What does a successful restaurant group do when it saturates a market with its product? If you're the folks at Winking Lizard, you just come up with a new concept—or two. After deciding that Northeast Ohio had its fill of Winking Lizard restaurants, explains partner John Lane, the company shifted gears with Lizardville, and again with Winks. At present, there are 16 Winking Lizards, three Lizardvilles, and one Winks with another on deck.
While Lizardville looks and feels distinct from Winking Lizard, Winks is less of departure—at least to the casual observer. There's beer, food and televisions, just like a zillion other spots, including Winking Lizard. But look a little closer and the similarities melt away, at least according to Lane.
"This truly is a different concept," says Lane. "We've got a local theme there."
When it comes to the beer, Winks does serve up a great line-up of local product. The focus squarely is on craft draft beers from Cleveland and Ohio, with roughly half of the 33 taps devoted to Buckeye-based brands. The rest all can be described as "regional," coming from bordering states like Indiana, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Winks, like other beer bars, has moved away from immense bottle inventories (there are less than 10 bottle offerings) to focus on an ever-shifting draft beer selection. Thanks to the recent rise in the use of smaller kegs by craft breweries, there's more turnover, more variety, and fresher beer.
"When you are doing this kind of concept, fresh is better—fresh, fresh, fresh, fresh," says Lane.
To keep guests apprised of the draft beer selection, Winks opted for something a little more high-tech than a chalkboard and a fistful of colored chalk. Monitors in the bar list all current drafts, including place of origin, style, ABV, price, and even the glassware it's poured in. Scan the QR code on the bar's coasters and the same list pops up on your smartphone. When a keg blows and is replaced by another beer, the list is updated simultaneously at the bar, on the app, and even the restaurant's website.
Local also is the motto when it comes to the wine and cocktails, with 16 Ohio wines by the glass and a number of cocktails built around Buckeye-based spirits. Lane also calls the monster bourbon list "local" because Kentucky is a neighboring state.
Lane says that when it comes to the food, Winks relies on more local ingredients than the other concepts. It's a basic pub menu, with wings, salads, pizzas, burgers, wraps and sandwiches. Sit at the bar during happy hour and you'll be snacking on great house-fried potato chips. Beer cheese dip is served over a candle to keep it warm, and crisp toasted bread slices are on hand for dipping.
It was a gutsy move on the company's part to set up shop in the Galleria, a downtown mall "in transition." But on a recent Friday lunch, almost every seat in the house was filled. A midweek happy hour also was hopping, with the inside portion half full and the alfresco patio nearly full. It helps that the saloon doesn't feel as though it's in a mall thanks to a ground-floor, inside-outside layout that could just as well be anywhere.
"We feel like we're a year, year and a half ahead of our time," Lane says of the downtown spot. "We are bullish on the city of Cleveland and we're bullish on that area." He says that with everything coming on board, the area made a lot of sense.
Next up for Winks is new spot in Beachwood, which will open this fall in the former home of The Pit and Ly's Thai Gourmet at 25800 Central Parkway, behind P.F. Chang's on Chagrin Boulevard. It's a sprawling suburban building, but one that Lane is particularly pleased to tackle.
"I'm excited about it," he says. "It actually mirrors the Galleria in a lot of ways—all those office buildings around it that should give us a really good lunch and happy hour. The difference is that we'll probably run a little later on Chagrin."
Lane says that without so many great Ohio craft breweries, a new concept like Winks that focuses on local beer would never have been possible.
"We have lots of up-and-coming breweries making great beers—they can hardly keep up with demand," he notes. "And that's exciting."