Say you've got 17 pairs of blue jeans in your closet. To the casual observer, they may all look alike, but you know better. One is a paint-speckled pair of Levi's, one is button-fly (reserved for the days you order dessert), another is that style with ankle zippers -- the kind that was a hot seller circa 1989. The devil's in the details, as you know: One pair may be suitable for a wine bar, another you wouldn't even wear to change a flat tire.
At the risk of stretching the metaphor, it would appear that the same can be said about the humble neighborhood tavern. They seem identical to each other: a little too gloomy, a little too smoky, and featuring a predictable array of bar grub. But beneath the surface, each of these utilitarian eateries has a style and personality all its own.
And so it goes with the American Tavern & Eatery, David and Linda Pickel's little watering hole in a former roadhouse in a dusty corner of Solon. Neither particularly fetching nor intimidating, the pub has everything you'd expect: a bar topped with wood-grained Formica, a clientele of broad-beamed guys in camouflage and muddy work boots, an ancient bowling machine and handful of video games for the middle school set, a jukebox ranging from Sade to the Supremes, and a few rickety tables to accommodate those looking for more than a pint of lager.
The ceilings are low, the red-and-white-checkered oilcloth table coverings mottled with the odd cigarette burn, and the carpet could stand a more frequent rendezvous with Mr. Hoover. Yet the table settings include a candle and a small vase of fresh mums, and the woodsy aromas wafting out of David Pickel's kitchen are a cut above average.
The all-day menu of wings, chili, burgers, chicken tenders, and hot dogs is by the numbers and gives little reason to suspect that the proprietor is a graduate of the prestigious Culinary Institute of America. But for professional chef David Pickel, who has operated the tavern with his wife these past 14 years, preparing good, affordable food for the everyman is more satisfying than serving halibut cheeks and sweetbreads to the pampered few. Therefore, while you cannot expect to find pine nuts and sun-dried cherries in your simple dinner salad, you will be treated to freshly made croutons and a brisk housemade vinaigrette. And if truffled mashed potatoes will never make a showing here, you can sate your cravings with crunchy-crusted homefries prepared with melted onions and butter.
These tasteful lagniappes are all the more remarkable when you consider Pickel's sweet prices. For a mere $12.95, you'll be served up a decent-sized, well-trimmed slab of strip steak, slathered with coarsely chopped garlic and cracked black peppercorns, accompanied by grilled onions or mushrooms, salad, a choice of potatoes, and a roll. Or for less than nine dollars, try the savory Santa Fe Chicken, a plump boneless breast lightly brushed with sweet-and-tangy barbecue sauce and topped with melted Swiss cheese, chopped tomato, and sliced green onion.
Still too dear? Then consider an All-American Burger, made with freshly ground beef and served, if you wish, with limp grilled onions that, in Tremont, might be labeled "confit" and priced to match. But here, none of the nine variations on the burger theme, including bacon cheeseburgers, nacho burgers, and Cajun burgers, will set you back more than a paltry $4.50. No, at these prices the burgers aren't half-pounders. But do you really need to stuff your face, when these juicy babies provide such big, beefy flavor and bracing campfire aromas? It's hardly surprising, then, that at dinnertime the tables are packed with young families and working stiffs looking for a bargain, as well as with handsomely groomed older couples, in their matching Norm Thompson sweaters, who've decided to cut corners somewhere.
As appetizers go, the homemade soups and chili, by the cup or bowl, are simple and hearty. One day's cheddar-potato soup was satiny and light, and pleasantly devoid of oily richness; another day's bowl of Midwestern-style red chili, with tender chunks of ground beef, kidney beans, coarsely chopped tomato, and cumin a-plenty, had an almost-soupy consistency, but was bright and tangy. (Next time, though, we will order it with the works -- cheddar, sour cream, scallions, and tortilla chips -- in hopes of making it thick enough to keep on the spoon.)
Other traditional bar noshes, good with a chilled mug of Bass ale, include deep-fried onion rings in a coarse, crunchy breading; sweet, tender fried clam strips; and the Ultimate Nachos: tortilla chips lightly dabbed with more of that homemade chili, along with shredded cheddar, sour cream, black olives, and jalapeño slices, served with a peppery, onion-piqued salsa.
Beyond the selection of more than two dozen mostly bottled brews, the bar also offers several thoughtfully chosen wines, like Bogle Merlot, at $17 a bottle/$4.50 by the glass, or Ravenswood's Vintner's Blend Zinfandel, at $20 per bottle. The Ravenswood (a personal favorite) is a reliable workhorse red and proved to go as well with Pickel's spicy barbecued ribs as it did with lush filet mignon -- a Saturday-night special served with a sweet-tart, translucent port-wine and shiitake mushroom sauce. (Apparently, even a humble tavern cook needs to shake his culinary groove thang now and then.)
If good vino is a rarity in the typical barroom, a satisfying dessert is even more difficult to find. But here, again, Pickel makes the small things count, with seasonal treats like pumpkin cheesecake, steamy-hot apple brown betty, and warm, fudgy brownies topped with Pierre's vanilla ice cream, all as delightfully gooey as anything found at tony downtown restaurants.
So go ahead. Pull your favorite pair of jeans out of the closet, pair them with a casual T-shirt, and head over to the American Tavern. To the uneducated eye, this could be any neighborhood haunt in the country. But those paying attention know the real scoop: The details make all the difference.