For many of us, these are the meals--meatloaf, liver and onions, roast beef, and pork chops--that memories of home are made of.
Not that home was anything fancy, mind you. Grandma was no Julia Child. She was known to worship at the shrine of Saint Betty Crocker and had more than a few furtive flings with Sara Lee. And so it is at Fanny's, a floral-wallpapered, lace-curtained cocoon where the gravy is thick, the veggies are plucked from the freezer, and nobody, it seems, has ever heard about cholesterol.
Terry Kollar and his sister, Shirley Davido, are the third generation to operate the restaurant, which their mother, Frances Kollar, and grandmother, Frances Boldin, started just after World War II.
Kollar says the two Fannys began by cooking the foods they knew best--Slo-venian standards that appealed to their mostly Eastern European neighbors. But as the composition of the North Collinwood neighborhood became more diverse, the menu shifted toward all-American flavors. Ethnic foods like goulash and sausage with kraut now show up mostly as dinner specials.
Kollar rightly notes that this is not health food. Although the cook, Gary Halloway, has abandoned lard in favor of vegetable oils, reduced by two-thirds the amount of salt he uses, and added a number of salads, chicken, and fish dishes to the menu, Kollar says that maintaining the foods' "flavor profile" is more important to his customers than dishing up oat bran and antioxidants.
Fanny's is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and attracts a devoted mix of downtown office workers, senior citizens, Cleveland police officers, and families.
Breakfast features the basics, like eggs, pancakes, waffles, and sausage gravy and biscuits. A lunchtime "Sandwich Board" offers homey combos like grilled bologna on a toasted bun, BLTs, Polish sausage, and the comfortingly retro fried egg with lettuce and tomato.
A selection of burgers includes a deliciously nostalgic Fifties Burger: one-third of a pound of lean, tender ground beef topped with a slice of blended American-and-cheddar cheese, shredded lettuce, and a creamy white "secret sauce" that immediately jerked me back to the heyday of Cleveland drive-ins and burger joints.
There is an unwritten law in this town that sandwiches must be accompanied by french fries, and Fanny's home-cut fries are some of the best around. Long and slender, with strips of crunchy skin still attached, the crisp fries are golden brown and slightly greasy. They form the perfect starchy substrate for a ladle full of dark homemade gravy and were an essential component of the Hamburger Steak Platter (a special) we enjoyed on one of our visits.
Almost as tasty as the fries and gravy was the beefy-tasting ground-meat patty topped with a mound of limp, translucent pan-fried onions. Among them were a few bits of almost-burnt onion, perhaps left in the pan from previous orders. We didn't complain, though. On the contrary, those overcooked particles lent their tender brethren a savory flavor and crunch that Grandma would have appreciated.
A big serving of roasted chicken, a popular daily special, was as comforting as a warm hug. The breast and wing were so juicy and tender that the meat fell right off the bone. The chicken was accompanied by a scoop of moist, dense homemade dressing. The dressing had a rich flavor that Kollar says comes from sauteing the celery and onions in chicken fat before tossing them with the bread and seasonings. (Hey, we said this wasn't health food.)
Roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes was also a hit. The enormous serving of thin-sliced, reasonably tender and lean beef was topped with plenty of brown gravy and sided by homemade mashed potatoes. We liked the fresh taste of the potatoes, although we thought they were just a bit on the thin side.
Wandering a little further from our own ethnic roots, we decided to sample Fanny's take on goulash. The manly portion was chock-full of cubes of flavorful, well-cooked beef, held together by a thick brown sauce that tasted more like beef gravy than the traditional blend of paprika, onions, and sour cream. Still, it hit the spot that yearns for simple comfort food, and any Hungarian grandma would have been proud to claim as her own the tender, delicate spaetzle that accompanied it.
The biggest surprise of the evening was how adeptly Fanny's kitchen handles a fish filet. We chose baked scrod with lemon butter--one of only two seafood dishes on the menu that weren't breaded and fried--and were very pleased with our selection. The large frozen filet had been attentively cooked to just the right degree of flaky doneness, sprinkled with paprika, and doused with a tasty lemon-butter sauce. We were gratified to find two juicy lemon wedges on the plate, to add even more zing to the mild white fish. On the side, we ordered boiled red-skinned potatoes. The three large, whole spuds were drenched in butter and topped with fresh chopped parsley, and made the best side dish of the evening.
We wrapped up our gustatory tour back through time with an order of two grilled center-cut pork chops. The thin chops were thoroughly cooked and fairly tender, although they had a strong, almost gamy flavor that was not especially pleasant. (My friend the butcher, with the experience of more than two decades beneath his apron, assured me this wasn't a sign the meat was spoiling; nor did it signify an inferior grade of meat. "Sometimes it just happens" was his technical explanation.) I wouldn't hesitate to give the chops another try during a future visit.
Dinners come with bread and butter, a choice of canned applesauce or frozen vegetables, and homemade soup or a tossed salad. Not surprisingly, the tasty vegetable soup--overflowing with green beans, corn, carrots, celery, peas, tomato, limas, bits of beef, and thick noodles--was the best of the lot.
For dessert, Fanny's offers some wonderfully old-fashioned selections. Our favorite was the creamy rice pudding, sprinkled with cinnamon and garnished with a cloud of whipped topping. The homemade treat has been on the menu since the restaurant opened and is Fanny's most popular dessert, Kollar says.
Daily dessert specials and cream pies are also homemade. We enjoyed a piece of Lemon Cream Cheese Delight (a special) during one of our visits. Light-textured and tart, with fluffy whipped cream cheese layered with zesty lemon filling in a butter-crumb-and-chopped-walnut crust, the dessert made a good finish to a heavy meal.
On another visit, we sampled the similar Lime Cream Cheese Pie, a delicate lime chiffon topped with a mixture of cream cheese and whipped topping in a flaky pastry crust. The tangy combination of sweetened cream cheese and sour lime was delicious.
Fanny's fruit pies are commercially made but baked in-house. The filling in a big wedge of cherry pie was scrumptious--thick, full of plump, juicy cherries, and with a real fruit flavor; the crust, however, was tough.
Our final dessert selection, a substantial slice of chocolate layer cake, was pleasant enough: moist, not too sweet, with a creamy chocolate frosting. We weren't surprised to learn it was Sara Lee. After all, that was Grandma's favorite, too.
Service on our first visit was pleasant if casual. On our second trip, though, the service was not nearly as good. Although our order was taken promptly and our food showed up in a trice, our bored-looking waitress never refilled our water glasses or coffee cups or bothered to remove a single dirty plate. By the time dessert arrived, there was literally no place to put it down. Rather than taking this as a sign that it was time to clear the table, our waitress just waggled our dessert plates beneath our noses while she waited for us to stack plates and make room. A few minutes later she returned, asked "Is that it?" slapped down our bill, and went home.
Grandma would never have tolerated such nonsense. But then again, at Fanny's, at least we didn't have to help wash the dishes.
Fanny's Restaurant. 353 East 156th Street, Cleveland. 216-531-1231. Monday-Saturday, 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Roasted Chicken With Dressing $6.95
Beef Goulash $7.50
Hamburger Steak $6.50
Fifties Burger $3.50
Roast Beef With Gravy $7.50
Grilled Pork Chops $7.95
Baked Scrod With Lemon Butter $7.95
Lime Cream Cheese Pie $2.25
Cherry Pie $2.25
Rice Pudding $2.25
Chocolate Cake $2.25
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