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A Multi-Restaurant ‘Emporium’ in Northern Virginia Is a Novel Response to the Pandemic

Great American Restaurants group sells barbecue, Mexican food, burgers, and baked goods under the same roof in Loudoun County

Great American Restaurants group is trying its hand at barbecue for the first time
Great American Restaurants group is trying its hand at barbecue for the first time
Rey Lopez/For Great American Restaurants

Good Eats Emporium isn’t quite a food hall, because all four of the restaurant brands housed under one roof in Loudoun County, Virginia, share one cooking crew. It’s not quite a ghost kitchen, either, because customers can order off menus for barbecue, Mexican food, burgers and wings, or coffee and pastries while sitting at a table and talking to a waiter.

The emporium, which opened Thursday, October 1, at 45990 Waterview Plaza in Sterling, represents an attempt by the locally loved Great American Restaurants group to answer all the challenges posed by a COVID-19 crisis that has battered the hospitality industry for close to seven months. There are 50 tables inside and outside — including a full-service section and seats equipped with QR code ordering — to go with curbside pickup and delivery.

Fans of the 46-year-old hospitality company know it for trusty bars and grills like Sweetwater Tavern, Mike’s American, and Artie’s (to name a few). The new project adds a few new names to the collection: Stupid Good BBQ, Taqueria Loca, and Good Eats Burgers and Wings. A short menu from GAR bakery Best Buns has breakfast sandwiches and pastries that regulars might recognize from locations in Arlington and Vienna.

“We basically went to our our chefs and said, ‘What are the fun items that we don’t have now that you think would work well in the pandemic?’’ CEO Jon Norton says.

Quesadillas from Taqueria Loca come with plain cheese, chicken, or carnitas.
Quesadillas from Taqueria Loca come with plain cheese, chicken, or carnitas.
Great American Restaurants [official]

One answer was the Mexican-style tacos that chef Ascary Rivera has been making for staff meals at various restaurants within the company for decades. Rivera, the director of operations for the versatile kitchen at Good Eats Emporium, led recipe development for chicken tinga, carnitas, barbacoa, al pastor, and ground beef “Americano” tacos. All except the Americano come on corn tortillas, and all of them can be swapped in as the base for salad or rice bowls.

An eight-layer dip (black beans, tomatoes, chipotle cream, black olives, guacamole, mixed cheese, scallions, salsa) is a work-intensive throwback from Mike’s American. “It was really popular in the late ’80s early ’90s,” Norton says. The company is reviving it because dips sell well while people are craving comfort food. Chicken and Steak fajitas are straight off the Tex-Mex menu at Silverado in Annandale.

Adding a barbecue brand — a morale-booster for chefs who get to work outdoors — was another first for GAR. The silly-seeming name is actually a sentimental tribute to Dwight Fuller, a managing partner at the company who unexpectedly died in his sleep at age 57 in August. Fuller liked to use the phrase “stupid good” when describing new dishes that caught his eye. Although the Stupid Good name is new, the logo says “Since 1963” as a reference to Fuller’s birthday.

Smoked and grilled wings from Stupid Good BBQ come with an Alabama white sauce.
Smoked and grilled wings from Stupid Good BBQ come with an Alabama white sauce.
Rey Lopez/For Great American Restaurants

GAR invested in a custom smoker that turns out spare ribs, brisket, half chicken, pulled chicken, pulled pork, and beef or jalapeno cheddar pork links from Logan’s Sausage. Five sauce options include an Alabama white — ideal for smoked and grilled wings — as well as a Memphis-style house sauce, a Carolina-style mustard sauce, and a tomato-based Texas sauce.

The burger bar uses Black Angus beef ground on-site daily. There’s also a fried chicken sandwich with Pommery mustard on brioche. Desserts include chocolate or vanilla shakes and sweet fried Ozzie rolls that double as churros.

GAR decided to test out the four-restaurants-in-one idea when faced with an empty property. Norton says the company invested in a Sterling office part about 20 years ago and was acting as the landlord for a Mexican restaurant called Plaza Azteca that folded weeks after government-imposed bans on dine-in service back in March.

“The building was sitting empty, and we knew we were probably going to be looking at an empty building for the year to come,” CEO Jon Norton says.

Thanks in part to the new project, Norton says GAR is employing around 1,750 people right now, about 150 fewer than it was before the pandemic. All 17 of the company’s bar and restaurant locations are open, but Norton says part of that is a product of luck. If GAR operated restaurants in city districts, he knows the story would be different.

“Honestly, we’re fortunate we’re in the suburbs like we are,” he says.

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