Capital Grille offers relaxed elegance at the Mall at UTC

UNIVERSITY PARK -- There's no doubt The Capital Grille wants its clients to come back.

It's the sort of place where waiters and waitresses remember your name, and the managing partner greets you at the front door or a table with a handshake.

They remember the food you like and how you like it prepared.

It's a dining experience that doesn't come with a lot of "no's."

Which is about what you'd expect of a place offering 250 brands of wine, beef aged in its own cooler and an atmosphere that encourages diners to stick around all evening.

"It's an ambiance of relaxed elegance," said Tim Fanning, Capital Grille's UTC mall managing partner.

While The Mall at University Town Center has several new, well-staffed and metic

ulously thought-out restaurants, The Capital Grille goes over the top for customers.

Definitely not your grandfather's dark and smoky steakhouse, the 24-year-old brand owned by Orlando-based Darden restaurants tends to adapt to its surroundings at each of 55 locations across the nation.

At the Mall at UTC, the restaurant wows with scale.

The first sight upon entering is a glass-encased, story-and-a-half wine cooler holding the restaurant's 2,500-bottle collection.

Riffing on the year-round warm and sunny weather on the Gulf Coast, the restaurant is fronted outside with a large covered dining patio.

Just inside the floor-to-ceiling windows across the façade, a soaring liquor bottle display is just big enough to anchor one of the largest bar designs the company uses at its locations.

On opening night Friday, Matthew Mastromatteo of Sarasota staked out his place at the bar rail to soak in the experience. A sales engineer with precision plastics maker Octex, Mastromatteo said he has dined at 13 Capital Grilles around the country. He said he uses the restaurants as his go-to when wining and dining clients.

"We've been anticipating this for more than six months," Mastromatteo said. "We'll be here once a week with clients, possibly more often."

The largest percentage of the 8,500-square-foot restaurant is devoted to the dining room.

On any given night, up to 276 guests at a time can sit down for meals orchestrated by a blur of 85 Capital Grill staff members. That includes seating in three private dining rooms.

Excellence doesn't come without a price. Most appetizers at The Capital Grille are in the $15 range, while most entrees are between $35 and $45. Wine by the glass starts around $11, while cocktails hover near $15.

Fanning, who is leading his first Capital Grille after seven years with the company in a 15-year restaurant management career, said he hired team members who above all work well with each other and with restaurant guests.

Their enthusiasm for the task shows.

On opening night, bartenders greeted guests unsolicited, while even bussers introduced themselves to diners. Every server and manager gave out business cards to cement the personal connection.

Blake Shelton, one of the restaurant managers and its wine steward, said he came to Capital Grille after working several years for Roy's in Sarasota.

"I'm really excited to be here," Shelton said.

And he's busy.

Capital Grille not only has its own wine collection, but leases out 95 personal wine lockers to patrons who like to keep their own selections available any time they get the urge to stop in for lunch and dinner.

The restaurant also seeks to impress in the kitchen. It takes 25 people managed by executive chef partner Matthew Lewis to prepare The Capital Grille's signature steak and seafood dishes. The restaurant even has one staffer whose primary job is to hand cut beef every night.

Despite the organization it takes to bring off hundreds of multiple-course meals, craft bar drinks and picky wine selections, guests shouldn't think The Capital Grille can't handle a curve ball.

Want a globe of ice in a tumbler of Maker's Mark instead of cubes? They have that.

Hankering for a glass of wine on not on the list? Someone will run next door to Seasons 52, another Darden property, to augment the selection.

Fanning said he's been pleased with how this Capital Grille has come together. The restaurant did several nights of pre-opening practice dinners with invited guests before opening at the end of the week, one day after the mall's grand opening.

He said he already sees signs he'll be seeing familiar faces time and again.

Most of the restaurant's wine lockers are already spoken for and his staff -- presently augmented by transition staffers from other Capital Grille locations -- is already getting compliments from discerning customers.

"The bar service is impeccable and the local and transitional hosts are outstanding," Mastromatteo said.

The Capital Grille is open for lunch between 11:30 a.m. and 4 p.m. daily. Dinner service starts at 4 p.m. and lasts until 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 9 p.m. Sundays.

Information: 941-256-3647.

Matt M. Johnson, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7027, or on Twitter @MattAtBradenton.