Centuries before Willoughby's natural landscape disappeared beneath a tattered gray blanket of car lots, drive-thrus, and video stores, the high bluffs overlooking the Chagrin River were home to a tribe of Erie Indians. A more or less peaceful lot, the Eries prospered here, right up until the day they were abruptly dispatched by the Iroquois, their warmongering neighbors to the east; karma being what it is, the Iroquois themselves were shoved aside, in turn, by a wave of French trappers and traders, who set up shop on the riverbanks in the mid-1700s.
David Abbott was the area's first permanent white settler, putting down roots in 1798, but he wasn't alone for long. A steady stream of farmers and merchants followed, until by the close of the 19th century, the little village had a bustling downtown, filled with handsome brick edifices.
Among the dry goods store, the bank, and the saloon were the offices and car repair depot for the Cleveland, Painesville & Eastern Railway -- commonly known as the "interurban." From about the 1890s to the 1930s, these small electric railways provided fast, efficient transportation for rural residents throughout the country, and Ohio boasted the largest interurban system in the nation.
Alas, the automobile brought an end to the interurban era; and the CP&E made its final run in 1926. But the sturdy brick buildings that once housed its property remain, situated just behind the antique stores, coffee shops, and yes, saloons that now occupy downtown's venerable storefronts. And in 1998, one of them -- the former repair depot -- became the Willoughby Brewing Company, a good-looking restaurant and brewery.
When you're lurching from stoplight to stoplight on heavily trafficked Route 20, local history seems distant and unimportant. But not so inside the brewpub, where the red brick walls and soaring ceilings preserve whispers of the past. Even when the food has failed to impress or the service has seemed sluggish, the sheer warmth of the place often made us look forward to our next visit; factor in the good handcrafted beer, and no wonder the restaurant/brewery has become a favored destination for eastern suburbanites.
After two recent visits, however, it's good to see that the food has caught up to the ambiance. (The service, however, can still be a headache; more about that later.) From Buffalo Chicken Egg Rolls to Macadamia-Crusted Halibut, Executive Chef Eric Beers's creations are generally imaginative and deftly prepared, resulting in dishes that are interesting, boldly flavored, and many cuts above your usual pub grub.
Take those oddball egg rolls, for example: Strange as they sound, this clever hybrid of two tired tavern standards turned out to be an almost perfect beer companion. The signature dish starts with three delicate spring roll wrappers, filled with finely diced chicken, pepperoni, zucchini, and provolone, then deep-fried to a tantalizing crispness. Next they were split lengthwise and prettily plated on a bed of lettuce and watercress, punctuated by droplets of sweet-hot Thai chile sauce, and served with a tub of tongue-tingling Looziana hot sauce, topped with crumbled blue cheese. Sharp, vaguely sweet, sort of salty, and wonderfully crunchy (and admittedly a bit greasier than they should have been), these crafty little constructions left us smacking our lips in appreciation.
And it wasn't just the starters (nearly a dozen dishes, ranging from potato-and-cheddar pierogi to Chardonnay mussels and seared ahi tuna) that made a good impression. Lush rib-eye steak, grilled as ordered to a smoky medium rare and topped with cremini mushrooms and balsamic-marinated cippolini onions, evoked happy memories of summer cookouts. A sturdy bacon cheeseburger, built from Black Angus beef, applewood-smoked bacon, and sharp cheddar, practically exploded with juiciness. And a thin-crusted pizza, slicked with bittersweet, stout-based barbecue sauce and topped with grilled chicken, caramelized onion, bell pepper, and cheddar and asadero cheeses, lit up every taste bud on our tongue; while the crust, made in-house with the brewery's spent grains, was on the limp side, its chewiness ultimately paired well with the zesty toppings and gave each bite the pleasing texture of a good wrap sandwich.
Broad filets of walleye, pan-fried in a light egg batter spiked with lemon pepper and basil pesto, also made for good eating -- especially when stroked with horseradish-mustard sauce and tucked into a toasted bun. Even the usually bland, glamourless grilled "garden" burger was done to a turn: Thick, remarkably moist, and topped with sautéed mushrooms and sharp white cheddar, the tasty little impostor could have almost passed for real beef.
Sandwiches, priced in the $7 to $9 range, include a side of Old Bay-seasoned, beer-battered fries (frozen but good -- crisp and golden outside, soft and fluffy within) or freshly made pasta salad -- a generous portion of rotini and diced raw vegetables in a creamy ranch dressing. And entrées, priced between $13 and $22, are full-meal deals. The rib-eye, for instance, was sided with plump, oven-roasted Yukon Gold potatoes and so-so spears of jumbo asparagus. A tender 14-ounce pork chop, finished with a pat of gorgonzola-walnut butter, was accompanied by a buttery puff of white-cheddar mashed potatoes. And that macadamia-and-panko-crusted halibut (pan-fried to pearly perfection) looked as artful as it tasted, arranged with emerald-green baby bok choy, golden mango beurre blanc, and a tidy cylinder of nutty basmati rice, capped with toasted black and tan sesame seeds. (Salads or the veggie du jour can be added to the meal for a small surcharge; on the other hand, dense slices of fresh-baked bread are available free of charge, but are served only upon request.)
Given the kitchen's generally sure-handed work, a bowl of cheddar, potato, and ale soup was surprisingly bland; a vigorous tableside application of salt and pepper was required to bring this yawner back to life. New England clam chowder was similarly underseasoned, although plenty of plump clams were its redemption. And while we enjoyed the tart pickled vegetables, pitted kalamata olives, and thick slabs of cheese on the Brewer's Platter, the grilled sausages -- kielbasa, andouille, and a spicy Italian -- were greasier and more gristly than we expected.
To drink, head brewer William J. Bryson produces more than half a dozen styles of beer, including a mild, golden wheat beer, a hoppy pale ale, and a dark English brown ale; each brew is described in detail on the menu, and servers (if you find one) are happy to expand upon the text. And vinophiles might want to try the fragrant Railway Razz, a well-balanced blend of roasted wheat, Belgian specialty malts, and red and black raspberries that produce a brew with a surprisingly jammy nose and lots of upfront fruitiness.
Late on a Saturday afternoon, when the nonsmoking dining room held only a handful of families with youngsters, and the separate smoking-permitted bar (stylishly appointed with a pool table, cigar lounge, ATM, and breathalyzer) had an equally smallish crowd, service was fine: friendly, attentive, and briskly paced. However, on a busy Thursday evening, we waited 30 minutes for our first round of brewskis to arrive, 40 minutes for the apps, and nearly an hour before our entrées made it to the table. Water refills were scarce; worse, opportunities to order more beer were even scarcer.
But our server wriggled back into our good graces when she brought our shared dessert: a massive portion of cranberry-studded bread pudding -- rich as custard and almost vaporously light -- that she had neatly divided into separate bowls for us in the kitchen.
History is a good reason to get out and about, we mumbled, as we worked our way through the imposing sweetie. But good food and drink? That's better still.