Imagine an establishment that has gone to the dogs, but in the most delightful way. The Hound’s Tale, which opens daily at 4 p.m., is a casual, cozy bistro-type restaurant created by Don and Geri Pratt of Williamsburg. Located in the Griffin Arms building on Prince George Street, the restaurant features affordable fresh, tasty bites that range from comfort foods with a twist, to dishes that evoke memories of travels abroad. Great spirits include a variety of regional beers and wines as well as an array of delightful, hand-crafted cocktails.
Of course, locals will recognize Don and Geri as the owners of Aromas coffeehouse and bakery, also located on Prince George Street. There are two other Aromas locations as well, including one on the campus of William & Mary and another in Newport News.
The tiny “English pub-ish” place truly delivers a fun, artsy vibe that the Pratts hope their customers will find unlike any other. It is reminiscent of quirky bars and restaurants in Richmond’s Fan District and Carytown area, as well as similar neighborhoods in metropolitan areas like Pittsburgh and Atlanta.
“Aromas got us started in this direction,” Don says. “We envision a culinary arts district in the downtown area someday, that will complement the existing arts district. Our mission for Aromas and The Hound’s Tale is to help our neighbors and guests enjoy life each day, but behind that is an incredible effort to incorporate good food and beverages at a reasonable price – and have fun.”
Executive chef Steven Sowell has put together a menu that Don refers to as ‘eclectric’.
“Not eclectic,” he explains. “It’s eclectric with an ‘R’, and here’s why. Our food is shockingly yummy! It gives you a pop in the mouth. That’s true of the drinks too, by the way. Our bar team makes the most wonderful cocktales.”
The menu includes selections like pierogies, pumpkin ravioli and grilled duck breast. All pasta is made in-house. Of course, there are options for all palettes and diets including gluten free, vegetarian and vegan. At the bar, which is incredibly inviting, you’ll find a super team, led by David, a local favorite...and an ever evolving menu. Try the Raspberry White Cosmo, with an edible flower embedded in ice, created to coincide with the Art Escape Weekend!
Thinking outside the kitchen
As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and by spring 2014, Don and Geri found that they needed a larger commercial kitchen.
“Two years ago, we partnered with Swem Library at William & Mary to provide food and beverages there,” Don says. “But we needed a kitchen for food prep. Our kitchen at Aromas is very small, so we thought we’d rent a kitchen.”
They moved from one kitchen rental to the next, eventually deciding that it made little sense to rent a kitchen year-round, in order to supply food for a venue that is only serving students during the academic year.
According to Geri, the time was right to brainstorm some new ideas.
“If we were going to build out a kitchen, we’d need to put something in front of it,” she says. “That was when we started thinking about a concept that would be unique to Williamsburg and especially to the downtown area.”
Anyone who has frequented Aromas knows that the Pratts are passionate about dogs. Outdoors, water is provided for customers who bring their dogs to dine al fresco, and there is all sorts of dog-themed artwork both inside and outside. “We have a love for dogs,” Geri says with a grin. “We have tons of dog mugs in the shop, and we’ve always had the dog statues or other pieces of canine art out front.”
Naturally, the couple’s family members are fully aware of this love affair with everything canine.
“One day, a relative called to say that she’d been in this little gift shop in Urbanna, where she saw a painting that looked like our dog Hannah,” says Geri.
Hannah was the couple’s beloved Great Dane, who has since passed away. There is another “hound” at home now; his name is Harley. Both dogs would later be featured prominently at The Hound’s Tale where today, Hannah’s likeness graces the bar and Harley’s portrait is featured on the menu.
“So of course we went to the gift shop,” continues Geri. “And there was a series of three paintings, and all three were dogs (or ‘hounds’ as Don insists on calling them). The largest painting did look remarkably like our Hannah. There she was – this beautiful big black dog. But this dog was wearing a strapless red dress and pearls, holding a martini in one hand and a book in the other.”
Similarly, the other two paintings captured dogs dressed as people and also reading books. Don and Geri purchased all three; however, the idea for their restaurant concept had not yet emerged.
“We thought we’d use the paintings in the new restaurant, but we still lacked an actual concept,” says Don. “When we travel, we’ll see these funky little restaurants and so we started thinking of a place along those lines. We started brainstorming names and looking online for inspiration.”
They were beginning to seriously consider basing a fun, eclectic restaurant on the concept of dogs reading books – just like in the pictures they’d purchased. With an emerging concept, the Pratts were still not sure if there was an available place in town that would fit their needs. Around that same time, during a trip to Beaufort, South Carolina, they were walking around a quaint part of town when they discovered a place called The Old Bull Tavern. Don and Geri were surprised to see a fire pit in front of the establishment; that alone was unusual enough to coax them inside.
“It was really a hole in the wall kind of place,” Geri chuckles. “So, naturally we decided to have dinner there.”
The configuration was very unusual, with a couch and seating area on one side and banquette seating and a community table that seated maybe eight, and a large bar on the opposite side.
“The food was great,” Don remembers. “The beverages and cocktails were super too! As it turned out, the owner – who gave us a complete tour of the place – was trained at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York.
The plan comes together
Very soon after the Beaufort trip, an opportunity presented itself. There was a space available in the Griffin Arms building, but the configuration of the interior is a bit peculiar. “It is very odd space, shaped sort of like a pie, with a small front that opens up the moment you walk inside,” Don says. “Then it hit us – this place is like the Old Bull Tavern but in reverse!”
With a “hound’ theme in place and the beginnings of a design concept based on what they had experienced at the tavern in Beaufort, there was one thing lacking: a chef. It wasn’t too long before they had that loose end tied up.
“We now have both Stevie Sowell, and his wife Monique,” Geri says. “They met when they were students at the Culinary Institute of America.”
Stevie’s first job was actually at Aromas when he was 19 years old. He worked then with Dave Burchett, Aromas’ young chef who recently had graduated from the CIA, and trained with Tom Power (of Fat Canary and Cheese Shop fame). Dave encouraged the budding chef to study at the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating from culinary school and working for a decade in fast-paced Manhattan, Stevie and Monique, now parents of an infant daughter, were considering shifting gears. Everything came together earlier this year during a visit to Williamsburg where Stevie’s parents live.
“Basically, Stevie and Monique were working long hours in New York,” Geri says. “Plus, they were commuting 40 minutes to their tiny apartment, and now they have a seven month old. Stevie came to visit and during that visit he asked us if we had anything new going on here in Williamsburg.”
Indeed, there was something new going on, and the need was mutual. “We were able to hire them both, and they are both fabulous!”
During their time in Manhattan, of course, Stevie and Monique were exposed to other chefs from around the country and all over the world – experience that translates well to the menu. The young chefs (and their grateful bosses) are confident that there is something for everyone.
The Pratts are delighted that the reception from the community has been tremendous. And why not? The energy these two exude is palpable. They absolutely love what they do. One would think they grew up in the restaurant business, but such is not the case. Don comes from a military and business background whereas Geri’s professional background is pediatric rehabilitation.
“Don knew the coffee business, but the learning curve for food service was very challenging,” Geri says. “We learned a lot with Aromas, though, so opening Hound’s Tale has been much easier. Plus, we have great people who are like family working with us.”
Naturally, Don and Geri have returned to Beaufort and visited the Old Bull Tavern to let the owner know that his establishment was a very real inspiration to The Hound’s Tale.
“He was really pleased,” Geri says.