Rural routes 3 and 303 intersect in a sleepy little corner of Medina County. Blink once, and you're likely to miss it. So be warned: If you're looking for Fosters Tavern of Hinckley, you'd better stay sharp.
The crossroads watering hole is the kind of place you can pass by a dozen times without noticing. No neon signs announce its presence, and almost nothing about its nondescript facade distinguishes it from any other rustic beer joint in the country. In fact, the first clue that Fosters might be about anything more than grilled bologna sandwiches and Bud doesn't really surface until after you've pulled up a chair to one of the barroom's high-tops and had a chance to survey your fellow patrons. To be sure, there's the requisite crowd of broad-beamed, middle-aged guys in ball caps and work shirts, hunkered down around the U-shaped bar, their trash talk rumbling around inside a haze of cigarette smoke. But there are families, too, grabbing a post-soccer-game dinner; white-collar types who've left their ties and suit coats crumpled in the backs of their SUVs; and youthful hipsters, pouring wine and comparing tasting notes.
As for the musical entertainment, "eclectic" doesn't begin to describe the weird mix of tunes spilling forth from the jukebox, with artists ranging from Ricky Martin to early Dylan, from the Beatles to Phantom of the Opera. It's been a while since we've eaten to the beat of the Allman Brothers and CCR, so maybe it's nostalgia talking, or possibly the ozone. But on a stormy Thursday evening, with lightning ripping all around us, the essence of true happiness seemed to dwell inside a thick Kobe beef burger, a pint of Dortmunder Gold, and a toe-tapping tune from John Fogerty, all served up within the tavern's sheltering walls.
The fact that those walls nearly sag beneath the weight of wine racks merely adds to Fosters' oddball charm -- and helps make a meal here seem a lot like dining in the middle of a beverage store. Turns out, chef-owner Don Iacofano has both a discriminating palate and an eye for a bargain; as a result, his large international wine collection -- more than 150 different labels, housed in wall racks, peeking out of cardboard boxes, and crowded onto countertops -- is built around good but inexpensive wines from relatively low-profile producers. ("I can sell you a $140 bottle of wine," he's fond of saying, "but you tell me: How is that 20 times better than a $7 bottle?") Even sweeter, he sells his wine at retail minimum, adding only a $2 corking fee for bottles consumed on the premises.
In the absence of a written wine list, both Iacofano and his staffers are quick with recommendations; patrons also have the option of simply cruising the racks, looking for a label -- or a price tag -- that attracts them. On a Saturday-night visit, for instance, a 2001 Cabernet Sauvignon from California's Delicato Vineyards caught our eye. We didn't have a clue about the quality of the wine, but at a measly $6.99 (plus corking fee), we were willing to take a chance. As it happens, our trivial risk paid off: Smooth and mellow, if not especially big, the Cab was an aromatic cutie, just right for casual quaffing.
Beer options are at least as interesting as the wines. Although the draft picks are fairly limited -- Miller, Miller Lite, Guinness, Bass, and Dortmunder Gold, among them -- two upright coolers hold nearly 200 imported witbiers, stouts, lagers, and ales by the bottle, including such cult favorites as Chimay, Curim, Red Stripe, Boddington's, Old Growler, St. Peter's, and Pilsner Urquell. Walk right up, grab a fave, and take it back to the table, while a server fetches a glass.
If the assortment of potables is extensive, so too is the range of grub coming out of Iacofano's kitchen. At least by tavern standards, the neatly typed daily menus ("created for the patrons of Fosters so they don't have to read Don's handwriting," according to the note on the back) are large and far-reaching, beginning with made-from-scratch pizzas and massive half- and full-pound Black Angus burgers, and ending with items such as crab-stuffed chicken breasts, veal chops, and American Kobe beef steaks. At a whopping $18.95 for a one-pound burger, topped with Swiss, bacon, mushrooms, and onions, or $7.95 for that grilled bologna sandwich, with pickles and fresh, hand-cut fries, the prices aren't exactly dirt cheap. But portions are generous, flavor quotients are high, and preparation is consistently solid.
In fact, at $24.95, a 10-ounce Kobe sirloin steak -- shockingly juicy, faultlessly trimmed, and relentlessly beefy -- seemed quite reasonably priced, what with the blanket of buttery sautéed mushrooms and onions, the expansive underlay of crisp-edge home fries, the surprisingly fresh-tasting corn on the cob, and the cheese-topped salad served with a simple, well-balanced vinaigrette. ("It may not be the best steak dinner I ever had," said a companion, "but it's the best steak dinner I ever had in a bar.") And who would dare complain about a towering boneless chicken breast, stuffed with shredded crabmeat, lushly draped with wilted greens, and served on a bed of both wild and white rice, in a brisk emollient of lemon and olive oil, for $16.95?
In the face of the tavern's freewheeling style, it was no shock to learn that Iacofano's culinary training came in the kitchen of Johnny's Room 24, that quirky, almost-mythic fine-dining steakhouse in the rear of a shuttered-up Willoughby motel, operated for many years by his father, John Iacofano. (Don's sister, Jeannette, has continued to run the restaurant since their father's death in 2001.) But even when he isn't composing steakhouse-style foods, Iacofano demonstrates a steady hand. Homemade Italian wedding soup, for instance, its pepper-piqued broth jam-packed with pliant escarole, rice-shaped pasta, and fennel-spiked ground-sausage meatballs (a happy variation on the more usual veal or beef), was rich and hearty stuff. Big breaded-and-pan-fried filets of Lake Erie perch, served with fries, sweet-tart cole slaw, and green beans (canned, but not criminally overcooked), tasted fresh and mild. And if we initially thought it was pure insanity to top a patty of savory ground Kobe -- so tender that our teeth slid through it like a hot spoon through a scoop of Chunky Monkey -- with mayo, sliced tomato, sweet onion, lettuce, pickle, and two thick slices of melted mozzarella, and tuck it into an oversized bun, we must admit that the result was a burger of tantalizing flavor and appeal.
Fosters' kitchen also puts together some first-rate pizzas, made with freshly prepped sauces, doughs, and toppings. Beyond the usual mushroom-and-pepperoni-topped versions, there are eight jazzy little "gourmet" numbers, with combos like spicy capocollo and feta cheese; smoked chicken and roasted red peppers; and "lasagna" pizza, with layers of ricotta, mozzarella, provolone, romano, and fresh Italian sausage. After some debate, we settled on a sweet-savory compilation of garlic-drenched chicken, cheddar cheese, bacon, and succulent pineapple, underpinned by a creamy white sauce and piled onto a soft, medium-thick crust. Just greasy and salty enough to qualify as bona fide bar food, this little pie was so irresistible that the homebound leftovers never saw the inside of a refrigerator.
When Iacofano first opened his tavern, he named the spot in honor of his Golden Retriever, Foster. Now, 13 years later, the canine Foster has padded off to doggy heaven, and a new pup -- Woodie -- has taken her place. In keeping with tradition, Iacofano recently honored Woodie by naming his new carryout pizza operation on her behalf. "I can't let her come to the tavern, though," he says sadly during a phone conversation, as the Woodster yaps insistently in the background. "She's so friendly, she'd be sitting in the customers' laps."
In this bastion of the offbeat, who would even notice?