A strong economy, attractive business environment and well-educated population has matured Anchorage's culinary palate beyond buffets, luring locals to invest in the risky business of feeding fickle foodies.
A host of new eateries are opening or applying for licenses to serve food and beverages to the largest city in America's largest state. Southern steak and barbecue, California cuisine, microbreweries and cafes are in the works, including several Alaskan-owned restaurants. But food is a risky business, and whether exotic new menus will entice loyal Alaskans to experiment with dinner remains to be seen.
Fat Ptarmigan or Moose's Tooth?
The expansion includes a huge burst of new joints in the downtown area and a quadfecta of newcomers making craft pizza, a la the venerable Moose's Tooth where the masses often migrate.
The explosion means new entrees for the adventurous, such as a beer-and-ice-cream float, a duck pizza topped with a sunny-side-up egg, and of course, fried pickles.
The growth is a positive economic sign for a city that already plunks down some $450 million annually to eat out, said Bill Popp, executive director of the Anchorage Economic Development Corp. That's about $1,500 for every man, woman and child.
"It's another reflection of Anchorage's current good situation with employment and overall economic activity," Popp said. "If things were tough, restaurants would feel it first and foremost because people stop eating out when their budget is tight."
Importantly, more restaurants are opening than closing in Anchorage, already home to more than 150 locales. In fact, some of the new and coming eateries have been launched by local restaurateurs who'd already found success.
Key to the survival of the city's restaurants is a large population of well-paid, 25- to 40-year-olds, said James Starzec, the corporation's research director.
That group helped rank Alaska eighth in the nation in projected restaurant sales growth, according to the National Restaurant Association, he said. Restaurant sales are expected to grow 3.9 percent in 2013. In a shameful hit to state pride, Alaska's top two rivals for oil patch investment -- Texas and North Dakota -- topped the list with growth rates above 4.8 percent.
Downtown chow line
In downtown, at least seven new restaurants are new or coming -- including the Hard Rock Café next spring -- thanks in part to events at the Performing Arts Center drawing a steady clientele to the area, said Popp.
Some restaurants are replacing others that closed, so the net gain for downtown is four, said Chris Schutte, director for Anchorage Downtown Partnership. The list doesn't include at least one more restaurant that is in the concept stage, but whose backers aren't ready to go public yet.
The growth began last spring and has been remarkable, he said.
"It's not unusual to have constant change," he said, "but to have six or seven new ones come online in less than a year is pretty unusual."
The success of existing downtown restaurants has made the area a magnet for new restaurants, said Schutte. Those offering different takes on local food, beers and designs seem to have done particularly well.
"A lot of restaurants downtown have pushed the envelope from a culinary standpoint, and that's what puts bodies into chairs," Schutte said.
Into that category falls Ginger, a still-young restaurant specializing in Asian fusion cuisine and locally brewed beer. The brains behind that Fifth Avenue establishment opened Fat Ptarmigan in the same area on Monday, offering wood-fired artisanal pizzas, such as the duck-and-egg delight. The menu includes smoked salmon pizza, lamb pizza and Alaskan brews. Steamdot coffee also runs a café there.
On Sixth Avenue there's Flattop, brought to you by the makers of Humpy's Great Alaskan Alehouse and Sub-Zero Bistro and Microlounge nearby. They're offering pool tables and pizzas that range from deep-dish pies made in a cast-iron skillet to more standard fare with hip, locally-grown names like "Park Strip Veggie" or the meaty "Powerline Pass."
Flattop's dishing up the "delicious" ice-cream float made with oatmeal stout beer courtesy of Kassik's Brewery in Kenai, said Susynn Snyder, marketing manager for the Humpy's empire.
"We had to sample a lot of beer floats to figure out the perfect one," she said. "It was the hard part of the job."
Other new downtown additions include:
• Hard Rock Café, planning to open next year in the digs once occupied by the controversial Rumrunner's Old Towne Bar, at the corner of Fourth Avenue and E Street.
• Sakura Asian Fusion at the corner of Fifth Avenue and B Street, which began serving sushi and Thai food in September.
• Haute Quarter Grill, billing itself as fine dining of American cuisine, is moving from Eagle River to open a spot in Anchorage in early November. It sought a larger market, said Schutte. The owners already operate Table 6 on Denali Street off Northern Lights. The Haute Quarter will be located along Fourth Avenue, between E and F streets.
• The Downtown Grill at 8th Avenue and Gambell Street began offering American food and hand-crafted pizza in a wood-burning oven in the spring. With a smoker outside, the menu includes smoked pulled pork, smoked Philly sandwiches and a smoked French dip.
And that's just the downtown scene.
'Big and Bouncy'
The Rock Wood Fired Pizza and Spirits, a growing artisanal pizza chain from Tacoma, Wash., opened a new restaurant recently behind the Home Depot near the Northway Mall, formerly owned by Red Robin.
The apocalyptic décor includes a façade of shattered bricks and burning columns outside the front door, and edgy pizza names include "Bat Outta Hell" and the "Meaty, Big and Bouncy."
Also coming at some point is the Crossbar Sports Restaurant on C Street in midtown, in the former location of Boston's Pizza and Sports Bar.
And crafting plans -- perhaps for two locations, since they've applied for two building permits -- is the Texas Roadhouse, including one at the Tikahtnu Commons shopping complex in East Anchorage. The chain includes nearly 400 restaurants across the nation, and offers southern goodies like fried pickles, tater skins and "fall-off-the-bone" ribs.
Said Popp: "It's a rapidly evolving restaurant scene."
Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com