Feb 7, 2017

Invasion of the Winking Lizard

If there’s anything my few faithful followers have learned about this commoner’s travels, it’s that I prefer to avoid chain establishments whenever possible.  I would much rather give my business to a local mom and pop diner or a dive bar than a generic sports bar/restaurant (or even, dare I say, “breasturant”).  After all, how different can the Buffalo Wild Wings in Sheboyan, Wis., be from the one in Springfield, Ill.?  Or TGI Friday’s?  Or Hooters?  

The truth, however, is that all of these chains most likely started as a great idea by someone who started with one stand-alone location.  Then it got too popular for just one outlet.  Then, it took off from its humble roots and word of mouth spread.  

From what I’ve experienced in the Cleveland area, that phenomenon is happening with a group of restaurants known as the Winking Lizard Tavern.  They have all the elements -- good pub food, popular offerings, a well-stocked bar (or several) with a large craft beer list, a likable and knowledgeable bar staff, and TVs showing sports within every line of sight.   

My discovery of the Winking Lizard -- specifically the Beachwood location -- arose out of convenience.  I noticed one within walking distance of the hotel I was staying at often.  As much as I like to explore, some nights it just felt better being closer to “home.”  The other primary reason I started to frequent the Winking Lizard was the wings.  I’m a sucker for them and all varieties of flavors.  And I quickly learned Winking Lizard had frequent happy hour specials on Mondays and Tuesdays on their signature wings, to which they devote an entire page of their menu.  

So, with a little luck and a little good timing, I would typically find a seat at one of the bar halves that anchored the Beachwood location.  It was always a good vantage point to people watch and check out the randomly odd tavern decor.  

It was also a easy vantage point to catch up on all sports-related happenings in the Ohio area … or plot my next drink order.   

Speaking of drink options, one thing I appreciate about the Winking Lizard is their creativity with their menu.  They’re always offering a dessert of the month, a shot of the month and a drink of the month.  With its sweet and fruity ingredients, the Jolly Rancher appealed to my southern instincts.    

In fact, you can probably get by at the Winking Lizard without ever looking at a menu, as long as you have their signature paper place mat of the month in front of you.  One entire side is devoted to their beer menu.  With easily more than 50 bottles and a dozen drafts to choose from, Winking Lizard is a great place to broaden your beer knowledge.  My favorite new discoveries were the Anderson Valley briny melon gose, the Duclaw Sweet Baby Jesus chocolate peanut butter porter and the La Chouffe Belgian ale.  But when in doubt, I was always able to order an affordable Yeungling Light on tap.  

But the real reason I kept coming back to the Winking Lizard?  The wings, of course.  They offer around 20 sauce flavors to coat their perfectly crispy bone-in chicken wings.  I think they offer boneless, too, but why bother?  And if you’re a heat freak, they have plenty of options high on the Scoville scale, although I was only brave enough to go as high as 911.  My favorites, pictured here, were the bourbon barrel -- sticky, sweet and a little heat --  and the goldfinger -- a hot and tangy combination made with cayenne, mustard and apple cider vinegar.  

It’s no wonder to me that the Winking Lizard brand keeps expanding thoughout Ohio.  With nearly 20 locations in the metro Cleveland and Columbus areas, it probably won’t be long before the Lizard crawls into other parts of the country.  If you find one, give it a try.  I think this fledgling chain is a worthy competitor for the sports bar/restaurant crowd.

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