Interior of the Thirsty Lion prototype.
Thirsty Lion Gastropub

Thirsty Lion’s newest location just outside of Dallas is its largest unit. 

Thirsty Lion Shows Off Most Elaborate Restaurant Design Yet

The casual-dining chain opened its most elaborate prototype in the Grandscape, a gigantic mixed-use development owned by billionaire Warren Buffett.

Sixteen years ago, John Plew founded craft-forward Thirsty Lion Gastropub in Portland, Oregon, a city where bigger restaurants like Chili’s and Macaroni Grill don’t typically survive.

In the time since, the restaurateur has scaled his anti-chain, urban concept to suburbs across the country, but none have been as elaborate as the recent opening in The Colony, Texas, which is about 30 minutes north of Dallas.

For this particular Thirsty Lion, the company worked with Merriman Anderson Architects out of Dallas to create an all-new, two-story building with a rooftop bar. The main floor comprises nearly 3,000 square feet of indoor dining and bar area and about 7,000 square feet of outdoor patio space. The second level consists of a 2,800-square-foot dining room and bar section, as well as a 1,414-square-foot outside area.

Thirsty Lion

Established: 2006

Founder: John Plew

HQ: Scottsdale, AZ

Unit count: 10

Cuisine: Gastropub

Overall, the restaurant can seat more than 650 customers, both inside and outside. The venue is equipped with lawn games such as corn hole and giant Jenga, and the patios have fire tables and flat-screen televisions for group seating.

“There were no rooftop patio bars [in The Colony], but there were in downtown Dallas,” Plew says. “So the people here weren’t getting the same kind of experience. And so I was like, wow, if I could do a rooftop, two-story patio/restaurant/bar like it would be in an urban core and bring it to the suburbs, people would be thrilled about it because it’s not just a normal restaurant.”

The store is based in Grandscape, a gigantic mixed-use development owned by billionaire Warren Buffett. The first outlet on the land was Nebraska Furniture Mart, which earned $1.3 billion in its first year, well beyond the previous $750 million projection. For perspective, Plew says regional shopping centers typically do anywhere from $500–$900 million. In other words, Buffet’s furniture store “makes IKEA look like, I wouldn’t say it’s 7-Eleven, but it makes it look like a small, small furniture store,” Plew says.

With Nebraska Furniture Mart as the anchor, Grandscape features more than 400 acres of entertainment venues, restaurants, apartments, and office towers. There’s even a 200-foot ferris wheel.

“I mean it’s just gigantic, right? It’s kind of like Disneyland,” Plew says. “It’s one of the destinations of developments. When they started this, that was just the beginning of what a lot of developers were trying to do. [Now] everybody’s chasing restaurants and entertainment things, and these guys had the vision six years ago to do this as opposed to trying to do a bunch more retail.”

Thirsty Lion began working on the new prototype in 2016. The brand was in line with what the Grandscape developers were seeking, namely restaurants that were unique to the area. For instance, nearby is Windmills, a concept out of India, and Akira Back, the namesake restaurant of a world-renowned Michelin-starred chef.

The innovative two-story building was supposed to open in 2020, but plans were halted due to COVID. The exterior had already been constructed, but the inside wasn’t finished. Buffett’s team agreed to hold the space, as long as the restaurant opened by May of this year.

Kathy Trans
Thirsty Lion Gastropub
Thirsty Lion Gastropub
Thirsty Lion Gastropub
Thirsty Lion Gastropub

Plew describes the shopping center as a rural market witnessing an accelerated transition. He can see several construction cranes across the street from the Dallas Cowboys practice facility and another set near the so-called headquarters row, which includes companies like Liberty Mutual and Toyota North America.

“What’s happened is all those employees came from Southern California,” Plew says. “And so they have started to meld and make this area less country-rural and transition into a more contemporary area.”

In addition to the new marquee location, Thirsty Lion has nine other units across Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, and Texas. A second two-story restaurant and rooftop bar is scheduled to open in Glendale, Arizona, in January 2023.

This forthcoming store will total 9,800 square feet, with patios on both levels and seating for 400. The second floor will also include an open-air dining area and a large outdoor bar with plenty of room for larger parties. Less than a mile from State Farm Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals football team, Thirsty Lion has an enviable location, especially considering it will debut about a month before the stadium hosts the Super Bowl.

“They’re not inexpensive to build, but they do high volume,” Plew says. “And what’s nice about it is we won’t even open the upstairs at lunch. So you can be smaller and look like a cool, hip, small restaurant at lunch, and then when you need to be big, you open and go big. The rooftop has views and its own bar and experience, and you can sell those private parties.”

The ambitious Texas and Arizona locations likely won’t be the last of their kind, but Thirsty Lion plans to be selective in where it establishes future outlets of that magnitude. Locations must be placed in a highly trafficked area—such as near a concert venue or stadium—that can fulfill the restaurant’s large capacity. In addition to these bigger units, Thirsty Lion is leveraging a smaller, single-story prototype that had its square footage sliced by roughly 1,000 square feet to reduce overhead and construction costs.

The idea is to build both of these store designs in clusters. After Thirsty Lion finishes in Texas (two more to come in Dallas suburbs Addison and Preston Hollow), it will jump to the Southeast, where it could potentially establish 2–3 stores in Atlanta and two more in Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina.

The goal is to build one restaurant to service 750,000 to 1 million customers and about 4–5 locations for every 5 million customers—remaining consistent with Thirsty Lion’s anti-chain mindset.

“We don’t like to build too many units in markets because then we look like a Fridays chain or something,” Plew says. “What we’re doing is [targeting] everybody’s sense of touch, the visual, the taste, the smell, and the audible. And when you work them all together, it’s a lot more powerful.”