Nothing tastes quite like it does when it’s fresh from the garden.
Parkway Grill and its Gourmet Organic Garden have proven that mantra for nearly three decades, clinching down a loyal Pasadena fan base who count on the seasonal garden delectables to add the robust flair to the restaurant powerhouse’s California cuisine.
A hidden trove of more than 25 kinds of fruit, vegetables and herbs grow adjacent to the restaurant, as manicured rows of cabbages, peppers, chards, kale and tomatoes practically glow under the trestles of the plump passion fruit. The Parkway Grill’s garden was recently a recipient of the Pasadena Beautiful Foundation’s Commercial Design Awards, in conjunction with the Arroyo Chop House, for adding to the enhancement of Pasadena.
“It’s hard to believe, but this was all just an abandoned lot of weeds,” said Parkway Grill co-owner Gregg Smith recently, pausing in front of fragrant peppers. “Now we harvest a ‘backyard to table’ concept; it drives how we cook, using a seasonal, market-driven approach.”
Indeed, the garden has become Parkway’s namesake, and its produce helps make up about 35% of the entire menu specials that change daily, whether they are a slowly crafted vegetable ragout or mousse, or a simple salad of fresh greens.
The garden is 100% organic, with no pesticides or unnatural fertilizers used, just crops curated from “water, dirt and love,” said gardener Ruben Montiel, one of the chief “green thumbs” of the landscaping operation, who admits to also talking to the plants.
“He must play music to them, too,” Smith said, laughing. “I don’t have a green thumb, but he sure does.”
When Gregg and his brother Bob Smith, co-owners of Smith Brothers Restaurant Corp., opened the Parkway Grill in 1984, the abandoned area in the back of the parking lot was “something of an eyesore,” Gregg Smith said, even garnering a few requests from the city to attend to the issue.
The Smiths, who know an opportunity when they see it, invested a hefty sum at the time, some $30,000, to completely raze the land, build terraces, irrigation and carefully — organically — cultivate the new earth and sow seeds. It took some trial and error, and time, to find the right combination of produce to reap returns.
“We had to really find plants that give something special, something unique … not just something we can get half-price at Sprouts,” Smith noted.
In the past few years, the garden seems to have really hit its groove, producing succulent passion fruits and kumquats, along with herbs such as lemongrass and lemon mint, which have inspired go-to signature menu items such as the passion fruit cocktails and desserts. The garden’s other unique varieties include the black cherry and purple heirloom tomatoes, Italian and Black Beauty eggplants, heirloom chard, and more than three gourmet varieties of beets, including Detroit Dark Red, Dutch Red Baron, and Jewel Toned, Red Gold and Candy stripe beets that wield up a highly popular beet salad.
Now, with the Smith brothers’ other three high-end restaurants in the city — Arroyo Chop House, Smitty’s Grill and Seco — Smith said he feels confident in the restaurant mainstay’s longevity.
“People often say, ‘Coming into your restaurant is like coming home,’ and that is really the greatest compliment they could give to us,” Smith said. “We’ve worked very hard to instill that philosophy, not only in our management and chefs, but in every member of our staff. We offer a personal connection, and it starts from when you drive in and are greeted at the door. It really sets us apart.”
Noting that “we have the best management staff we’ve ever had,” Smith also notes that the restaurant’s retention of employees has a lot to do with the operation’s seamlessness.
Parkway Grill General Manager Kornelija O’Faolain, who’s been with the Smith brothers since 2008, said she has learned to understand the importance of staff retention.
“It’s a simple truth: If you have a good working environment, why would you change?” said O’Faolain, who is passionate about her job.
“We have a great team of managers and we all have the same vision. We are the ‘house of yes,’” she said. “We know our guests and we know their likes and their dislikes, and knowing them is not something you can teach in a handbook; it has to happen organically over time. So we respect our staff; we are all a team.”
O’Faolain works closely with co-chefs Martin Salinas and Servando Campos in the garden, keeping a close eye on what vegetables and fruits are ready to be picked for the day and melding them into the daily menu specials. The team also plans with the gardener to see what they can plant next year.
“The garden is so lush right now, it’s very unique,” O’Faolain said, adding that every single item of the harvest is used in some manner. “The lavender is beautiful; it can be used for its fragrance and oils. The chilies are used for marinades or they’re dried and crushed and used in our rubs and seasonings.”
Chefs Salinas and Campos, working side by side at the restaurant’s open kitchen that overlooks the restaurant, said having the garden in the backyard is a chef’s dream.
“It really allows us to play with all kinds of produce, whatever is freshest and in season, we just go to the garden and see what’s there to create our own unique tastes,” Salinas said on a recent Saturday, adding that the “catch of the day” included summer squash, gourmet beets, a ragout of vegetables and purple chard.
The restaurant’s open floor concept allows the chefs to smile and greet guests in between the culinary demands of flaming pots and bustling activity. It also helps them keep the kitchen in check.
“I know what our guests like down to the smallest details … when I see someone come in I already know he likes his baby carrots well done, or another who likes his sauce more spicy, so I make those mental notes and keep the kitchen on notice, too,” Campos said. “It helps us keep the (production) line going.”
The chefs said that even behind the hustling kitchen, they know that customer service is special at Parkway Grill.
“We have very special guests, and thank God we have them,” Campos added. “We love cooking and we love making people happy and seeing them leave satisfied.”
The two chefs were trained in-house, starting as prep cooks and working their way up, learning different techniques and ideas from guest chefs and consultants hosted by the Smith brothers, who believe in continuing education for all their staff. The brothers have sent managers to marketing classes at Harvard and financial classes at Stanford. Currently, they are training a handful of staff members with classes to become wine sommeliers.
“We’re always trying to give our people the knowledge they need to improve,” Gregg Smith said. “We’re constantly investing in our team, and I think they appreciate that.”