Life is full of harsh realities: Guys don't read Playboy for the articles. Women don't walk into a shoe store "just to look around." And no one goes to Put-in-Bay to discover great eats. Well, no one, that is, except yours truly, who recently spent two days on South Bass Island in search of a decent casual meal. (The island has several white-tablecloth restaurants, too; those we are saving for our next trip.)
Not that there aren't plenty of nonculinary reasons to hop on the ferry and make the quick trip over to this little Lake Erie resort island. For history buffs, there's charming Victorian-era architecture, the soaring Perry's Monument, and the Lake Erie Islands Historical Society. For nature lovers, there's bird-watching, kayaking, and stony beaches. And for sports enthusiasts, there's bicycling, golfing, fishing, and sailing.
But who are we kidding? After the day-trippers head back to the mainland and the locals are tucked in their beds, the island's main moneymaking attraction -- partying -- slips into high gear. The Chamber of Commerce's glossy brochure may not promote it, and officials may not encourage it, but to a large extent, the engine that runs the little island's warm-weather economy is fueled by Buds, margaritas, and Mardi Gras beads.
It's not news, but the point is worth remembering when it comes to understanding much of the island's food scene. For one, it explains why most of the sit-down restaurants are shuttered by 9 p.m. For another, it makes sense of the constant parade of Northern Haserot and Sysco food-service delivery trucks plying the downtown streets. After all, as more than one eatery owner acknowledged, when it's 2 a.m. and your customers are smashed, treating them to gourmet fare is like pissing on a bonfire.
So the surprise is not that there's a paucity of great food on Put-in-Bay. Rather, it's that we found as much good grub as we did. In fact, from breakfast Bloody Marys to late-night meatball subs, several of the island's casual eateries impressed us with their offerings. Here, then, are some of the highlights.
(Please note: Most Put-in-Bay restaurants are open from April through September only. Hours may vary. With the exception of Heineman Winery, all listed restaurants are located in the small downtown, within walking distance of one another; in many cases, the businesses do not use specific street numbers.)
Delaware Avenue, 419-285-3278. Breakfast hours: 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. daily. Don't miss: blueberry pancakes, Bloody Marys
Residents, tourists, and survivors of the previous night's excesses come together beneath Frosty's high tin ceiling in search of a good morning's meal, and the paper menu-cum-placemat offers something for all, from eggs Benedict to blueberry pancakes and from sausage gravy to ripe cantaloupe. Service is speedy, staffers are friendly, and the coffee is strong and hot. While the watery eggs Benedict ($7.50) didn't impress us, cinnamon-swirl French toast ($4.95) and those fresh-blueberry pancakes ($6.75) made for a cheerful awakening. But what really puts the sizzle in the menu is the selection of "Breakfast Cocktails," including what the tavern claims is the best Bloody Mary ($5.50) in the state. After sampling one, we're inclined to concur: Startlingly ample, colder than ice, and garnished with a fat pickle spear, it has a sweet-and-peppery potency that's a one-two wallop to the taste buds, guaranteed to burn off even the densest early-morning fog.
Bay View Avenue, 419-285-3695. July hours: 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily. Don't miss: lobster bisque, perch basket
A rambling, multilevel series of interconnected decks, porches, and patios, The Boardwalk offers cool lake views and some of the hottest eats (and highest prices) on the island.
Service is entirely DIY, with would-be diners lining up, cafeteria style, to place an order at one of several counters, each one featuring a particular type of food -- burgers, Lake Erie perch and walleye, seafood, pizza, salads, and the like. A stroll over to the nearby bar can yield $3 Jell-O shots and a solid selection of domestic, imported, and micro-brewed beers on tap, in bottles, and by the pitcher. Then it's off to grab a seat at one of the sturdy wooden picnic tables overlooking the water and the nearby docks.
Unlikely as it may seem -- what with this being a come-as-you-are kind of place, in the middle of a Great Lake, and all -- lobster bisque ($5.95 for a modest portion) is a specialty of the house, and even eaten with a plastic spoon from a flimsy Styrofoam bowl, it's a winner: rich, creamy, and rife with substantial bites of lobster meat. The fresh Lake Erie perch basket ($17.95, for a half-dozen plump, moist battered-and-fried filets, served with coleslaw and a pile of frozen but good-tasting fries) was also exemplary. In fact, we checked out the perch at several other island eateries during our visit, and the Boardwalk's version was consistently the best.
Mossbacks Bar & Grille
Catawba and Bay View avenues, 419-285-8888. Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. daily. Don't miss: the Western burger, onion rings
When we polled members of a Put-in-Bay message board on the best burger in town, Mossbacks, inside a pretty circa-1877 building near the water, was the hands-down winner. After actually chowing down on several of the tavern's slim, well-dressed burgers, topped with everything from cracked peppercorns to guacamole, we won't suggest that they compare to some of the juicy, freshly ground, hand-formed numbers available in Our Home Town. Still, slapped on a pillowy kaiser roll and swaddled, for example, with cheddar cheese, barbecue sauce, and Canadian bacon (the Western burger, $10.95), they aren't half bad. The burgers come with a choice of finely diced coleslaw (good), battered fries (better), or sturdy, honest onion rings (best); add a well-drawn Black & Tan ($4.25), and you've got yourself a respectable meal.
978 Catawba Avenue, 419-285-2811. Wines available from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. Sunday. Don't miss: Concord and Catawba grape juices
Founded in 1888, this 50-acre vineyard and winery is the last remnant of what was once a thriving island industry, and with its cozy, wood-paneled tasting room and verdant backyard patio, it's a quaint, casual midday alternative to the island's bars and taverns.
While we don't recommend it, those who are curious about the old-fashioned wines once crafted from Ohio's native grapes can sample them here. A better bet, though, is Heineman's more-than-passable sweet Riesling and the award-winning ice wine; to assuage the afternoon munchies, add a generous, if mundane, cheese-and-cracker plate for $5.
Yet what draws us back to Heineman's is not the wine at all. Rather, it's the frosty grape juices -- white Catawba ($2.75/bottle or $.50/glass) and purple Concord ($2.50/bottle or $.50/glass) -- ripe with the distinctively refreshing bite of black pepper. It's a flavor characteristic that makes the juices surprising, compelling, and just a wee bit challenging; they're a great deal more interesting than anything you'll find on a supermarket shelf.
Z's Texas BBQ
Delaware Avenue, next to the Crescent Tavern, 419-285-4211. Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday and Saturday. Don't miss: barbecued brisket
Z's is one of several cafeteria-style outdoor grills (another is the nearby Chicken Patio, featuring pretty good wine-basted chicken), where customers stand in line to order and then grab a seat at one of a handful of umbrella-shaded picnic tables. (In case of rain, the Gazebo Grille, at the rear of the patio, provides shelter as well as cold brewskis.)
We've heard that the burgers are good here and the ribs are better, but we can testify that Z's saucy, smoky-sweet barbecued brisket really rocks, with its big pileup of succulent shredded beef drenched in a sharp, vinegary BBQ sauce. Order the dinner ($11.95), feed the ho-hum roll to the birdies, but slowly savor the chili-seasoned baked beans, the dill pickles, the sliced onion, and for contrast, the cool, creamy coleslaw. Cowboy hats and spurs are optional.
Put-in-Bay Brewing Company
441 Catawba Avenue, 419-285-HOPS. Hours: Full menu available from 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily; pizza only, 9 p.m. to 2 a.m. Don't miss: thin-crust pizza
The old brick walls of Put-in-Bay's former firehouse now enclose the island's only brewery, a comfortable, unpretentious place well worth checking out for both its small, rotating selection of housemade brews (a smooth, well-crafted wheat beer, as well as a nut-brown ale, were on tap during our recent visit) and its big, crisp-crusted pizzas, amply endowed with freshly prepped ingredients. (A large, eight-slice cheese pie checks in at $14; additional items are $1 each.) Late-night hours make the Brewing Company a popular stop for sleep-deprived party animals; speedy turnaround -- you'll generally be eating your 'za within 20 minutes of ordering it -- helps ensure that you don't stay up too late.
Delaware Avenue, next to the Edgewater Hotel, 419-285-2724. Hours: 4 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. Thursday through Saturday, 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday. Don't miss: meatball subs
At 2 a.m. on a balmy summer's night, the line outside Mike Artino's little walk-up sandwich stand can stretch to the end of the block. Not that hungry bar-crawlers have an abundance of alternatives at that hour. But the crowd is surely more of a tribute to the sheer magnificence of Mikey's Italian sausage ($5.95), meatball ($5.95), and chicken Parmesan sandwiches ($6.95) than it is to the massive appetites that arise from hoisting plastic cups of Bud for hours at a time.
Artino's fare may be simple, but it's crafted with an artist's pride: The Murray Hill native, former mainland restaurateur, and popular vendor at Little Italy's annual Feast of the Assumption (at least until his move to the island six years ago) simmers his luscious marinara for hours, stuffs his own sausage, and finely chops the garlic that infuses his sinfully indulgent, cheese-laden garlic bread. And as for the handmade meatballs -- light, delicate, yet full of beefy intensity -- well, they may be the best we've ever had, inside or out of a sandwich bun.
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