The key to one local restaurant’s quarter-century status…
by: Amber Watson of Bites of Bull City
As the owner of a local restaurant news blog, I typically spend my time writing about Durham’s newest hot spots—and as you know, there are many. While the topic of “newness” is what typically drives my weekly storylines, there’s certainly something to be said for the originals: restaurants that debuted long before it was “cool” to open in the Bull City.
Parizade, located at 2200 West Main Street, is one of Durham’s well-established dining staples, opening its doors just over twenty-five years ago. The restaurant is part of Giorgios Group, which includes other local favorites such as Vin Rouge, Local 22, and several other eateries spanning from Chapel Hill to Charlotte.
It’s never easy to open a restaurant, but it certainly helps when the city is growing and the trend is on your side, such is the case for Durham in 2017. But looking back, it was the first risk-takers and culinary visionaries that helped set the stage for what we have now: a thriving and creative collection of culinary gems.
When Parizade opened, the plaza where it sits was not surrounded by newer apartment complexes and hotels as it is now and Durham was not yet transforming into the “foodie city” it is today. Opening a classy Mediterranean restaurant was risky, but it was also smart—with Duke and the medical industry nearby, it could be (and it did, in fact, become), a perfect gathering place for Duke families, medical staff and personnel.
The Secret Sauce
It takes dedication and fortitude to weather a quarter century of challenges, including economic downturns and a changing culinary landscape.
It’s clear after speaking with Parizade’s General Manager, Igor Gacina, who has been with the restaurant since 1993, that it comes down to consistently providing the best possible all around experience.
As we all know, our most memorable meals hit the trifecta: great food, great service, and great atmosphere. Parizade prides itself on providing this to its patrons from Day One.
To weather the storms of time, the most experienced restaurateurs, general managers and chefs know that even when times are tough, you don’t sacrifice any of these elements—that would be the fastest way to failure. If anything, you must enhance these features to keep up.
“During the economic crisis, you’d see some restaurants move from the filet mignon to meat lasagna; meat lasagna can be great, but it’s not going to make up for it. You have to keep your quality,” says Gacina.
When I arrived for our interview, Gacina pulled my chair out as true gentlemen do; the waitstaff poured me a glass of bottled water without me asking and Gacina paused our chat to personally bid farewell to each guest as they left and asked how they enjoyed their meal.
When my husband and I returned the following week for a meal, the wait staff was equally as attentive, making you feel like part of the Parizade family. I hate to say it, but good service is a dying art these days and it stands out when a restaurant has true professionals on staff. A high level of training is one thing Gacina is very proud of, and it’s these little touches that stand out in the fast-paced and increasingly disconnected world we live in.
It is probably this high level of sophistication and tradition that have kept Parizade around for all these years, still, every restaurant knows change is unavoidable and little tweaks must be made to stay current.
No doubt, the elegant environment and courteous customer service goes a long way with the regulars. Much of the clientele revolves around the same group the restaurant was originally created to attract (Duke University, the surrounding hospital industry, and nearby RTP).
The question becomes, how to stay relevant and attract the younger crowd? This is something the restaurant hopes to address with the switch to seasonal menus. “Instead of changing the name of our restaurant, the type of cuisine, or the location, we will create changes with a seasonal menu,” Gacina explains. “It provides a new experience in an old favorite spot.”
The Sensation of Seasonal
Since Day One, Parizade has incorporated local and seasonal ingredients. Local farmers/growers would bring in an item and it would make its way into a dish—“That’s just how it’s always been,” explains Gacina. It just wasn’t always something they advertised, as it was just something naturally incorporated into what they did.
Now, however, with so much focus on local and seasonal ingredients—and everyone’s desire to know that restaurants are embracing that—Parizade is working to make this a more clear focus by running thoughtful seasonal menus. The first was introduced in late April as the spring/summer 2017 menu.
Again, the idea is not to change so many elements that they lose their base, but they do want to also stay relevant. A seasonal menu will not detract from what the restaurant already does well, serving elevated, yet comforting classic Mediterranean dishes in an ambiance of tradition, but the tweaks will hopefully appeal to an even broader audience.
The Executive Chef is Jason Lawless, who worked sixteen years in New York restaurants before relocating to Durham with his wife and beginning his post at Parizade last year. He is looking forward to the opportunity to change up some of the dishes in a thoughtful manner.
Parizade teams up with local farmers, such as Blue Sky Produce and some smaller family farms that only deliver to a few restaurants to add true local flair to the dishes. For instance, they have one source for lettuce, another for root vegetables and one for shitake mushrooms.
Tapas are a common trend, but not every cuisine lends itself well to that style (there’s nothing my husband and I despise more than tiny tapas), but Mediterranean food is, by nature, filling and an enjoyable meal to share at the table.
“A four top can get six plates of food and share it if they want,” Lawless explains. And from what we experienced, it’s true. The “mezze” (appetizers) are filling and authentically Mediterranean, with options like lamb keftedes, chargrilled Portuguese octopus, and Freekeh (fried chickpeas, arugula, ground lamb and baharet). One the lower priced end, you can easily find options for $10 or less, going up to $18 for the octopus.
All this is not to say Parizade will no longer have those hearty main courses that can be kept all to yourself. “Some of the classics will stay on the menu because they are items people always come in for, such as the rib eye, lamb chops and whole fish—it may just be a slightly different presentation,” Lawless adds.
My husband and I barely had room for our entrees after sampling the mezze, but we eagerly dug into the risotto nero (which on this particular night was topped with perfectly cooked squid and seared tuna), along with the swordfish picatta, sliced and topped with the classic Mediterranean flavors of lemon and capers. Pastas and grains hover around the $16-$20 range, while meats and fish are comparable to other high-end locations, coming in the mid-twenties to thirties price-wise.
You may not typically save room for dessert, but I guarantee you will second guess that decision with Parizade’s selection of six options, ranging from classic Tunisian Orange Cake—as one of the servers let us know, created in the same fashion his Croatian grandmother used to make—, creamy cappuccino and white chocolate cheesecake, perfectly plated, and double-stacked banana rum napoleon, which is easy to understand why it’s a signature dessert. All are fairly priced between $6-$9.
Perhaps some of the modern changes to the menu will entice students to come in without their parents, or get young medical professionals to come into the bar to hear live music on date nights; or draw the younger crowds who tend to head downtown.
Most major holidays are celebrated at Parizade with a special event, such as a classy Mother’s Day brunch, a fun New Year’s Eve Party, and live music can be heard on various nights. The restaurant is also very popular for rehearsal dinners and receptions in the private back courtyard. There are no community tables, but there is plenty of room (and private spaces) for groups of any size.
The Foundation for a Foodie City
For Parizade, it’s not about being a flash in the pan. “I want to see our patrons back once a month, once a week, or more,” Gacina says. “Open the door and let us impress you.”
When asked what he thinks about all the new restaurants popping up left and right around Durham, Gacina says, “Competition is good and healthy. Our restaurant group has several restaurants in the same towns, so in a way we even ‘compete’ with ourselves. But really, we love to see everybody succeed.” And isn’t that the true Durham way?
The owner of the restaurant group, Giorgios Bakatsias, is also happy to see the city that he loves thrive, even if it means that not all of his restaurant concepts get to make it to the 25-year mark (for example, in 2009, he let go of the lease at George’s Garage on Ninth Street—a popular hot and cold buffet and bar offering sit-down fine dining seafood and sushi—after fifteena years in business.)
Giorgios and his long-standing restaurants like Parizade are part of Durham’s culinary history, like Ben and Karen Barker’s Magnolia Grill and Scott Howell’s Nana’s. As building blocks, the restaurants from before our foodie city’s heyday helped put Durham on the map and laid the groundwork for all the new places I now spend my days writing about, and we wouldn’t have one without the other.
Amber Watson is the owner and content manager for the Durham food and restaurant news blog, Bites of Bull City.