Cantina Feliz, the suburban Mexican restaurant from Jose Garces’ longtime right-hand man Tim Spinner — he worked side-by-side with the Iron Chef at Stephen Starr’s El Vez and helped launch Amada, Tinto and Distrito — and former Distrito food and beverage director Brian Sirhal, opens tonight in Ft. Washington. It takes up residence in the space that once housed Alison Barshak’s ill-fated Alison Two and before that Marita’s Cantina. Expectations are high, but Spinner and Sirhal are confident about their first venture together. Grub Street caught up with the two to ask a few questions about Cantina Feliz, click through to see what they had to say.
Why did you choose Fort Washington as a location?
Sirhal: We looked at a number of locations over the course of about a year’s time. During that search we developed a specific criteria for what we were looking for in a restaurant space that we could be successful in. That criteria was based on location (both from a demographic standpoint as well as a traffic standpoint). Additionally, we were looking at the specific size of a space as well and one that was previously an existing restaurant.
Do you feel like you have great expectations to live up to?
Sirhal: We do feel like we have great expectations to live up to coming from working with a culinary icon like Jose. We understand that there will inevitably be a comparison to what he has done and look forward to being able to show off our own product. He has had a tremendous influence on us and is a great example to look towards in his quest for perfection in his restaurants. Knowing that there will be a comparison is tremendously motivating for us as we get ready to open our doors.
Was there a specific event or series of events that led you to part ways with Garces?
Spinner: There was never any specific event that led to us breaking out on our own. We had both entered the restaurant industry with the goal to learn from the best and hopefully get to a point where we would be in position to establish our own business. We both have a tremendous entrepreneurial spirit and Cantina Feliz is the culmination of our dream of being business owners.
What was his reaction when you told him you were leaving to do your own thing?
Spinner: There was always 100 percent support from Jose. Having pursued the same dream only a few years ago, he fully understood and offered any support that he could
What inspired Cantina Feliz?
Sirhal: With both of us getting our professional start in Mexican restaurants we really developed a love for the cuisine and culture. The concept really came naturally to us and evolved over time with our continued experience in the business. We would always talk about “our” restaurant and what it would be like as well as different names. We wanted to create an environment where all types of people could come in and enjoy a fantastic meal at a price that would allow them to come time and time again. It was important to us for our menu and design to reflect this ideal.
Did you encounter any major set backs while preparing Cantina Feliz for its opening?
Sirhal: The biggest setback was the pursuit of our liquor license. We had 2 different licenses that fell through before we found the one that we eventually purchased. After we received township approval to bring in the license from another municipality things moved fairly quickly.
What changes did you make to the building?
Sirhal: The biggest change to the space was cosmetic. We really brightened up the space by selecting vibrant paint colors and removing some partitions. We removed the existing carpet on the floors and installed wood and tile throughout. We did end up rerouting traffic from the kitchen by making a corridor so food wouldn’t have to be run through the bar. In the bar we removed a couple of booths and added high top tables, as well as some drink rails. The centerpiece of the changes we made was adding murals that were designed and painted by an amazing artist named Alison Dilworth.
Are you at all concerned that Alison Barchak’s Alison Two failed at this location?
Sirhal: It’s certainly something that is in the back of our minds but the reality is, we have a much different concept with an extremely approachable price point. The level of cuisine and hospitality will hopefully set us apart. Also, there was a successful Mexican restaurant in our space for a number of years prior to Alison Two. We have tremendous confidence in what we are doing here and hope that the community will support what we are doing.
Who was responsible for look and feel of Cantina Feliz?
Sirhal: We had designer Elisabeth Knapp involved throughout the process although we were both very active in making sure that the design reflected our personalities and our vision for what we want Cantina Feliz to be.
If you weren’t doing Mexican, what type of cuisine would you pursue?
Spinner: We both have a passion for making pizza. Sometimes we can picture ourselves working side-by-side and stretching dough and slinging pizzas in the oven. We do get the opportunity to play around a bit in the restaurant since we use a pizza oven to make our Huaraches (flat bread).
Does the Cantina Feliz menu focus on a particular region or style of Mexican food?
Spinner: The cuisine is fairly broad in its Mexican influence but we do have a particular love for the state of Puebla. Many of the great people that we have worked with in the past hail from that area.
Is there a particular menu item that you would say is your signature dish?
Spinner: The black bass on the menu will be an extremely popular dish. Throughout menu testing and staff tastings this has been very well received. The dish is a filet of black bass served over a bed of creamy poblano crab rice. Also the ceviche verde has been a favorite. It’s made of Hiramasa, and kiwi topped with a winter melon vinaigrette and garnished with lime sorbet.