Restaurateur Beth Christie and her staffers blow through John Christie's Tavern like a force of nature, greeting newcomers, fussing over regulars, and generally making visitors feel like members of one big, extended family.
Not that guests at this vintage East Side watering hole and restaurant seem to need much encouragement to mingle. A wildly diverse lot -- including, on a recent weeknight, four uniformed cops; three chain-smoking, scrubs-wearing nurses; one burly dude in thermal overalls and mud-caked work boots; and a slender, middle-aged blonde who might have just stepped out of the newest Talbots catalog -- they appear to devote a large portion of their dinner hour to table-hopping, gossiping, and passing around new babies. They congregate in knots in the narrow aisles. They erupt in laughter while gathered 'round the bar. And they motion to Christie to slide in beside them at the high-backed wooden booths, the better to bend her ear. In fact, the overall impression is so folksy and collegial that a colleague was moved to quip, "It's like being at a wedding reception where we're the only ones who don't know the bride and groom!"
In keeping with the casual, homey vibe, the tavern's dinner menu is short, sweet, and spiked with a handful of handmade ethnic favorites -- items like plump pierogi; garlicky cevapci sausages; and pierogi's downsized Lithuanian cousin, the portobello-stuffed kaldoonai -- that hearken back to this North Collinwood neighborhood's Eastern European roots. (The smaller-still lunch menu goes a little lighter on the ethnic options, sticking more closely to standard American pub fare, including mozzarella sticks, steamed mussels, meatloaf, and a half-pound burger.)
While dinner entrées rarely break the $10 mark, and a perfectly fine lunch can be snared for even less, Christie has managed to work a surprising number of niceties into the clean, tidy setting. A mountainous portion of savory, complexly spiced Cincinnati chili, for instance, arrives at the table aboard a handsome Fiesta-style plate, while freshly brewed coffee is poured into sturdy matching mugs. Stuffed-and-deep-fried olives are stacked up, just so, inside a sheer martini glass. And generous pours of Stella Artois, just one of a dozen beers on tap, are showcased in long-stemmed, gold-rimmed goblets. (The full bar also stocks a suitable selection of wine and spirits.)
Stadium cushions hang on the ends of each booth, waiting to soften the hard wooden seating beneath delicate rumps. Big-band music boogies in the background. Old game boards -- Scrabble, Risk, Chutes & Ladders -- have been painstakingly découpaged onto the gleaming tabletops. And beyond the bowling machine and beer signs, framed photos of Cleveland landmarks, including Euclid Beach, the Guardians of Transportation, and the Terminal Tower, cozy up to the richly paneled walls. No wonder, then, that at 6:30 on a Thursday evening, the nearest parking spot is nearly a block away.
Guests could do far worse than begin a midday visit as we did, with fragrant homemade soups, including a perfectly rendered chicken noodle (with lots of shredded white meat, sliced carrots, and stubby lengths of macaroni, in a mellow, not-too-salty broth), and a ham-and-bean version which, while light on the main attractions, was satisfying and flavorful nonetheless. As it happens, it was the homemade onion rings that stirred our souls this day, the thick ringlets of sweet-as-sugar onion wrapped in a light-and-crunchy crumb breading, well-seasoned with salt, pepper, and parsley. A side of creamy ranch dipping sauce added a final fillip of flavor.
A schnitzel sandwich -- a thin, breaded veal cutlet, topped with lettuce and tomato on a tender focaccia-style bun -- was disappointingly dry and zestless. But that Cincinnati chili -- generously ladled onto thick spaghetti, and topped with shredded cheddar and a dollop of sour cream -- was a robustly flavored delight, seasoned with a hint of cinnamon, a suggestion of cayenne, and just enough of a secret Trinidad hot sauce to give it a slowly simmering heat. Nearly as satisfying was a platter of three butter-drenched potato-and-cheese pierogi (handmade by Slavic Village Slovenians): Smothered in sweet sautéed onions, and sided with corn, sour cream, and warm, chunky applesauce, the dish insinuated itself into our childhood memory bank like a favorite blankie.
Among the kitchen's few frozen, commercially made products, dinner-time starters of mozzarella sticks proved run-of-the-mill, while those deep-fried olives, stuffed with a sassy blend of cheese and spicy salsa, delivered a pleasant punch. But the showstopper this time was the mound of meltingly tender, bite-sized pasta pockets (kaldoonai), filled with earthy, darkly aromatic chopped mushrooms, lightly stroked with balsamic vinegar, and sided with sour cream and more of that freshly made applesauce.
We followed them up with entrées of garlicky cevapci (coarsely ground Croatian sausage, made by a neighborhood butcher), topped with sautéed onions, and two thick, boneless pork loin chops -- well-trimmed, but significantly overcooked by gourmet standards. Good mashed potatoes, unremarkable brown gravy, and frozen but attentively prepared mixed veggies finished off the overflowing plates. (A simple tossed salad, gussied up with sliced cucumbers, grape tomatoes, black olives, and shredded mozzarella, with a choice of dressing, also accompanies all main courses, as do ho-hum slices of white bread and foil-wrapped packets of real butter.) Meantime, it seemed that Christie or another member of her staff was always nearby, ready to fill requests, top off water glasses, or simply pass on a friendly smile.
Sweet endings are rare enough in neighborhood taverns, let alone real homemade treats. But here again, John Christie's challenges expectations, this time with Beth Christie's own surprisingly lush version of bread pudding, packed with peaches and black raspberries, and so dense and firm that it nearly resembles shortcake. Add a thick sauce of black raspberries, Chambord, and sugar; a wisp of honey; and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, and this creation could easily stand up to some of downtown's upscale delicacies pegged at twice the price.
The sturdy, two-story brick structure that houses John Christie's was built in the early 1950s by one Fritz Hribar, who, with his family, operated a tavern in this location for almost 50 years. Christie says that when she and her husband, John, purchased the place from Hribar in 1998, would-be advisers cautioned her to narrow the scope of her vision.
"Do you want this to be a bar or a restaurant? Do you want young people or old?" they pressed her to decide.
"I finally just told them I wanted it all," she recalls with a laugh. "I wanted this to be a place for everyone." And after six years of work, that's exactly what she's got.
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