point out that his restaurants are not, referring to Enzos recent “A” in a Richmond Times-Dispatch review. “Every restaurant is going to have an off night, but if the service is on the customer is going to come back,” he says. “That’s my philosophy anyway. If I’m treated right I’m going to give it another shot.” — Carrie Nieman



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