By Jessica Wiantfirstname.lastname@example.org
WINCHESTER-If his neighbors are any indication, Winchester has been anxiously awaiting the opening of its own Carrabba's Italian Grill, according to the local restaurant's proprietor.
At a media lunch before a grand opening on Monday, wait staff, contractors and landscapers worked fastidiously to put the final touches on the first of the restaurant's Northern Shenandoah Valley locations -- and proprietor Mike Xifaras alluded to the fact that his family has had no problem making friends in their new Stephens City neighborhood as word spread that they were bringing Carrabba's to the area with them.
The restaurant, at Kernstown Commons, is the 233rd in the chain, and one of 14 in the Virginia/Maryland region, Xifaras said. The closest locations to Winchester are the Frederick, Md., and Centreville restaurants.
The Winchester location is the first new Carrabba's to open in almost two years, and thus is a new prototype regarding layout and decor, according to Xifaras. And it was a long time coming. Xifaras said he first starting making trips to Winchester about two years ago in planning the restaurant, but delays due to the economy and for other reasons have kept it from opening until now.
Those who have been to a Carrabba's before, however (the chain is prevalent in Florida, Texas, throughout the South and up the East Coast), can count on the same recipes that give the restaurant its identity.
According to the Carrabba's press kit, it is best known for its wood-burning grill and signature dishes like Pollo Rosa Maria and Marsala. The menu offers a variety of salads, pasta, pizzas, seafood and steaks starting at about $10 an entree and ranging up to $23 for the Filet Fiorentina.
Dishes like Chicken Bryan, Insalata Johnny Rocco, and the John Cole dessert are named after places and people significant to the restaurant's history.
For Xifaras, the selling points for Carrabba's are the quality ingredients and the casual, open atmosphere. Giving a tour of the restaurant, he pointed out the large, open "Mr. C's" bar area, open kitchen and seats by the brick oven where chefs are known to offer samples and advice to patrons.
One of the restaurant's founders ran a fine-dining establishment prior to opening Carrabba's, but with Carrabba's strove for a more relaxed atmosphere like he had with his family at home, Xifaras explained.
Photos of members of the Carrabba family adorn much of the wall space in the restaurant, and with the new layout, especially, Xifaras said there is an emphasis on that "feeling of hospitality."
A side table in the middle of the restaurant lets wait staff prepare cappuccino and bread near the guests, and the open kitchen invites patrons to see how the food is prepared.
"We really believe in our food. We want to cook it in front of people," Xifaras said.
As for the ingredients, Xifaras said dishes at Carrabba's are nothing too complicated, with emphasis on simple, fresh ingredients. Everything down to the salad dressing is prepared from scratch on site at the restaurant, he said.
Sometimes it costs a little more to get the best, he said, but it's worth it in the end. The mussels come from Prince Edward Island. The herb mix served with bread is made only by the kitchen manager, fresh daily, he said.
"We're about quality and about standards," he said.
Xifaras, a veteran of the restaurant industry, said he's eaten all over the world and one of the reasons he ended up with Carrabba's is that he can stand by the quality.
"I like to eat at Carrabba's." he said. "I like the food. You can tell when things are made in batch recipes versus one at a time."
Expanding on the hospitality, Xifaras said whenever possible the restaurant will make special requests that aren't on the menu.
Carrabba's Italian Grills are a member of the OSI family of restaurants, which includes Outback Steakhouse, Bonefish Grill, Fleming's and Roy's. It was the nearby Outback's success, in fact, that led to the opening of a Carrabba's location in Winchester, according to Xifaras.
In the Winchester location, Xifaras boasts of the car-side pickup located next to the bar, explaining that the restaurant strives to provide the same quality for to-go items as those who dine in.
"I think it's going to be the best to-go food available in Frederick County," he said.
At the grand opening Monday, the restaurant pledged to give half its proceeds up to $5,000 to the Henry and William Evans Home for Children.
The restaurant, which opens at 4 p.m. weekdays and 3 p.m. on weekends, features wine and dinner specials, different bruschette recipes daily as well as seasonal specials. It is at 231 Kernstown Commons Blvd., and call-ahead seating and car-side carry-out are available by calling 868-7665. For more information, go online to www.carrabbas.com, www.facebook.com/carrabbas or www.twitter.com/carrabbas.