Great American Restaurants Debuts a New Complex of Stylish Restaurants
The Empire began in 1974, when Randy Norton, the chairman and patriarch of Great American Restaurants (GAR) opened a pizzeria called Picco’s in Fairfax City. His high school sweetheart turned-wife, Patsy Norton worked by his side as a waitress. The couple fell in love with the hospitality business and decided to expand. They opened Fantastic Fritzbe’s Flying Food Factory in 1976.
Long time Northern Virginia residents will undoubtedly remember Fritzbe’s as a beloved local bar, where alongside cocktails, you could treat yourself to popcorn or Patsy’s homemade desserts. However, after the Norton’s three children were born, they dreamed of having them join the family business. So, they invested in restaurants next.
The Empire Expands
Randy Norton and business partners Jim Farley and Mike Ranney opened Ozzie’s Good Eats, an Italian restaurant, and two others. In 1993, the city learned what this talented team could do when they debuted the Carlyle Grand Café in Shirlington. Constructed inside a vacant department store, the sophisticated Carlyle was drawing crowds every night. The fine dining restaurant gained further acclaim for GAR when Carlyle’s chef Bill Jackson was voted “1995 Chef of the Year” by the Restaurant Association of Metropolitan Washington.
Looking back, I discovered that in July of that same year, Candy Sagon, food critic for The Washington Post, published a review of the Carlyle Grand Café. She writes: “A lot of other places could take lessons. This is a restaurant where short of the art deco pillars falling down, nothing could halt this seamless service.” Sagon added, “The Carlyle’s strength is its tightly choreographed system of service and food, plus it’s comfortable décor.” In this description, this reviewer nailed the special sauce that is GAR. These three components—service, engaging design and consistency—are all fundamentals of the GAR philosophy and its success.
Flash forward to 2019, and today GAR’s empire comprises twelve dining venues and a bakery, including Sweetwater Tavern, award-winning breweries, and Coastal Flats, a local favorite of mine. Their triumph and subsequent growth provided Randy and Patsy Norton an opportunity to achieve their vision. Today, their three children are essential to running GAR, a company recognized in 2017 by The Washington Post as the “Top Workplace” for large companies in the city (they received second place in 2018).
Dining Family Style
“My dad wanted his daughter to be proud of where she worked, a place that was family-oriented,” recalls Jon Norton, as he shares company lore with me one afternoon. Jon is Randy’s son and the CEO of Great American Restaurants. The former basketball player oversees the business-side of the company, while brother Tim Norton serves as a chef on the Research & Development Team. Tim, who inherited his mother’s love for cooking, builds upon favorite family recipes, like his aunt’s deviled eggs, along with creating new dishes for the contemporary palate.
Sister Jill Norton is GAR’s vice president of design and construction. Jill’s role in designing these restaurants is particularly impressive, as each has its own distinctive artwork, fine furnishings and appealing ambiance.
Top Workplace in the DMV
As a top Washington DC Area workplace, GAR is recognized for taking a unique approach toward guiding its more than 2,000 employees. “The company offers an extensive training program and provides mentorship for all the positions,” Jon adds. “We teach standards and accountability to set everyone up for success. We also hire for attitude.” That’s pretty clear when you visit any GAR restaurant. Recently, three enthusiastic people greeted me when I walked into Sweetwater Tavern in Centreville, and then one of them introduced me personally to the bartender. Jon explains the GAR system: “My father implemented team service. It’s a different style than most restaurants use. Any server can help you. They contribute to each other. If a refill is needed, they see it and take care of it.”
GAR hasn’t expanded beyond the DMV so no employee will have to uproot their family to move for the company. “We treat team members like family, and I know I want to sleep in my own bed,” Jon laughs.
While the Norton children are running much of the show, you’ll still see Randy working alongside his children. “Randy created a culture that is fun,” says Shardae Simpson, public relations manager for GAR. “We all work hard, and everyone is passionate about what we do.”
Tysons’ New Great American Restaurants
This leads me to the big splashy news, as GAR undertakes another giant and symbolic leap—together of course—naming their latest project for the Norton’s special brand of family and commitment. In May 2019, GAR opens a modern complex of restaurants across from Tysons Corner Mall on Leesburg Pike. Inside are three new eateries: Patsy’s American is named for the matriarch of the Norton clan, and will feature a classic American menu. Randy’s Prime Seafood & Steaks is a 28-table restaurant with a raw bar, Prime and Wagyu cuts of beef and a curated wine list. The trio rounds out with a second location of GAR’s Best Buns Bakery & Café—the first is in Shirlington. Best Buns supplies all the bread served at their restaurants.
This unique and inspiring story all began back at Fort Hunt High School in Annandale. Patsy and Randy Norton have come full circle from the days when they worked together at that pizzeria, dreaming their entrepreneurial dreams for their future. Just as they hoped, their empire remains all in the family.
Pictured at top: Randy and Patsy Norton of GAR