The seats just inside the front windows of the Chocolate Bar offer unobstructed views of East Fourth Street. From our vantage point on Euclid, my wife and I could see scores of diners enjoying alfresco meals outside the Greenhouse Tavern, Lola, and Chinato — and we so desperately wished to join them. Just minutes before, we had been two of those happy people, celebrating the warm air with cool cocktails and loud friends. Watching the party from afar left us feeling a bit like pariahs.
In this business, they say "A block away is a mile away," and though the Chocolate Bar is no more than 200 feet from Fourth Street, it seems completely divorced from the action.
But alcohol helps, and it arrived in the form of two shapely martinis ($9.95). Taking the bait dangled by our server — "My favorite martinis," he said, "are the chocolate and the coconut macaroon" — we held out little hope for drinks with bite. But contrary to our assumptions, the martinis proved to be both dark and stormy, tempering the sweet with welcome heat. Devouring both contents and straw (they're chocolate, natch), we mustered the strength to persevere.
For six years, this high-profile location in the Old Arcade had been home to a Chicago import: Vivo. Last fall, it was appropriated by an interloper from Buffalo. The first franchise of that popular five-year-old outfit, the Cleveland Chocolate Bar was opened by Joe Novak, a former construction company owner who was so impressed by what he saw that he cut short his retirement to open one of his own.
Chocolate Bar lands in that nether region between nightclub and restaurant. And while moderately successful as either, it truly excels at neither. It's a cute place to grab a cocktail with friends, but a lack of suitable bar munchies makes it a challenge to drink for long without falling over. In restaurant mode, the budget-friendly menu has some cherries, but you could just as easily end up with a lemon.
As expected, chocolate dominates the cocktail and dessert menus. But it also finds its way into numerous savory dishes, and the results aren't always so sweet. One of the most popular entrées, our server told us, is the Chocolate Bar pasta ($7.95). Indeed, the description on the menu sounded promising: fresh pasta, white chocolate cream sauce, and fresh basil. On the plate, however, those very ingredients conspired to create a thick, gloppy, cloying nest. It didn't help that the pasta was extremely overcooked.
Far more successful is the Mexican pork tenderloin ($11.95), which benefits from a lively spice rub containing cocoa and chile powders. This dish works precisely for the reasons the pasta doesn't — namely, the sweetness is faint and offset by heat. Sliced into thick coins, the moist, rosy pork is served with tasty but run-of-the-mill roasted spuds. A chocolate-slathered and toasted baguette ($8.95) proved surprisingly appealing, but why it was served with olive oil dipping sauce is beyond me.
We had much better luck at lunchtime, when we avoided chocolate-based items altogether. Salads tend to be big, fresh, and flavorful, and sandwiches well-built and toasted to order. The Buffalo chicken cobb ($8.95) is loaded with crisp bacon, blue cheese, red onion, and diced Buffalo-style chicken meat. Another salad pairs fresh berries with feta and candied pecans. There are a dozen sandwiches, many of them grilled and served warm. The Ski Country ($7.59) astutely melds honey ham, cheddar cheese, and thinly sliced apples, while the Bella ($7.79) treats vegetarians to a baguette stuffed with roasted 'shrooms, peppers, and goat cheese.
The space Chocolate Bar occupies is a knockout: a high-ceilinged affair with cosmopolitan flair. But the laminated menus, T-shirts and roses for sale, and the perpetual showing of Willy Wonka aren't doing the atmosphere any favors. We'd gladly belly-up to the bar for more of those kicky martinis, but the menu's appetizer section lacks appropriate snacks: Baked brie with chutney ($8.95) and spinach and artichoke dip ($8.49) seem better suited for a cocktail party than a cocktail bar.
Of course, if you enjoy pairing martinis with mousses, there are few better bars in which to do it. Equal in length to the food menu, Chocolate Bar's dessert menu is jam-packed with all manner of cakes, creams, crepes, and campfire faves. Diners who aren't yet plowed can toast their own marshmallows and assemble their own s'mores ($11.95). It might put you in the mind of the great outdoors, but it's not the outdoors of East Fourth Street.
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