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Venerable John Q's is a beefy throwback to downtown's salad days.

Nostalgia, ambiance, and entres like the black pepper - strip steak make John Q's a perennial draw. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Nostalgia, ambiance, and entres like the black pepper strip steak make John Q's a perennial draw.

Not much is left of Old Downtown's elegance, style, and spirit. And what remains can be glimpsed only in circumscribed spaces -- inside the gilt and glass of the renovated Arcade, beneath the ornate ceilings in the lobby of the Terminal Tower. But Higbee's, the May Company, and other grand stores of their ilk are history now, and stylish restaurants like Mill's, the Minotaur Room, and even the Kon Tiki serve up nothing more than memories and legends.

While new spots like Vivo and Pickwick & Frolic may be harbingers of better days to come, it's still hard to suppress a longing for Public Square's glory days. Indeed, that's part of what makes a visit to John Q's Steakhouse such a treat: the sense of Old Cleveland that has collected in its corners, like fallout from a steel mill. Although a little bit worn and a trifle shabby, there's still a broad-shouldered virility about the labyrinthine space, expressed in its dark woodwork, brass railings, and sturdy chairs, that brings to mind the '50s. That manliness cozies up comfortably against the movie-starlet glamour of private, velvet-curtained booths, fanciful lighting, and frosted glass. Factor in the pervasive sense of gracious, old-fashioned hospitality, and it's entirely unsurprising to learn that the site, on the northwest corner of Public Square, has been a restaurant for nearly half a century. Wisely, present proprietors Rick Cassara and Jim Kuczynski have continued to nurture the spot's historic ambiance since purchasing it from Stouffer's in 1992; and today, John Q's still possesses the kind of cigar-smoking, martini-sipping, big-city atmosphere often associated with Chicago's famous steakhouses.

This authentic urbanity -- along with the menu of steaks, chops, and seafood -- helps make John Q's an essential destination for downtown dining. During lunch hour, for instance, the rooms buzz with white-collar types, eager to chow down on thick burgers or the restaurant's popular crab cakes. In the evening, or before downtown sporting events, there are families, couples, and groups of friends, digging into thick porterhouses, velvety filets, and pan-fried walleye. With its proximity to the downtown hotels, John Q's also gets its share of out-of-towners; and if these visitors can't expect to be blown away by our nightlife, at least they will leave town knowing that Clevelanders can grill up a mean slab of beef.

John Q's menu obviously revolves around its identity as a steakhouse and not on the whims of any particular chef, but the kitchen doesn't use that as an excuse to cut many corners; while the food isn't exotic or novel, neither is it banal or haphazardly prepared. Steaks and burgers are prime, choice Certified Angus Beef. Lunchtime sandwiches come with warm potato chips (or, if you will, "John Q-Chips"), fresh from the fryer; at dinner, baked potatoes are the real item, with crisp skins and soft, fluffy innards. A generous house salad of romaine is tossed with sassy, classic Caesar dressing, bursting with bright notes of lemon and anchovy. "Fresh" vegetables are really fresh, not frozen, and the offerings boldly go beyond the ubiquitous, undercooked broccoli. And although colossal beer-battered onion rings, ordered with one night's dinner, were terrifically greasy, a starter of housemade French onion soup was a dark and mellow brew, dense with caramelized onion and dripping with melted Emmental cheese.

Under the direction of chefs Curtis Parker and Clyde Rembert, sauces (such as the zesty, sweet-tart dipping sauce that accompanied the onion rings) and desserts (such as the wickedly gooey Tollhouse Pie) are made on the premises. And even items that aren't made in-house are still thoughtfully selected: Warm, crusty ciabatta bread comes from Cleveland's Orlando Baking Company, and Maker's Mark, a historic Kentucky distillery, produces the stand-up-and-shout "gourmet" steak sauce, made with smooth, small-batch bourbon.

On a lunch visit, we found bare wooden tables set with white cloth napkins and ketchup bottles, and the priority was clearly on speed over elegance -- an approach that clock-watching workers are sure to appreciate. Wine lists weren't routinely offered, butter and cream came in individual plastic packets, and our peripatetic server, crisply dressed in white shirt and tie, promptly delivered our check without bothering to inquire about our interest in dessert or coffee. (He cheerfully accommodated us, though, once he realized we weren't in a hurry.)

As for the food, an unadorned eight-ounce John Q Burger, requested medium-well, had to be sent back to the kitchen for more grill time; it returned, mere minutes later, still juicy, moist, and done as ordered. An open-faced steak-and-portobello sandwich, capped with a thick layer of melted provolone, tasted great, although a lower bread-to-filling ratio would have been appreciated. A blend of Old Bay, dry mustard, Worcestershire sauce, and parsley lent both flavor and fragrance to a large, golden crab cake, served with a zippy roasted-red-pepper sauce. And the heaping helping of vegetable du jour was a happy surprise: well-buttered Brussels sprouts that left our veggie-lover swooning in stunned delight.

At night, however, the fast-paced workday atmosphere mellows out: White cloths and oil lamps appear on the tabletops, and the ketchup is replaced with that whiskey-spiked steak sauce. Butter plates and cream pitchers are released from their midday captivity, and golden pools of ambient lighting make everyone look slightly mysterious. This is steak-and-chop time, and the frisky aroma of grilling beef permeates the air. The porterhouse and the pork chops sounded like good bets to us -- at least until our server arrived with a wooden plank displaying the evening's cuts. Then, at an imposing 28 ounces, the porterhouse seemed like overkill; and in the face of all that well-marbled beef, the pork chops looked puny and pale. Accordingly, we revised our strategy, going instead for the juicy 16-ounce New York strip, brushed with cognac-mustard sauce, dotted with cracked peppercorns, and attentively pan-fried; and a show-stopping 18-ounce bone-in rib steak -- unspeakably lush, embarrassingly flavorful, and tender enough to practically disintegrate beneath a stern glance.

As befits a steakhouse, John Q's wine menu is skewed toward the reds and drawn mostly from an outstanding collection of West Coast wineries. By-the-glass prices range from $5.75 to $8, and bottles start at $22 and go up to $200 -- for a 1998 Opus One. (There's also an impressive list of spirits, including several top-shelf tequilas and single-malt scotches.) But a diner needn't start peeling off the big bucks to score an agreeable wine: at $28 per bottle (or $7.25 a glass), the jammy, fruit-forward Hess Select Cabernet Sauvignon proved well-structured, remarkably smooth, and priced within most downtown-dining budgets.

After dinner, take time to peruse the collection of mainly sports memorabilia that lines the front hallway. There's Bernie Kosar's autographed jersey, a signed photo of a young Lou "the Toe" Groza, and an old Sports Illustrated cover, with Cleveland native Bob Hope outfitted in a Tribe uniform. Other notable artifacts include a 1948 Indians World Series pennant and an ancient-looking Chief Wahoo bobblehead, as well as enough signed balls and bats to outfit a hot-stove league.

But the most interesting item (at least from a dining devotee's point of view) is the chef-autographed menu from a mid-1990s fund-raising dinner -- a piece of ephemera that, after less than a decade, already reads like a blast from the past. There's Donna Chriszt (from her time at Pig Heaven and Marlin), Michael Tsonton (when he was chef at the former Tutto a Posto), Matt Gambatese (when he was still at Classics), and Ali Barker (best known locally for his trendy Piperade). Those restaurants, now all gone, were part of what food fans like to call "the Cleveland restaurant renaissance," and while plenty of new, even better dining rooms have taken their place, the menu reminds us that even the most celebrated spots can come and go with head-spinning speed. Against that backdrop, the venerable John Q's is a public treasure indeed.

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