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Foodie File: Historic restaurant takes fresh turn, as Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill packs ’em in for steaks, burgers

Fresh new approach — It’s still a friendly tavern, but owners Ricky Lindner, left, and John DeWitt have put a new emphasis on high-quality food at DeLand’s Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill. They display three customer favorites from the menu: chicken salad, the meatball-sub special, and bacon-and-cheese stuffed pierogi.

Fresh new approach — It’s still a friendly tavern, but owners Ricky Lindner, left, and John DeWitt have put a new emphasis on high-quality food at DeLand’s Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill. They display three customer favorites from the menu: chicken salad, the meatball-sub special, and bacon-and-cheese stuffed pierogi.

BEACON PHOTOS/BARB SHEPHERD

Look at those burgers — Lynda Hucks, left, and Joyce Shuman prepare to dig into a pair of the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill’s famous hamburgers. The women are planning a group event in the restaurant, and enjoyed lunch while going over the logistics.

Look at those burgers — Lynda Hucks, left, and Joyce Shuman prepare to dig into a pair of the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill’s famous hamburgers. The women are planning a group event in the restaurant, and enjoyed lunch while going over the logistics.

The core crew — The Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill has expanded from four employees to 20 over the past eight years. Pictured above are members of the restaurant’s core crew: from left, in back, owners John Dewitt and Ricky Lindner and, in front, from left, kitchen manager Steve Tindal, manager Bridget McGovern, server Trish Turkovich, assistant kitchen manager Linda Pelland, and bar back Joseph Mulay. They’re standing in front of the restaurant’s outdoor bar and one of the 14 big-screen televisions.

The core crew — The Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill has expanded from four employees to 20 over the past eight years. Pictured above are members of the restaurant’s core crew: from left, in back, owners John Dewitt and Ricky Lindner and, in front, from left, kitchen manager Steve Tindal, manager Bridget McGovern, server Trish Turkovich, assistant kitchen manager Linda Pelland, and bar back Joseph Mulay. They’re standing in front of the restaurant’s outdoor bar and one of the 14 big-screen televisions.

Monday nights are busy for the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill.

Under the supervision of kitchen manager Steve Tindal, promptly at 4:30 p.m., the staff starts hand-cutting ribeyes, carving 9-ounce and 12-ounce servings. At 5 p.m., they start cooking them.

“It’s the best prime cut you can get of ribeye,” co-owner Ricky Lindner noted.

Every Monday is steak night, 5 p.m. to close, but don’t wait too late to get a table. 

The meat is fresh, so there’s only so much. At $13 for a 9-ounce and $16 for a 12-ounce — including salad, one side and carrot cake for dessert — it’s possible for the steak to run out before the customers do.

That’s OK; there’s always another Monday, there are plenty of other items on the menu (chicken, fish, wings and even liverwurst!), and the steak and hamburgers aren’t the only food that is fresh and never frozen.

The carrot cake is also baked fresh in DeLand. Even the jalapeno poppers are hand-breaded by the staff.

A commitment to high-quality food has transformed the Airport Restaurant over the past several years of ownership by Lindner and retired corporate pilot John DeWitt.

“The original founders, Tommy Krist and Walt Steiger, opened a bar that served a little bit of food. Now we’ve evolved to a restaurant that also has cocktails,” Tindal said.

The Airport Restaurant still retains the fun tavern feel, with live music every Friday and Saturday night, but the new owners are also committed to fresh, quality food.

Krist and Steiger opened the business in 1972 in the 3,500-square-foot building at 1120 Airport Terminal Drive, at the edge of the tarmac on the DeLand Municipal Airport, with airplanes parked a short stone’s throw from the 60-seat outdoor dining area. 

The building had served as an officers’ club when DeLand’s airport was a Naval Air Station busy with pilot training during World War II.

Tindal brings to the Airport Restaurant his lessons learned in chains like Chili’s and Applebee’s about the importance of consistency. Restaurant food can’t be good one night and off the next. While some of his chain-store knowledge comes in handy, Tindal prefers the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill.

“I came here and took a job … and I ended up taking over the kitchen,” he said. “I like that it’s more family and not the corporate grind.”

Regular customers whose families have been coming to the restaurant for generations, along with friendly, longtime staff members, create an atmosphere where everyone feels like family, even when the famous customers, like NASCAR legends Bobby and Donnie Allison, stop for a bite when they are in town.

“That’s why I invested in it, the people,” Lindner said. A former construction worker turned bartender, he became a partner in the business three years ago.

As a pilot, co-owner DeWitt had lived all over the world before settling in DeLand, which he came to know while flying for West Volusia agriculturalist Jack Shuman, who died in 2016. 

“The people here are the best I’ve ever known,” DeWitt said 

“We’ve become a destination bar, also,” manager Bridget McGovern said. Stetson University and DeLand High School class reunions are booked a year in advance.

Of course, the restaurant is a destination for pilots, as well, including a group from Fort Lauderdale who come up weekly for a sandwich.

“We call it the $110 cheeseburger, because of what they burn up in fuel to come up here to get a burger and fly home,” Tindal said with a laugh.

- Barb Shepherd, info@beacononlinenews.com


What makes their burger best?

It’s generally accepted among West Volusians that the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill has the area’s best hamburger, hands down.

We made it our mission to find out why. Here’s what kitchen manager Steve Tindal could tell us:

- Certified fresh, never frozen Angus beef. The restaurant is on a special program with its meat supplier that guarantees its meat will be of the highest quality, from bodacious bovines. “It’s from good-looking steers,” manager Bridget McGovern quipped with her usual smile.

- A second grind. Once the ground beef reaches the restaurant, it is ground again, and a “special secret ingredient” is added, Tindal said. Naturally, he would not say what the ingredient is; only that it is a seasoning. Additional grinding, Tindal explained, further breaks up the sheaths that all meat naturally has. “When you put that second grind on it, it makes it fall-apart tender,” he said.

- Kaiser rolls baked fresh daily. For years, the Airport Restaurant has had a special arrangement with the bakery at the Winn-Dixie on West New York Avenue in DeLand. Every morning, seven days a week, the grocery store bakes all of the restaurant’s hamburger buns for that day.

The burgers are available in the traditional way, cooked medium and topped with American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, Dijon mustard, mayonnaise and ketchup. But variations are limited only by your imagination: bunless, topped with sauteed mushrooms, with pepper jack or another cheese, on top of a salad, etc.

You can even order your burger well-done, and it will still be juicy, McGovern said, adding, “I don’t know how they do it.”

The Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill goes through 400 pounds of ground beef each week.

— Barb Shepherd


Why ‘Gin Mill’?

The story behind the second half of the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill’s name goes like this: Original founder Walt Steiger had fond memories of his teen years during Prohibition, when he would sneak out of his grandmother’s house to visit the gin mills in the woods.

Inevitably, when he tried to sneak back home, his grandmother was wise to his mischief. “I can smell it on you,” she would tell young Walt.

“He told the story to his partner, Tommy [Krist], and Tommy loved the story so much they named it the Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill,” current co-owner Ricky Lindner explained.


Airport Restaurant & Gin Mill

Location: 1120 Airport Terminal Drive on the DeLand Municipal Airport

Cuisine: American tavern-food upgrade

Hours: 11 a.m.-2 a.m. seven days a week

Music: Karaoke on Tuesdays, live music on Friday and Saturday nights

Beverages: Full liquor bar, beer, wine and soft drinks, including milk and Red Bull

Price range: $$

Specials: Daily. If you ask, they’ll telephone you whenever they have the meatball-sub special. It’s so popular, owner Ricky Lindner said, he’s only managed to snag one for himself in the past three years.

Contact: 386-734-9755

 

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