The Winking Lizard Tavern is embarking on an aggressive expansion project that includes opening five new restaurants in the Akron, Canton, Cleveland and Columbus markets.

We really havent gone through any kind of growth spurt since the recession hit, partner John Lane said. Its time.

The Bedford Heights-based, privately held chain is one of the most recognizable restaurant brands in Ohio for beer aficionados, thanks in part to its annual World Tour of Beers challenge. Its 14 casual dining restaurants and two Lizardville stores in Northeast and Central Ohio also offer one of the largest selections of craft beer in bottle and on draft in the state.

The company, founded in 1983 when Jim Callam bought a neighborhood bar in Bedford Heights, declined to release the financial investment that its making. But the chain headed by Callam, Lane and Fred Kobzowicz expects its work force to grow by about 200 to 1,200 employees.

Lane cited great commercial real estate deals available now as one of the reasons for the expansion plans moving forward.

Those plans include closing the Fairlawn restaurant and relocating a few miles west to the former Golden Corral Buffet & Grill in Copley Township. The new Winking Lizard will share the building with a Lizardville, a concept that features a small bar, retail beer sales and a large whiskey selection.

The Akron market lacks a significant craft beer store and the Lizardville will fill that void, Lane said. Winking Lizard had been looking for a potential Lizardville site in the Akron area for a while, he added.

The other Lizardvilles are in Bedford Heights and Rocky River.

He noted that the Fairlawn site, which is wedged along Ghent Road, is old and lacks enough parking for its customers. The new location has plenty of parking and will have an outdoor patio.

Its tentatively scheduled to open in March.

The other efforts are:

A Winks Bar and Grille in the Galleria at Erieview mall in downtown Cleveland. The restaurant will focus on Ohio-made beer, wine, liquor and food as much as possible. Its scheduled to open in October.

A Winking Lizard Bar and Grille in Grandview Heights. The new concept is a smaller Winking Lizard that focuses on draft beer. The restaurant, with a reduced menu from a regular Winking Lizard, will have about 30 beer taps, Lane said. Its set to open in January.

?A Winking Lizard Bar and Grille on the east side of Canton. Lane declined to disclose the specific location, saying they havent signed a real estate deal yet. The hope is to open next year.

?Depending on the success of the downtown Winks, the company is looking to open another Winks along Chagrin Boulevard in Beachwood.

A new party room for 80 to 100 people will open in September at the Winking Lizard Tavern in Brunswick.

The company also has restaurants in Avon, Bedford Heights, Canton, Cleveland Heights, Columbus (two), Cleveland, Independence, Lakewood, Macedonia, Mentor and Peninsula.

I guess you could call it aggressive, Callam said about the plans. But its well thought out and were going into markets we think that well fit well into.

He added that the Winking Lizard would like to open two or three more restaurants in the Columbus area, and then possibly move into the Dayton and Cincinnati markets.

Callam said he never envisioned what the Winking Lizard, which has a pet iguana in each of its restaurants, has become.

In the beginning, it was just survival, he said. We were here selling beer and food and hopefully we had enough money to pay the bills at the end of the day. It just happened over time. Very natural.

Karen Bujak, who writes about Ohio beer for the Great Lakes Brewing News trade publication, praised the Winking Lizard for its commitment to providing an expansive and unusual selection of craft beer and sponsoring numerous beer events.

I look to the Winking Lizard for bringing in new and different things that I cant get other places, she said. The Northeast Ohio beer scene would not be what it is without the Winking Lizard.

Lane said its an exciting time for the company.

Fred and Jim and I are still pretty much full of piss and vinegar and ready to keep conquering out there and slay the dragon, as you will, Lane said.