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F.C. Restaurants Brave Trials of Industry to Become Area Staples

BEING A JACK OF ALL TRADES is mandatory for all owners, including Panjshir’s Esmat Niazy (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

Falls Church’s residents are known to be healthier, wealthier and more educated than most in the U.S. When it comes to restaurants, the Little City exceeds the norm, too, with a small, diverse core of establishments making themselves into pillars of the local dining scene despite some adversity.

Studies show that a third of all restaurants shut their doors after their first year of operation, and if they can make it past that first anniversary, their average life span is about five years. These figures come from research by Cornell University, Restaurant Brokers and the Perry Group International, a hospitality consulting firm.

The Falls Church News-Press visited several classic restaurants in town to find out how they defied the statistical odds and achieved their long-term staying power.

The old guard in Falls Church’s restaurant landscape include Celebrity Delly at Graham Park Plaza, Pistone’s Italian Inn in the heart Seven Corners and Anthony’s Restaurant just outside City of Falls Church limits.

Each one has clocked nearly half a century in operation. Anthony’s, which serves Greek and Italian food, spent 41 of its 46 years at its Broad Street location in the City before moving to its current Annandale Road spot. Pistone’s has been in Falls Church ever since it was converted from a Howard Johnson’s in 1974, while Celebrity’s is close behind being open for the past 40 years.

The trio possess their own vibe that’s been honed over their lifespans. Pistone’s delivers a classic lounge aesthetic. Celebrity balances both a kitschy, but no nonsense big city delly atmosphere inside. And Anthony’s feels like an extension of your home’s dining room.

The appeal cultivated by the elder statesmen has made them destinations in otherwise transient locales.

“We are the draw here now. People come here,” said William Thompson, co-owner of Celebrity with his wife and mother-in-law. Though Thompson did say that the opening of Mosaic District five years ago was a huge change for his restaurant. Still, Celebrity was able to recover after customers experienced the traffic problems at the Merrifield Shopping center.

However, those restaurant foreclosing trends haven’t always been easy to beat in the face of new developments, particularly for Anthony’s. Even though its gone five years strong at its new location just a few miles away, having to uproot and leave the City left Anthony’s without a new home for about 18 months, according to Ted Akis, the son of founders Anthony and Faye Yiannarakis. This caused the restaurant to hemorrhage some employees.

“We had to buy new booths, tables, chairs. We had to reorganize and try to keep the staff,” Akis said, noting that some went to work at their Manassas location, but others had to find new jobs. “Many returned, but we had to start from scratch. Each year becomes more and more difficult. I can’t say how much longer we’ll keep going, but we appreciate our customers.”

Another entrenched Falls Church restaurant that was also forced to move by development is Panjshir which served Afghani food at its Broad Street location for 32 years.

Similar to Anthony’s, where the children of owners over time have taken on restaurant responsibilities, Esmat Niazy has assumed many of the duties of his father who opened Panjshir in 1985.

PISTONE ITALIAN INN’S Telemaco Bonaduce finds himself doing minor landscaping and handy work around his establishment on top of designing the menu, teaching the chef’s how to execute certain dishes and keeping customers happy at the restaurant. (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

For a long time, the Niazy family wrestled with staying or leaving Broad Street while development was debated.

Panjshir, named after a province in Afghanistan, was in limbo for a while and uncertain of how long the project was going to take. But ever since moving to its new Fairfax Street location, it’s regained its vitality with diners.

“It’s almost like being reborn. We’re a lot busier here. A lot of our old customers revisit us, and we’ve got new customers. Most of the residents in Falls Church love the diversity in cultures and they bring their kids,” said Niazy, who mentions that Panjshir has served multiple generations over the years. “I’ve seen a lot of kids grow up and then their kids grow up.”

Others restaurants have been fortunate to fit in with the City’s development vision, such as Ireland’s Four Provinces. The Irish pub opened 22 years ago at its present location on Broad Street, per current owner Colm Dillon, who has been in charge the past 15 years.

“We’ve been here a long time and will stay a long time,” Dillon said firmly.

Neither Anthony’s nor Panjshir’s owners showed any hard feelings at circumstances beyond their control which forced them out.

“The project looks great and looks like it’s going to do well for the city,” Niazy said.

Meanwhile, Telemaco Bonaduce, Pistone’s owner since 2008 after its previous owner died, says having a plan doesn’t always work.

“I don’t like to make plans way into the future. Plans are made to be changed.”

It’s why Bonaduce likes to keep his menu open just like his plans. He knows tempting tasters with new items is difficult to do, so he entices them by offering dishes at a discount which are not on the menu. What they like, he keeps.

Challenges for restaurants are many and varied, and range from finding suitable labor to a transient clientele and expenses.

Attracting new customers is not easy, according to Tom Van, co-manager at Four Seasons at Eden Center, the east coast center for Vietnamese retail. Previously under a different name (Viet Royale) Van’s was one of the first Vietnamese restaurants to open at Eden Center and continues to fill his establishment with regulars almost 30 years later. It’s kept his business afloat, but the “Vietnamese mentality” that patrons like to stick with the old has also made finding new diners difficult.

In the middle of a busy Saturday afternoon at Ireland’s Four Provinces, customers lined the bar and filled tables, served by what appeared to be a large staff but owner Dillon said it wasn’t enough.

“Finding staff, any staff is a challenge,” he said wearily.

Opinions on restaurant technology and new trends vary, but most agree that change is inevitable.

“We have to adapt to the evolution. You have to step up to the game. You have to develop,” Bonaduce said. Van, who has Four Seasons on Facebook, Instagram and Yelp, added separately, “We learn as we go. Social media is very critical to our marketing campaign. One little mistake [can have] adverse effects. We plan carefully, execute and hope for the best.”

MANAGER OF THE FOUR SEASONS Tom Van experiences the same struggles of attracting new customers that other longtime businesses do, but has been a savvy user of social media to help increase the Four Seasons’ online presence. (Photo: Patricia Leslie)

Thompson is an IT guy who created Celebrity’s web page.

“The death bell has already rung for anybody who doesn’t look towards the future and what’s going to happen with technology and social media,” he said. “By ignoring it, you are never going to survive.”

Celebrity Delly is on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. “We haven’t gotten so much into Snapchat, but we are definitely looking into it. As times change, you have to change,” Thompson said.

Not long ago, one of Celebrity’s menu items went viral when three million viewers took a look at its steak and cheese eggrolls.

“Now we have more than 10,000 following us on Facebook,” Thompson said. “Our website is extremely popular. We get more than 2,000 viewers that go to the website every month, and we have online ordering.”

All restaurants have staple menu items which keep customers coming back.

At Anthony’s, their pizza and steak and cheese pastitio have been popular for decades, Akis said.

Celebrity Delly’s most popular item is the “Wes Johnson,” named after the famed sportscaster for the Washington Capitals hockey team, a frequent Celebrity guest who came up with the ingredients himself, per Thompson: grilled roast beef, Russian dressing, melted Muenster, and coleslaw.

“You can get it with an egg [$1 extra] which Wes always does,” said Thompson. “He’s has lost a lot of weight recently but still comes in here and buys his sandwich.” (Calories are unspecified.)

At Pistone’s, some classic stuff that “You can’t touch,” are musts on the menu, such as lasagna, veal parmigiana, chicken parmigiana and meatballs. Bonaduce knows they aren’t innovative, but Pistone’s still has to have them.

Pumpkin anything is a hot seller at Panjshir, according to Niazy.

Dillon said the most popular selections on Ireland’s menu are chicken tullamore (“going on 15 years”), Guinness and beef stew.

Great customer service is another big ingredient for success, owners agreed.

“Hospitality for Afghanis is almost part of our religion. We try to give that same kind of warm feeling [at the restaurant] like when someone comes to your home,” Niazy said.

In the restaurant business, managers handle multiple tasks and attribute success to hard work and working six or seven days a week for about 14 hours a day which Bonaduce relishes.

“It’s a lifestyle. I love it. You can’t put me in a cubicle making phone calls. I would never do that,” Bonaduce said while discussing how he handles landscaping and minor plumbing repairs at Pistone’s. “You work days and nights. You cook. You get used to it and it gets easy. You have to do things that corporate and chains won’t do.”

Said Dillon, “All businesses are tough. The restaurant business is not tougher than any other.”

Akis credits his parents who still work 14 to 16 hour days seven days a week: “Our success really rests with them. I am very proud of my mother and father and the values they have brought to the community.”

Thompson said Celebrity’s owners have faced “times when you have to reassess and determine the direction we are going. A lot of larger companies have mission statements. Our mission statement has always been to make great food. We refuse to lessen our quality.”

Falls Church residents will eat to that.