Like typewriters and telephone booths, the small-town diner now exists mostly in memory as the spot where retired geezers gathered to discuss crop reports, and moms in housedresses sneaked in for iced teas before the wee ones came home from school.
These days, of course, the "geezers" are still running the rat race, and jeans-clad moms spend their days locked inside their Hummers. Maybe that's why small-town diners are disappearing faster than flapjacks at a pancake breakfast — which, come to think of it, have pretty much disappeared too.
Yet if The Grill @ Bainbridge Commons proves anything, it's that there's still room for these unpretentious eateries on the homogenized suburban landscape. Whether it's as a midday time-out for a burger, a stop for an after-work dinner, or a Sunday-morning chance to share eggs, bacon, and etiquette instruction with the small fry, The Grill seems to fill a niche that goes mostly unmet these days.
It does this with a surprising sense of style, combining classic diner icons — paper napkins, Formica-topped tables, and friendly, informal service — with up-to-date twists. Tasty shades of tomato, pumpkin, and saffron brighten up the walls; artful glass-shaded lamps illuminate the tables; and khaki-colored swags drape the windows. The upshot is what could be called "a modern American diner," where familiar foods, low prices, and a family-friendly setting get a dusting of contemporary spice.
That's what owners Marc and Leigh Jacobson had in mind when they launched the 60-seat eatery in June. "Where good food and community meet," reads the tagline on their menu, and it's a philosophy that informs everything from their choice of locally sourced ingredients — including Ohio City Pasta, Western Reserve Breads, Grateful Ed's buckwheat pancake mix, and Lake Erie Creamery goat cheese — to their monthly donation to a worthy community cause.
The "updated diner" theme also shows up on the grill's expansive breakfast, lunch, and dinner menus, where the Jacobsons have assembled a long, eclectic lineup that runs from such old-fashioned staples as omelets, BLTs, and fried chicken to modern upgrades like chicken roulade, sautéed scallops, and ratatouille pasta, a toss of tomato-basil pappardelle and freshly grilled veggies.
Soups are made from scratch, locally raised beef is freshly ground, and turkeys are roasted in-house. Most of the desserts come from the hands of chef Todd Mueller, a Johnson & Wales grad who joined the grill team straight off a two-year gig as pastry chef at Tremont's Fahrenheit. (The exception is the ultra-sleek Toft's Dairy ice cream from Sandusky, which comes in flavors like Wedding Cake, Tons of Turtle, and Bear Foot Brownie.)
While Marc Jacobson will cop to being an adept cook (his résumé includes a stint as food and beverage director at Yellowstone National Park), he counts on Mueller to "elevate and execute" the menus; Mueller, in turn, dishes up what he likes to call "creative comfort food" for the growing cadre of neighborhood regulars.
Take those giant sauerkraut balls. A blend of hot Italian sausage, kraut, cream cheese, cheddar, and a touch of cayenne, these big boys are a far cry from the bland, bite-size balls you find in the frozen-foods case. While not as rich as some, the homemade mac 'n' cheese is tasty, with its pairing of creste di galli (cockscomb-shaped pasta) and cheddar and Monterey Jack cheeses. And don't overlook the mashed Yukon Gold potatoes: Luxurious, dense, and dotted with cheddar cheese and bacon, they are the very epitome of "creative comfort."
The combination of long operating hours, big menus, and a small kitchen can mean that execution sometimes suffers. Maybe that explains slip-ups like the doughy, underseasoned breading on an otherwise tasty fried chicken or the fact that several of those oversize sauerkraut balls arrived at the table still cold.
No raves, either, for a weeknight entrée — a special that paired a small portion of timidly seasoned strip steak with an equally dull and somewhat overcooked piece of farm-raised salmon.
At breakfast, the lineup includes eggs, omelets, Belgian waffles, pancakes, French toast, granola, and oatmeal. Provided at no extra charge, Geauga County maple syrup adds a touch of homey luxe to the breakfast breads, including thick-sliced French toast, griddled to golden glory. (Half-portions, incidentally, are available for both children and childlike appetites.) And while our resident corned-beef hash-head found the turkey version neither salty enough nor greasy enough for his tastes, no one had any complaints about the Baby Boomer omelet, generously stuffed with sautéed mushrooms and mounds of melty cheddar. On the side, well-seasoned home fries and dense slices of rye-bread toast made the $6.25 price tag seem a bargain. And hefty mugs of robust java from Crooked River Coffee Company were just the thing for washing it all down.
We generally don't care to predict the future, but on this point we feel certain: Once today's geezers finally retire, they're going to love this place.