If you think antiques are the only things that develop patina, you've got to see the interior of the Eastland Inn, Dave and Elizabeth Peterkoski's tiny tavern in Berea.
Although the Peterkoskis took over the business only five years ago, the joint has been a neighborhood watering hole since 1948, and every minute of that time seems to permeate the cozy barroom. Age, use, and a half-century of cigarette smoke have sunk into its pores -- the worn linoleum floors, the varnished woodwork -- and a sheer, intractable haze lingers in the air. Slapped over this stratum of time is what passes for decor: layer upon layer of clutter, curios, and whimsies that range from the homey to the strange to the downright perplexing. Lace curtains, for example, peek out from behind neon beer signs. A collection of birdhouses looks down upon a mounted walleye, from which hang a blond wig and a set of strap-on boobs, "discreetly" draped in a gauzy scarf. There are a couple of televisions, a hulking jukebox, and a video-bowling game, as well as a stuffed dwarf. Then there are the seasonal touches: Artificial autumn foliage, bearing plastic pumpkins, wraps itself around a post. Christmas garlands festoon the bar. And well after Valentine's Day, Mylar cupids and hearts were still dangling from the ceiling, waiting to be replaced -- or joined -- by St. Paddy's Day shamrocks.
Of course, all the wackiness in the world wouldn't mean a thing if the food were bad or the help were surly. So it's a pleasure to report that, here again, the Eastland is pretty much one of a kind, with a big selection of mostly above-average eats and a crew of maternal waitresses who are as welcoming as old friends.
Up to now, Peterkoski has always committed his menu to two flimsy sheets of paper: a lengthy standard listing of salads, sandwiches, and noshes, and a shorter, handwritten collection of the day's homemade soups and specials. (Menu revisions are on the horizon; more about that later.) But while the insubstantial menus may get wrinkled and coffee-stained, and unceremoniously shoved between the ketchup and mustard bottles on the oilcloth-covered tables, they clearly contain some goodies, and it doesn't take Ruth Reichl to sense that something special is going on in the kitchen. In this case, the secret ingredient is Peterkoski himself, a 1989 graduate of the Johnson & Wales culinary program and a veteran of several Cleveland-area restaurants.
Peterkoski speaks the truth when he says his menus are all over the map. Sure, there are the mandatory burgers, grilled bologna sandwiches, chili, and chicken wings. And they're good -- the freshly ground, top-round burger juicy, tender, and topped with anything from pepper-jack cheese to cole slaw and brown gravy; the chicken wings plump and moist in a sweet-hot sauce, sided with blue cheese dressing and celery.
But there are also surprises: unexpected gems like hand-trimmed artichoke hearts stuffed with herbed cream cheese, lightly breaded, and carefully deep-fried to fragile crispness. Or a towering muffuleta sandwich, stuffed with salami, pepperoni, and provolone, finished with the classic layer of zesty olive "salad" and embraced between thick slabs of warm grilled focaccia.
Peterkoski's daily specials have been known to range from Beef Wellington to city chicken, and from dense lasagna to grilled crab cakes. Zesty barbecue sauce and meltingly tender meat made a pulled-pork sandwich a winner. Cheese-topped French onion soup tasted savory and satisfying. And if one evening's thick strip steak was underseasoned and unremarkable (what we wouldn't have given for some sautéed mushrooms, some freshly ground pepper, or even a bottle of steak sauce!), the Friday fish fry was an epiphany, with a stack of crisp, lightly breaded perch filets that for once tasted truly fresh, flavorful, and ungreasy, along with two fat golden pierogi, topped with limp caramelized onion and plenty of sour cream.
Slender handcut french fries side many of the sandwiches and entrées, and these fragrant beauties were real scene-stealers, especially when paired with dryish barbecued ribs or a ho-hum grilled tuna sandwich. (The fries were also considerably better than the soggy baked potato or the bland rice that accompanied several other specials.)
And we would return in a heartbeat for more of Dave's "Dirty" Nachos: The freshly baked pita chips -- loaded with shredded cheeses, chopped tomato, diced scallion, and sliced black olives, and served with a warm, creamy artichoke-and-spinach dip -- merit special recognition, both for their addictive flavor and their tantalizing crunch. The massive portion size also made this a great choice for sharing around the table, particularly with tall pints of Curim Gold Celtic Wheat Beer ($3.75), a lightly hopped, slightly fruity, all-natural wheat beer from Ireland's Carlow Brewing Company. (Other worthy draft picks include Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold, Foster's, Killian's, Guinness, Michelob Amber Bock, and Sam Adams. The bar also carries a full selection of spirits and a handful of wines by the bottle or the glass.)
In true tavern fashion, the inn is relatively short on frou-frou dining amenities. Napkins are paper, flatware is dull and mismatched, and rather than candles or flowers, massive glass ashtrays dominate the place settings. (While smoking is permitted throughout the tavern, we spotted few smokers in the well-ventilated dining area.) Still, this isn't a grim or dingy place. During the day, the Eastland is a fine destination for a casual lunch with co-workers, friends, or the kids -- who will be relieved, no doubt, to spot hot dogs, grilled cheese, and the essential chicken fingers on the inexpensive children's menu. In the evening, with the lights turned low and mellow rock playing on the jukebox, the mood is warm, cozy, and positively intimate. And after 10, we've heard that things can get a little rowdy, with Friday-night karaoke and the occasional celebrant who just has to try on the wig and boobs.
A native Berean, Peterkoski grew up practically across the street from the Eastland, and he understands that his little tavern is a cherished neighborhood institution. As a result, he's been respectfully reluctant to get too highfalutin with the food too quickly. But now, after five years, he feels he's earned the right to do some tinkering, stretching his wings -- and his customers' expectations -- with a wider variety of homey meals. So over the course of the next few months, he'll be reworking his menu, incorporating the most popular specials and adding new items to create one long, standard, everyday listing, probably printed up as a tidy little tri-fold. All the old favorites will remain, thank goodness. But there will be additions: dishes such as spaghetti and meatballs, veal piccata, strip steaks, meatloaf, mussels, and crab legs. There'll be the Chicken Martini, a jazzy little number composed of sautéed chicken, chopped salami, olive salad, vodka, and sweet vermouth. There'll be Monday through Friday happy hours, with good deals on cheeseburgers, beer, and wings. There may even be desserts -- something that is now generally lacking, because of time and space constraints.
Of course, even without pie and ice cream, the Eastland Inn is a sweet little hideaway. We can't wait to see it get even better.
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