The casual-dining company known for never-ending pasta bowls and endless shrimp is now bringing us a restaurant built around beer, trendy food and rock 'n' roll.
Yard House, the upscale bar and grill that Darden Restaurants bought in 2012, will make its Central Florida debut Thursday in the I-Drive 360 complex on International Drive. It's known for an eclectic menu, more than 130 beers on tap and high-energy music.
"Hopefully we're bringing a great restaurant that gives them more than just a place to fill their bellies," said Craig Carlyle, a 16-year Yard House veteran who became president in January. "We like to see ourselves as an experience brand."
Almost everything about Yard House is big: the building at 14,000 square feet; the bar, which is the centerpiece of the restaurant; and the menu, with more than 145 dishes.
The chain's price tag was plus-sized as well. Orlando-based Darden paid $585 million, an amount some analysts think might have been too much.
Sales at established Yard House restaurants have gone up and down over the past three quarters, which included a tough winter overall for the industry. Darden attributed a dip over the summer to the distraction of adjusting to a new owner.
"If you're going to pay a large price for a restaurant chain, you have to perform with it," said Jonathan Maze, editor at trade publication Restaurant Finance Monitor. "You have to justify that price to your shareholders."
Those stockholders are particularly unhappy these days with profit declines amid sales slumps at Darden's signature brands, Olive Garden and Red Lobster. Darden intends to sell or spin off Red Lobster but activist investors want a more dramatic breakup, with bigger brands separated from smaller, newer ones such as Yard House.
The jury is still out on whether Darden's purchase was a good one, analysts say. Still, they think the 18-year-old chain that started in Long Beach, Calif., has promise.
Each restaurant generates more than $8 million a year — more than twice that of a Red Lobster or a LongHorn Steakhouse. Yard House draws the younger and more-affluent consumers that Darden thirsts for.
Restaurants such as Yard House, with trendier food and drink, are in "the last segment of bar and grill that is doing pretty well [and] has room to grow," said Steve West, a restaurant analyst for Investment Technology Group.
Yard House prides itself on its beer. It offers imported, craft and specialty ales and lagers from around the globe, including a rotating selection of limited-edition brews.
They range in price from $4.75 to $8.75 per pint, though sizes go up to a 32-ounce "half yard." Yard-high glasses that are the chain's namesake have since been retired, though one is on display inside.
Kegs in an upper-level room kept at 38 degrees are accented with blue lights and visible from the dining room. The beer is pumped through exposed overhead pipes.
Beer and other alcohol makes up almost 40 percent of annual sales. That's much more than hangouts such as Buffalo Wild Wings and Darden's Bahama Breeze, where the percentage is in the low 20s.
Still, this is no neighborhood dive bar. Elegant touches include dark wood furniture, a wall fountain, a wine room, and original, contemporary paintings.
"Design's very important to us," Carlyle said.
The something-for-everyone menu includes burgers with béarnaise sauce, ahi tuna salad and miso-glazed sea bass. There are sections for snacks, street tacos, and late-night fare. There are offerings appealing to vegetarians and accommodations for diners who can't tolerate gluten.
Entrees generally range from $9 to $38.The menu's appetizer section is particularly popular, Carlyle said.
Yard House also is famous for its 9,600-song playlist with artists ranging from Kid Rock to the Rolling Stones.
Carlyle said the Orlando area has room for one or two more Yard Houses, though he didn't have details on where. The International Drive restaurant is the chain's 53rd nationwide. Darden says it plans to build 180 to 200.
But that will take a while. Plans are for eight to 10 to open annually, a pace Carlyle considers manageable.
"We can grow more under Darden because we've got the financial backing to do it, but … if you rush the growth, sometimes you become out of control," he said.
Yard House has benefited from Darden's expertise in fields such as real estate selection, Carlyle said. Carlyle, who remains based in California, thinks the chain he refers to as a "rebellious teenager" could bring the world's largest casual-dining chain a little more innovation.
"Because we're small, we're used to being nimble and creative, and hopefully that attitude is something we can bring in and contribute to the greater enterprise," he said.
firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5240407-420-5240Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun