A war pilot turned restaurant pioneer, David Tallichet didn’t take the conventional path to on-premise success. He opened his first restaurant in 1958 along the water in Long Beach, California, at a time when most of the area’s eateries and bars were in the heart of the city. David wanted a space with a view and he hoped to create a destination that people would be willing to travel a bit farther for. Sixty years later, that restaurant—The Reef—is still a popular Southern California venue, and it’s now part of the 18-unit Specialty Restaurant Corp. portfolio that David’s son, John, runs.
The Tallichet family’s restaurant empire has grown tremendously in the company’s 60-year history, but David’s early principles remain intact. Location is paramount, and each of the company’s venues in California, Florida, New York, and Ohio has stunning views of water or open scenery. Given that David was a World War II B-17 bomber pilot, a few of the restaurants also have an aviation theme. Top-notch service and high-quality food remain critical too, and the company’s ever-growing bar scene and beverage program are testaments to its ability to evolve with current market trends. Total revenue reached $110 million last year, with the beverage component comprising 23% of all sales. While David passed away 12 years ago, John continues to helm the company as CEO, and several other family members are also involved with the business.
“My dad established an entrepreneurial culture and emphasized taking care of the guest, and that still permeates throughout our organization,” John Tallichet says. “We’re very much family-oriented and our family is committed to supporting the business. My dad also decided with the first restaurant that he wanted to go to unique locations, even if everyone else was elsewhere, and that’s been the approach to every unit. We’ve lived off the setting. Now, we’re bringing the bar scene up and making the restaurant experience more powerful.”
Honoring The Past
Tallichet is committed to keeping his father’s legacy alive. David is considered by many to be a pioneer in the realm of themed dining, as his early restaurants were the first of their kind to embrace their location so fully and build a restaurant experience around it. In the 1970s, when the on-premise culture began changing to include more nightlife elements, David followed suit and opened venues that had large disco areas incorporated into their scenic spaces. The large-format restaurants are still popular today, even though special events rooms have since replaced the nightclub areas.
“David Tallichet was the founder of theme restaurants,” says Jim McKennon, COO of Specialty Restaurants Corp. Tallichet adds that his dad put a major emphasis on the experience of dining out for the night. “He created the restaurants so that people could enjoy a cocktail on the patio, then come in and have dinner, and eventually move to the nightclub,” he explains. “You would experience the outside and inside areas and then dance all night. When the nightclubs phased out, we converted them into banquet spaces, and now 40% of our business is driven by special events.”
Specialty Restaurant Corp. venues range from 10,000 to 50,000 square feet, with the average size at about 20,000 square feet. They all have areas with large windows, bustling bars, and outdoor patios overlooking their scenic locales. Ryan Smith, who runs the company’s beverage program as regional director of operations, says his goal is to make each bar a destination by itself—not just an adjunct to the restaurant. The company’s beverage revenue tops $25 million a year, led by spirits and cocktails at 60% of total beverage sales; wine follows at 25%, and beer comprises about 11%, with non-alcoholic drinks making up the remainder.
“We want our bars to have their own identity,” Smith explains, adding that they also have to live up to the scenic location. “I want people to come to our venues for the bars. We’ve built a strong following for our happy hours and have many guests who patronize our bars more than any other part of the facility.”
The company’s renewed focus on its beverage program over the last few years has furthered this goal. McKennon notes that the bar used to be viewed as a holding area for the dining room, but that’s all changed. “We started really pushing our bar scene,” McKennon says. “When I first started, we had Martinis and spirits on the rocks, and a couple wines by the glass. That’s evolved now. We have luxury liquor inventories that cover Scotches, Bourbons, and rare spirits, and some venues have cocktails and wines on tap. We have fabulous mixologists.”
Creating A Scene
The company’s most impressive beverage program is at Castaway, with its speakeasy-style, bar-within-bar concept The Green Room. Located in the Los Angeles suburb of Burbank, California, Castaway—which underwent a full interior and menu overhaul in May 2018—is a steak-forward seasonal concept with classic and creative cocktails, myriad wines, and craft beers. The restaurant, which has a meat dry-aging room and a large wine cellar, is nestled in a hill that offers views of the valley and Los Angeles.
Castaway’s signature drinks include the Lost At Sea, mixing Calwise Blonde rum, Giffard Banane du Brésil liqueur, and lime juice, topped with brûléed banana, and the Gin & Tonic-inspired Huntington, made with Nolet’s gin, Top Hat East India tonic water, rose water, and lime juice (cocktails are $13-$15; $62 for punches that serve 4-6 people). These are joined by roughly 150 wines from around the world ($12-$27 a glass; $34-$586 a 750-ml.) and a selection of draft and bottled beers, many by local brewers ($7-$9). Food offerings range from starters like charcuterie, chilled oysters, and roasted bone marrow ($12-$175) to such entrées as Zinfandel-braised short ribs, crisp Mediterranean sea bream, and various cuts of aged beef ($28-$49).
Meanwhile, The Green Room has its own creative cocktail menu. The hidden, reservation-only concept offers drinks like the Short Round, mixing The Macallan 12-year-old Double Cask single malt Scotch, Dolin Blanc vermouth, and Suze liqueur, served alongside a small pot of cherry orange gelée, and the Belle, made with Ketel One Grapefruit & Rose Botanical vodka, St-Germain liqueur, and clarified lemon juice, served in a smoked glass (cocktails are $18-$158). The indoor-outdoor space also offers a variety of California wines ($18-$28 a glass; $42-$689 a 750-ml.) and upscale snacks like lobster corndogs and caviar frites, along with a handful of larger dishes from Castaway’s menu (food ranges from $16-$165).
“Green Room is the top cocktail lounge in Los Angeles,” McKennon says. “It’s like a stage set, with smoking cocktails, bubbling cocktails, and over-the-top fabulous drinks, accompanied by unique bar bites.” He notes that expanding The Green Room or adding other upscale cocktail lounges isn’t part of the Specialty Restaurant Corp.’s immediate growth plans, but says that the company will be opportunistic for more drinks-focused venues going forward.
Specialty Restaurant Corp.’s focus on future growth is its Whiskey Joe’s concept, which has locations in Tampa, Miami, and Port Richey, Florida, and as many as 20 additional units planned. Whiskey Joe’s aims to evoke an island retreat, and each venue has private beachfront property and an outdoor Barefoot Bar. The flagship Tampa Whiskey Joe’s offers 14 Mojito variations and 30 Margaritas, along with more than 50 beers on tap. In all, Whiskey Joe’s Tampa lists roughly 80 cocktails on its menu ($8-$17). Signatures include the Whiskey Joe’s Punch made with Club Caribe Pineapple and Sailor Jerry Spiced rums, orange and pineapple juices, grenadine, and lemon-lime soda, and the Ultimate Pineapple Margarita, mixing Sauza Blue Silver Tequila, Patrón Citrónge Pineapple liqueur, pineapple juice, Real Pineapple Purée-Infused syrup, sweet and sour mix, and lime and orange juices, served in a fresh pineapple.
Though cocktails are the focus at Whiskey Joe’s, the venues also offer a variety of approachable wines ($8-$11 a glass; $30-$38 a 750-ml.) and myriad beers ($5-$8 a draft pour, bottle, or can). In Tampa, the draft lines pour big names like Bud Light, Coors Light, Miller Lite, Corona, and Heineken, alongside local labels like 7venth Sun Brewery’s Graffiti Orange wheat beer, Cigar City Brewing’s Florida Cracker Belgian witbier, and Brew Hub’s Keybilly Island ale. All of this joins an island-themed food menu with alligator bites, grouper tacos, pizzas, and burgers, and larger dishes like jambalaya, coconut rum-glazed chicken, and a barbecue pork sandwich ($8-$29).
“We have big plans for Whiskey Joe’s,” Tallichet says. “We’ve created an outside area with access to the ocean, with a barefoot beach bar, fire pits, and a tiki atmosphere. It’s going to be a big piece going forward.”
Following The Theme
All but three of Specialty Restaurants Corp.’s 18 venues are in Florida and California, and those states are the company’s focus areas for growth. Another popular concept is the Rusty Pelican in Miami and Tampa, Florida. The Miami location serves Latin-influenced contemporary fare and drinks, as well as classic cocktails, while the Tampa unit offers Caribbean-influenced cuisine and beverages. Destination concepts in California include the company’s 60-year-old original waterfront venue The Reef in Long Beach, serving fresh seafood and beef with innovative Polynesian twists, alongside tropical and classic cocktails, and Odyssey in Granada Hills, a worldly farm-to-table concept for both food and drinks with views of the San Fernando Valley.
Orange Hill in the hills of Orange County is another Southern California hotspot, boasting a vibrant bar scene at its O Bar Lounge. The venue lists 15 specialty cocktails ($12-$18), such as the Salary Man, mixing Nikka Taketsuru Pure Malt Japanese whisky, house-made apple shrub, Earl Grey tea, orgeat syrup, and lemon juice, served in a salt-rimmed glass, and the Smoke & Honey, blending Elijah Craig Small Batch Bourbon, Tuaca liqueur, house-made vanilla citrus liqueur, and honey in a glass rinsed with Ardbeg 10-year-old single malt Scotch. O Bar also pours roughly 30 wines by the glass ($9-$30) and 15 beers ($8-$12 a draft pour, bottle, or can). These complement New American cuisine, from barbecue duck tacos and Agrodolce lamb ribs to miso-marinated sea bass and châteaubriand (entrées are $19-$62).
While the majority of Specialty Restaurants Corp. venues are on the water or in the hills, three of the company’s concepts are aviation-based and located at airports as a nod to David’s war plane history. Along with 94th Aero Squadron at Van Nuys Airport in California and 100th Bomb Group at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in Cleveland, Ohio, the company operates Proud Bird at Los Angeles International Airport. Proud Bird is one of its most recently renovated venues, featuring a dynamic food bazaar with Asian, Italian, and American options, as well as the Mile High Club Bar and Lounge.
With such a variety of concepts, Specialty Restaurants Corp. makes a point of offering unique menus at each of its properties. Though most of the venues serve steaks and seafood, dishes aren’t purposefully duplicated. That said, a few standout items are available at several locations, including appetizers like calamari, artichoke spinach dip, and crab dip. These are joined on multiple menus by a few specialty cocktails that are popular company-wide, including the Sugar Lips, mixing Grey Goose vodka, Cointreau liqueur, Pama pomegranate liqueur, and lime juice, garnished with baby’s breath, and the Wilson!, made with Monkey Shoulder blended malt Scotch, Pierre Ferrand Dry Orange Curaçao, maple syrup, and cardamom.
“We have massively creative bartenders and mixologists throughout the company,” Smith says. “We have a diverse bar program and want to create drinks that are accessible to everyone. The drinks are thematic for the locations they’re in. We want to be leading the pack at the bar.” Smith notes that he’s working to add more draft cocktails and wines at venues where the bars allow it, and that he’s going to be retooling the company’s punch offerings at the island and tiki bars, as well as adding more Gin & Tonics at some locations.
Going forward, Tallichet says he has definite plans underway to add several Whiskey Joe’s units in Florida: south of Tampa, near Jacksonville, and in the Panhandle. Additionally, the company plans to convert one of its older spaces in Southern California into a hotel property within the next five years, which will be a first for Specialty Restaurants Corp. Tallichet says his father worked with McKennon’s father in hotels before he opened The Reef, so the hotel addition will be a natural extension for the company.
“All of these things are happening in the next few years,” Tallichet says. “The beverage business continues to increase. When we talk about our restaurants and our extensive bar operations, we want them to develop and have teams that can perform at a high level to further grow beverage numbers. We see that business increasing and it’s a big focus for us.”