Restaurants, like multimillion-dollar bridges, have breaking points. Often it comes at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night, 30 minutes past the city's most coveted seating time. Hosts are strategically positioning arrivals; bartenders are hard at work crafting cocktails; servers are simultaneously reciting specials, taking orders and delivering food; and the kitchen is drowning beneath a sea of ticket tape. How a restaurant performs at precisely this moment speaks directly to its competence.
So it's no wonder that Rick's Café, a 33-year-old fixture on the Chagrin Falls circuit, passed the Saturday-night test with nary a hiccup. Despite an occupancy rate that would frighten a fire chief, execution on all fronts could not have been smoother. The fact that Rick's cycles through diners faster than Paris Hilton churns through boyfriends makes that performance all the more impressive.
A weekend dinner at Rick's is not wholly without discomfort, mind you. Reservations are not accepted for parties smaller than six, and lines are common. Once the precious few seats at the bar are snatched up, there is little to do but stand around and get jostled. Fortunately, uncomfortable dining room chairs all but guarantee speedy turnover.
After three-plus decades, a restaurant easily could coast on reputation alone; nostalgia and longevity have a funny way of buffing an otherwise dull impression. But owner Alec Singer appears to be working every bit as hard at pleasing his customers today as he did back in 1976 when he opened the joint.
Notwithstanding its zip code, Rick's is anything but fancy. In fact, I'd say it's more akin to an upscale diner than a downscale bistro. Burgers are by far the leading seller, followed closely by Rick's famous barbecue ribs. Apart from one or two items, nothing on the menu climbs north of $20. Most items are south of $12.
Billed on the menu as "gourmet," the burgers ($9.95) are half-pound beauties grilled over an open flame. Diners can select from nearly a dozen creative creations (cheddar, apple and walnuts, anyone?) or simply design their own. Hefty, juicy and nicely charred, the burgers give burgers a good name. (The buffalo burger, on the other hand - lean, dry and tough as it is - disgraces the burger name.) Included with each sandwich is a mound of wonderful fresh-cut, skin-on fries.
I can't tell you the last time I ordered a hot dog at a restaurant, but there was something irresistibly compelling about Rick's knife-and-fork black-bean chili dog ($9.95). Submerged in cumin-scented chili and melted jack cheese, the dog confirms that the "knife and fork" designation is more than mere suggestion - it is a necessity. The bonus of this dish is the cluster of chili- and cheese-soaked fries that share the plate. (Cheesy fries are available on their own as a side dish.)
Come to Rick's on a Tuesday night and you'll spot more ribs sailing through the kitchen doors than everything else combined. The restaurant's ever-popular rib night offers all-you-can-eat St. Louis-style ribs for $17. Meaty, yielding and sporting a great sauce, the ribs might not represent true barbecue, but they satisfy Clevelanders' desire for fall-off-the-bone tender. Equally adored are the baby back ribs and barbecue chicken. To sample the ribs without going whole hog, opt for the "taste of ribs" appetizer ($7.95). Other starters include delicious clam chowder ($6.40), a chunky New England-style brew with herbs, potatoes and the occasional clam. Grilled barbecue chicken wings ($6.95) are a welcome change of pace from the ubiquitous fried buffalo version. Less impressive, though, is the too-bready, too-cheesy, too-floppy focaccia pizza ($10.25), which lacks the promised basil aroma and roasted-tomato depth.
For those with lighter appetites, Rick's dishes out big, fresh salads like the straightforward chicken caesar ($9.95) or the monster Greek ($13.50). Nightly specials always include a fresh fish entrée.
Rick's will never snag a Wine Spectator award for its list, but what it does offer by the glass is of good quality. Same can be said for the beer selection. Desserts are simple and satisfying, like the warm chocolate brownie ($6.75) topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and hot fudge. If consistency is the lynchpin of every restaurant, Rick's has an ace up its sleeve. For 30 years, chef Sherrie Pallotta has managed the stoves, an improbable length of time in an industry notorious for turnover. Her sure hand in the kitchen ensures that diners rarely have a bad meal. Like its namesake bar from Casablanca, Rick's features live music on Saturday nights. But don't expect stuffy old piano ballads; these spirited R&B bands actually bring customers to their feet, transforming an already crowded restaurant into a mini-nightclub.
Rick's Cafe, 86 N. Main St., Chagrin Falls, 440.247.7666, rickscafeandcatering.com; Hours: Lunch: Mon.-Fri., 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; Sat., noon - 3 p.m. Dinner: Mon.- Thurs., 5 - 9 p.m.; Fri.- Sat., 5 - 10p.m.; Sun., 4:30 - 8:30 p.m.
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