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LEGENDS OF THE FALL 

Two veteran restaurateurs have grand plans for challenging locations

Clyde's Bistro & Barroom

1975 Lee Rd., Cleveland Hts.

ETA: Early November

"If a joint has failed over and over, why in the world would you come in and do the same thing?" asks Clyde Mart rhetorically. "Change it!"

Mart is a fixer. The feisty 79-year-old has made a nice living cleaning up other people's messes. He and his wife Maureen have spent a lifetime buying failed or failing restaurants and turning them around. Their track record is unassailable, including well-liked eateries like Cippi & Mo's, East Side Mo's and Vito's Italian Grill. Sadly, "Mo" passed away five months ago.

Now, Mart will attempt to do for the Lee Road diners what no previous operator could: run a viable restaurant. Ever since Steve Presser accomplished the titanic feat of opening a diner in a pair of relocated and restored cars, the site has been plagued with failure. Presser's own Dottie's Diner lasted just more than a year. That business was followed by Chris & Jimmy's, a Greek-style diner that limped along for two years. The nuttiest concept was Gali Gali, a kosher diner that couldn't operate on weekends. It lasted a little more than five months.

Mart says the previous concepts were doomed from the start. An ill-conceived layout resulted in two disconnected diners spaced too far apart. Plus, given the amount of money invested into the project, there was no way for operators to succeed selling low-priced diner fare. "Even if you're busy as hell, you'll never make any money," says Mart. "They never could have made it."

For the location finally to become a success, he asserts, requires "thinking outside the diner box."

To that end, Mart is investing $150,000 to overhaul the interior of both diners. When completed, the restaurant will have a completely different look while preserving the "diner feel." One car will serve as the barroom, featuring a low-slung bar, hardwood floors, new booths and flat-panel TVs. The other car is being reworked into an attractive dining room, with all new booths, carpet and drapery. What long had served as the oddly oversized entrance hall will be converted into a snug wine bar with soft seating and Oriental rugs. The new configuration will accommodate approximately 110 guests.

Running the business, which will be named Clyde's Bistro & Barroom, is Mart's daughter, Vivian Gatta. The longtime Cleveland Heights resident spent much of her life working in her dad's restaurants, and she knows why they have done well. "My parents cultivated a following of people who didn't necessarily want cutting-edge food," she says. "Our customers want to feel comfortable and get a good value."

The American tavern-style menu is loaded with familiar dishes, and most will be priced well south of $15. Appetizers might include sausage-stuffed peppers, wine-steamed mussels or a bacon-topped wedge salad. Entrées range from sautéed calves liver and onions to wine-braised short ribs. Clyde's will be open for lunch and dinner from Day One.

Understandably, Steve Presser has mixed feelings about the project. "I want them to succeed more than anybody," he says. "But anything that mars these architecturally incredible structures in any way is kind of upsetting."

Presser's former partner, Steve Harwin, is less gracious. The nationally known diner restorer did much of the work on the two cars, which were moved to the site from Berwick, Pennsylvania and Atlantic City, and he is less than pleased to see it undone. "I'd like to see a successful restaurant," says Harwin. "But not at the cost of sacrificing history. It's a complete tragedy that they would dilute and extinguish any of it. If you want to open a restaurant that isn't a diner, why buy a diner?"

Mart isn't having any of it.

"Better they should sit here empty?" he asks. "At least I'm preserving the most important elements of them. This place is going to be spectacular."

Zinc Bistro, Bar and Bakery

668 Euclid Ave.

ETA: Late December

One of the mostsuccessful restaurants in Manhattan is Balthazar, a bustling French brasserie that stays busy morning, noon and night. If chef Tom Quick has his way, Clevelanders will be enjoying a similarly styled enterprise by early next year.

Slated to open by year's end, Zinc Bistro, Bar and Bakery will borrow numerous design elements from that famed SoHo eatery. The 4,000-square-foot space will boast dramatic 17-foot ceilings, oversized burgundy-clad booths and mosaic tile floors. Other familiar touches will include etched mirrors, European-style beer taps and a zinc-topped bar complete with hard-boiled eggs.

"We're not trying to reinvent too much here," explains owner Quick. "There will be some slight design changes, but you'll know you're walking into a Manhattan French bistro."

The restaurant will be the crowning touch on Six-Six-Eight Euclid Avenue, a $65-million restoration of the former William Taylor Son & Co. department-store building. Undertaken by the K&D Group, the building is a mix of commercial and residential, with Wyse Advertising serving as anchor tenant.

Tom Quick may not be a household name, but he has earned a solid reputation in this town as an industry pro. He served for seven years as executive chef of the über-successful Piccolo Mondo, working alongside Michael Symon, Ali Barker and Gary Thomas. In 1999, Quick fled downtown for bucolic Concord, where he opened Epiq Bistro. "I chose to be the big fish in a small pond by introducing fine dining to the area," explains the chef, who closed Epiq late last year. "Now I'm chomping at the bit to come back downtown to be a big fish in the big pond."

To recharge his culinary batteries, the chef recently spent some time cooking in some of New York City's top kitchens. While there, he intended to sample as many restaurants as possible to flesh out the concept for his then-unnamed project. "I ended up spending most of my time at French bistros like Balthazar, Pastis and Rue 57," he says. "I'd sit at the bar eating oysters and drinking Muscadet. These places are lively, comfortable, affordable — just a whole lotta fun."

Quick knows that French food can sound intimidating, but he promises that his menu will appeal to a wide audience. A true raw bar — one built directly into the bar — will be studded with oysters, clams, crab and lobster. Guests can start their meals with onion soup, escargot or beef tartare. Main courses might include steak frites, braised lamb shanks, coq au vin and cod with mussels. Rotating plats du jour will give guests cause to return.

The beauty of Balthazar is its round-the-clock energy. Quick hopes to duplicate much of that activity by appealing to downtown residents and daily commuters. Free attached parking will lure those visiting town for theater, concerts and sporting events. Breakfast, lunch and brunch will be added down the road. And a market will offer prepared foods for time-strapped diners.

When that marketplace does open, it will serve as the first retail presence for desserts impresario Ron Seballos. "I've always wanted to do something retail, but I never had the opportunity," says Seballos, whose desserts are sold at restaurants all over town. "This gives me the chance to get some recognition instead of staying behind the scenes."

dining@clevescene.com

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