Lost to History 

Glenwillow Grille has a great backstory, and a handful of present-day problems.

They used to make dynamite at Glenwillow, but these days such bursts are rare. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • They used to make dynamite at Glenwillow, but these days such bursts are rare.
A piece of once-neglected Ohio history now rescued and lovingly restored, Glenwillow Grille is the kind of spot any right-minded restaurant-goer would love to fall in love with.

The romance has its roots in local lore. The restaurant, along with its attached tavern and coffeehouse, sits in Glenwillow Village, in the southeastern corner of Cuyahoga County, on land once owned by the Austin Powder Mining Company. The nation's largest manufacturer of explosives in the late 19th century, Austin moved to the largely uninhabited area from Cleveland in 1893 and built a manufacturing facility, as well as a town for its workers, complete with homes, a one-room schoolhouse, and a general store.

Prosperity ensued until the mid-20th century, when safety concerns forced the company to retreat to the remote climes of southern Ohio. In a scenario that's since become a Cleveland tradition, the abandoned town began a slow slide into oblivion.

But this tale of decline ends with a resurgence: Glenwillow leaders launched an ambitious renewal project in 1999, with plans to rehab what remained of the original company town and turn the old buildings into handsome shops, businesses, and homes. By 2005, the little village bustled with new life, including the circa-1890 general store, which had been transformed into the cozy Austin Powder Tavern, and its newly constructed addition, which became a small Arabica Coffeehouse and the expansive Glenwillow Grille.

If you can look past the nearby landfill and industrial park, Glenwillow's turnaround has been glorious. The renovations are delightful, and the location -- close to the affluent bedroom communities of Solon, Twinsburg, Hudson, and Chagrin Falls -- couldn't be more fortuitous.

It's equally obvious that Grille owners Scott Rafuse and Michael Salay sank some serious bucks into outfitting their airy new digs. The handsome rooms sparkle with burnished wood and white linens, a double-sided fireplace warms both floors of the split-level dining area, and candles flicker on tabletops, as banks of windows give way to walls painted in mouthwatering shades of pumpkin, teal, and spice.

So we have to wonder, in light of all this potential, why management chooses to squander our affections with off-putting service and uneven food.

It can't be for lack of experience. Rafuse operates several other local Arabicas, including one in Twinsburg. And Salay, formerly in research and development for the refrigerated-foods giant Sandridge, serves as executive chef. But for whatever reason, the Grille simply doesn't live up to its potential.

That said, at least Salay's lunch and dinner menus make good reads, with a mouthwatering variety of upscale crowd-pleasers, served in ample portions. At lunch, the dozen or so featured sandwiches and wraps are served with a choice of chewy-crisp homemade potato chips, a mound of fries, or a pleasantly sweet almond-vinaigrette cabbage slaw, decked out in toasted nuts and sunflower seeds. Dinner entrées, mostly under $23, include dishes like blackened grouper, tender Asiago-sauced chicken breast, and a succulent grilled-pork porterhouse chop, served with a choice of two sides. Toss in a shared app and dessert, and maybe a few glasses of wine from the small list, and a couple can figure on spending around $80, tax and tip not included. Or stick with the sandwiches, as many diners seem to do, and the cost will be much less.

By and large, preparations come close to the mark -- and when they don't, a little tweaking is often all that's needed. A juicy, well-seasoned portobello-mushroom sandwich, for instance, topped with grilled zucchini, yellow squash, red pepper, and melted provolone, was bursting with rich, rustic flavors; its thick, sturdy ciabatta bun, however, was just too much bread for the filling. Still, the sandwich earned higher marks than the ho-hum Black Angus cheeseburger: Sort of dry, mostly flavorless, and scarcely improved by a ragged lettuce leaf, a few rings of raw onion, and a tired-looking tomato slice -- it was a yawner.

Among the soups, thick lobster bisque hummed with the subtle nuances of sherry and cream; and while Tuscan bean soup proved unexpectedly peppery, thanks to lots of hot Italian sausage bits, we savored every spoonful. At dinner, though, a crab-cake starter, sided by two triangles of crisp-edged fried polenta and an understated lemon remoulade, was entirely mundane. While the menu called it a "lump" crab cake, the meat was in shreds after having been mixed with fillers and seasonings; it tasted good, in an Old Bay sort of way, but nothing about it seemed to justify its $12.50 price tag.

At dinner, the grilled-pork porterhouse chop with "caramelized apple chutney" caught our eye. When we asked, our young waitress said that the kitchen generally cooks the chop to medium-well; we requested ours "medium," and it arrived at the table moist, juicy, and almost fork-tender. Still, the fluorescent pink chutney on top gave us pause; while it wasn't overly sugary, the mélange of apples and -- of all things -- maraschino cherries would have looked more at home on a scoop of Häagen-Dazs than a slab of meat.

On the side, garlic mashed potatoes were thick, heavy, and aggressively garlicky; and a large portion of "roasted seasonal vegetables" mostly consisted of bland -- and definitely unseasonal -- zucchini and summer squash. A better bet was an à la carte order of asparagus: Though equally unseasonal, it had been attentively grilled to al dente perfection and was rich with savory, smoky notes.

A repeat performance of the almond-vinaigrette slaw was also a letdown: Although it had been perfect during the previous day's lunch, this night's rendition was coarsely chopped, sloppily plated, and so lightly dressed in the sheer vinaigrette as to be downright indecent.

But if preparations proved unpredictable, service seemed downright random. At lunch, our waitress was friendly but unpolished, serving our salad along with our soups, waiting too long to remove soiled plates, and presenting our check without offering coffee or dessert. (Sample desserts, incidentally, are brought from the Arabica display case on two trays; several of the representative items, including a brownie and a chocolate-pecan tart, had clearly passed their expiration dates and, shriveled and stale as they looked, didn't do much to tempt a sweet tooth anyway.)

Service slipped from unpolished to clueless during a Saturday-night visit. Yes, it was the weekend before Valentine's Day, and nearly every table was full. But that doesn't excuse our having to practically beg for the wine menu and enduring a 20-minute wait before our young waitress appeared. When she finally dropped by, her first action was not to apologize for the delay, but to slump across our tabletop and address us as "hon." It was another 20 minutes before she returned with so much as a breadbasket.

When it was finally time for dessert, a high-school-aged hostess brought the dessert trays and cheerfully admitted that she had no idea what was on them. And while the diminutive busboy -- could he have been even 12? -- did a nice job of pouring our coffee, his parting gesture (in the interest of delicacy, let's just say it had to do with an, uh, stuffy nose) left us feeling more than a little queasy.

To send the child out into the world without a Kleenex was deplorable. To squander our love so cavalierly? Now that's a sin.


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