"Who names a restaurant that?"
"Mmm . . . rusty buckets. Doesn't that work up an appetite?"
Hardly. But other than taking a few potshots at the Rusty Bucket Corner Tavern's unappealing moniker, we don't have much bad to say about this pleasant little pit stop in Solon.
Open since May in a narrow shoebox of a space in the Uptown Solon Shopping Center, the Bucket is part of a small but growing Columbus-based chain that is a "sister organization" to mega-operator Cameron Mitchell Restaurants. Like most chains, the Bucket takes aim at the widest possible demographic. But unlike many of its competitors, it pretty much hits the mark.
For starters, consider the vibe. While the spot is ostensibly a sports bar, with the jerseys, team posters, and banks of tellies to prove it (at least a dozen, by our count -- including the ones in the restrooms), the decor is so tidy, the service so sincere, and the food so familiar, inexpensive, and generally well prepared that everyone -- grannies, grandkids, and TGIFers alike -- is bound to feel at ease.
Admittedly, a small outdoor patio, more or less stuck in the middle of a parking lot, is no beauty. But inside, the room feels lively and warm. A well-stocked bar, surrounded by a collection of booths, tables, and high tops, dominates the space. Lighting is dim, but well focused enough to see your food. And while the joint can get noisy, it comes across as "energetic" rather than "raucous."
No wonder, then, that at 7 p.m. on a sunny Thursday evening, the wait for a table was an impressive 15 minutes.
As for the menu, it's a long, well organized opus, featuring an all-day assortment of salads, sandwiches, burgers, pastas, and comfort-food mains like meatloaf and sautéed chicken breast. Got the small fry in tow? Let them choose from childish faves like chicken fingers, grilled cheese, or a mini burger, for only $3.95. Got a health nut in the mix? Point out the hummus, the roasted-chicken wrap, and the California turkey burger on a whole-wheat bun.
For those who cherish their three squares a day, it would be hard to beat the freshly made meatloaf, one of eight house specialties. A savory, thick-sliced blend of beef, pork, and veal, it was the very epitome of manly fare -- especially when washed down with a frosty brew from the long international beer list. (We counted 12 options on draft, including Hoegaarden, Bass, and Blue Moon, and about 58 by the bottle, including Pilsner Urquell, Sapporo, and Red Stripe.) The addition of homey accoutrements -- a fluffy cloud of mashed spuds, tender green beans interspersed with slim red-pepper spears (a bit overcooked, just like Mom made 'em), a slather of tangy, homemade barbecue "gravy," and a crunchy onion-ring topknot -- elevated it to classic.
Also a crowd-pleaser were the beer-battered fish 'n' chips -- three enormous lengths of moist, delicate cod, wrapped in a golden blanket of crunchy, grease-free goodness; on the side, crisp, creamy coleslaw achieved a pleasing balance of sweetness and cabbagey bite, and while the more-than-ample supply of fries may have been frozen, a sprinkling of seasoned salt gave them character. (Malt vinegar, ketchup, hot sauce, salt, and pepper are tabletop staples, standing by to plug any remaining flavor gaps.)
And what's a tavern without bar grub -- those salty, spicy noshes that play well with beer? Boring, that's what. So don't overlook items like the deep-fried pickle spears, all firm, snappy, and not too tart, in their lightweight, beer-battered jacket; the non-rusty bucket full of peppery peel-and-eat shrimp, poached in plenty of Old Bay seasoning; and even the wings, which, while on the puny side, hit the mark in terms of mouth-feel. (Choose the mild, vaguely sweet tamarind sauce for a flavor that will suit the whole family.)
Of course, those were the standouts. Our selections during a weekday lunch visit -- the Rusty Bucket Burger (we shudder even as we type), the signature Reuben, and the meal-size Double Double-Nickel Salad -- were more mundane.
Take that vaguely dry, slightly bland burger. Settled on a bouncy poppyseed-sprinkled bun, whatever flavor it had seemed to come not from the beef, but from the add-ons: American cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, pickle relish, and a creamy Dijon mustard sauce. And while the Reuben had the requisite sauerkraut, Swiss, and plenty of lean, tender corned beef, the meat was sliced too thick for optimal texture.
As for the entrée-size salad -- mainly composed of finely chopped lettuce, tomato, red onion, and bacon bits -- it was simply dull: too little blue cheese, too little grilled chicken, and a dressing (allegedly sweet poppyseed) so sleepy we could practically hear it snore -- at least until poured on the ranch dip from our deep-fried pickle spears. That seemed to wake it up.
But when it came to sweet endings, it was out of the land of Nod and back to the land of "Wow," with a gourmet-worthy rendition of blueberry-vanilla-cream bread pudding -- a quivering portion of custardy sweetness, settled beneath a crisp streusel topping and garnished with warm, plump, macerated berries. In fact, it was so good that the pouf of whipped cream on the side and the accompanying pitcher of warm maple syrup seemed entirely superfluous.
"Nope, nothin' wrong with this place at all -- other than its name," a sated companion said as he polished off the last bite. "Do you think they'd consider 'The Polished Pail?'"
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