Some of the best advice I ever got from a fellow fresser was to pick a restaurant, preferably one with a good bar, and become a regular.
It seems like quite a few folks have followed that advice and picked Village Tavern in the Shops at Gainey Village as the place where everybody knows their name.
You can find them packing the bar and patio for happy hour, arriving early to snag a table and spilling out the door as they wait for booths in the capacious, open-beamed main dining room.
Some really make a habit of it, like the Chicago snowbird I shared a bar table with one recent afternoon. “What’s your favorite restaurant?” I asked. “Here,” he said, punching the tabletop with his index fingers. “I’m here two or three times a week.”
It’s an easy-going atmosphere where people seem happy to share space when it’s crowded—which is most of the time.
At my tablemate’s suggestion I tried the Southern shrimp and grits, $18.50, a luscious combination of stone-ground grits laced with Gruyere and topped with a sauté of Applewood-smoked bacon, mushrooms, scallions, garlic and shrimp. It hearkens back to the chain’s Southern roots in Winston Salem, where the first Village Tavern opened in 1984.
“Guests don’t know what to expect,” says manager Paul Apana. “Once they try it, they keep coming back for more.”
I’d also come back for the crab cake, served with a miso-dressed salad, $11.95. It brought back memories of a sunny afternoon in Baltimore and a fat sandwich brimming with lump crab just picked from the shell.
“We make everything fresh every day,” Apana says. “It’s a long process but well worth it.”
A large core menu is supplanted by more local flavors. So you’ll find the Duo appetizer, $9.95, pairing guacamole with a new offering—pimento cheese—and tortilla chips. South meets Southwest.
And don’t miss the warm buttercake, $7.50, crispy outside, chewy and dense inside, topped with vanilla ice cream, raspberry puree, raspberries and blueberries.
“There are certain things I always make my friends try when they come here,” Apana says. “Grouper Hemmingway is one, prime rib is another, and buttercake—none of my friends leaves without trying one. It’ll never happen.”
Grouper Hemingway, $18.95, fresh from the Atlantic, is sautéed with a white wine and lemon butter sauce, tomatoes, capers, parmesan and angel hair pasta.
Another seafood winner is firecracker shrimp tacos, $14.95, tempura-battered shrimp in an assertive Thai chili sauce and served with mango-cilantro slaw. It’s an unusual take on street tacos that I’ll want to have again.
Burgers run $10.95 to $13.50—a good value in this town. And that is part of Village Tavern’s appeal—the swank of a Scottsdale address but at less lofty prices than at many other area eateries.
Customers aren’t the only regulars. Apana came on board a couple of months after the restaurant opened 15 years ago. The bar manager has been here since day one and the executive chef has been here 10 years.
That’s also been key to Village Tavern’s success.
When I open up a menu as diverse as the Village Tavern’s, I wonder if they can bring it all home. That’s a lot of dishes to prepare well. Apana says it helps that his kitchen staff has long years—five or more for most of the team—to master them.
Many of the servers also tend to stay for years.
Apana was born in Maui, and he works to instill Hawaiian-style hospitality in his staff. “From top to bottom, they take pride in who they are and where they work,” he says. “And they treat guests like family.”
Like the couple who came in for the first time about a month ago to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. The server asked Apana if he could buy them dessert.
“What an honor for them to celebrate here,” Apana says. “I told the server, ‘Why just dessert? If they were your family wouldn’t you want to buy their whole dinner?’ So we comped them the whole meal.”
One more word about the setting: The main dining room features high-sided booths down the center for an almost clubby atmosphere. It’s a pleasure to be in a place that understands that you might want to put down your fork and have a quiet conversation now and then.
Several regulars have “their” booths, Apana says.
“One gentleman used to come in three nights a week with his wife. She passed away and there’s a small plaque there that says, ‘In loving memory of Sue.’ Another booth has one in memory of Doc. When their families come in, that’s their booth too.”
Those are the traditions that keep a place busy for 15 years in a trendy scene like Scottsdale, where diners seem attached at the hip, traveling en masse from one new hot spot to the next.
“I’m so proud of what we’ve been able to do,” Apana says. “I’ve seen 11 restaurants open and close in this complex alone.”
The Shops at Gainey Village
8787 N. Scottsdale Road, Scottsdale
– Marjorie Rice, Phoenix.org