When our party of four entered On Swann, we were met with a tsunami of sound, followed by the news that our table wasn’t ready, with no place in sight to even huddle.
We probably should have expected the hubbub. The crowds have swarmed here since the restaurant opened in June, initially thanks to its pedigree: The French-trained chef Chris Ponte, one of five owners, is celebrated over in Clearwater for Cafe Ponte, his fine-dining restaurant, while three fellow owners have long histories as executives with Outback Steakhouse and Bonefish Grill. With On Swann, the team has created a casual, vintage-chic American bistro with winning dishes and, despite our initial impression, superior service and a spirited atmosphere.
Indeed, five minutes after our arrival, our fortunes reversed. We were seated near a wall of floor-to-ceiling doors opening onto a patio, delivering a tropical breeze and a sound filter. Our server, a young woman both friendly and professional, got down to business, fetching drinks that included a local IPA and a jalapeño-tinged tequila cocktail.
We finally had the chance to soak in the scenery — an open kitchen flows into a tile-decorated bar, while an artful jumble of seating to hold 150 diners fills the room, mixing long communal tables with two-tops and banquettes.
Every item on the menu teasingly lists each ingredient, underscoring our ordering dilemma: One of us was vegan and nearly every dish included meat or dairy. We skipped the popular cheese and charcuterie boards and did our own thing. Standouts included a fig tart with caramelized onions, Gorgonzola and prosciutto on a perfectly charred crust; a rich short rib pasta dish; and a thick and juicy pork chop with creamy grits. A custom veggie mix readily whipped up for our vegan was fine.
“We wanted to keep the food simple and marketable to our clients, a place in the neighborhood they’d come to once a week,” Mr. Ponte said, “but also celebratory, where we create special moments.”
Trudy Cooper, an owner (and an Outback founder), said she and her husband first traveled with Mr. Ponte and his wife to see how the couples would get along and to scope out food destinations around the country.
When asked how it felt to be free of the corporate kangaroo on their backs, Ms. Cooper said it reminded her of the early days of Outback, in the late 1980s. “When we started, it was just to open a few restaurants in the area,” she said. “We probably have interest in stepping out a little further, but we’re not looking to build another empire.”
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