That, according to staffers at Bistro Joseph-Beth, is the problem in a nutshell. "People walk by, see the pastry, and figure it's just a little coffee shop," manager Kimberly Dawson says. "Business is finally picking up at lunch, but we still need to get the word out that we serve a full dinner menu too."
Short of grabbing a megaphone and trying to redirect the lines at the nearby Cheesecake Factory (an approach Dawson admits she has considered), the handsome 94-seat bistro will have to make a name for itself the old-fashioned way: by serving an interesting lineup of reliably good food at reasonable prices. Happily for gourmet bibliophiles (and bookish gourmets), Dawson and her chef-husband Joe Dawson seem to be mostly on the right page.
But first, let's put Joseph-Beth's bookstore-cum-bistro concept in context: Based in Cincinnati, the independent bookstore has seven locations across the Midwest and Southeast, six of which have full-service restaurants. (A seventh, in Charlotte, North Carolina, is due in the spring.) That foodservice is not merely a footnote to Joseph-Beth's mission statement seems obvious; fact is, the café division brings in about 10 percent of the company's $50 million annual revenue and employs approximately 40 percent of the organization's 500 staffers.
Of course, every novel notion needs a good hook. In this case, the twist is provided by tying each month's bistro menu to a featured cookbook, including tomes by such foodie faves as Rachel Ray and Wolfgang Puck. February's "Cookbook of the Month" is Steven Raichlen's Indoor Grilling, from which Dawson has incorporated seven recipes into his already large, eclectic menu. (Needless to say, the book is available for purchase.)
Unfortunately, the two specials we tried -- a chili-rubbed grilled shrimp "cocktail," with a corn and avocado salsa ($8.95), and Puerto Rican pork roast ($14.95), basted with annatto oil and topped with a sweetish tomato sauce -- turned out to be Dawson's weakest offerings, with generally muted flavors and, in the case of the pork roast, a case of criminal overcooking.
On the other hand, some real thrillers were found among the regular menu options, including a vibrant house salad, with an impressive variety of pristine greens topped with fat crumbs of blue cheese, plenty of dried cherries and cranberries, and a dusting of finely chopped walnuts; a mild cranberry vinaigrette on the side added just the right notes of sweet, salty, and tart. Even better, the ample salad was included in the price of our entrée.
An enormous N'Awlins-style muffuletta ($7.95), derived from the Gourmet Cookbook, also grabbed our imagination. Two giant wedges of tender herbed focaccia, topped with layers of provolone, salami, and ham, and finished with a thick swipe of massively robust green-olive tapenade, resulted in one irresistible sandwich. Sides of cool couscous piqued with bits of fruits and veggies (a Bistro signature), and an ample toss of lightly dressed greens came with; for another two bucks, we added a cup of Dawson's satiny cream of mushroom and spinach soup.
The bistro also offers a breakfast menu, kids' menu, and a small selection of moderately priced wines by the bottle or glass. There's a collection of eight domestic and imported beers, as well as specialty martinis and liqueur-spiked coffees that can perhaps be best appreciated with one of Dawson's warm, homemade cobblers, topped with vanilla ice cream ($4.95). Talk about a happy ending.
Bistro Joseph-Beth is open from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. Call 216-912-1975 for more information.
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