Style Points 

Flo Café has the vibe down -- just wait till the food catches up.

Flo's wall of oversized windows makes the - Warehouse District part of the decor. - WALTER  NOVAK
  • Walter Novak
  • Flo's wall of oversized windows makes the Warehouse District part of the decor.
When it comes to trendy eateries, long-term success can hinge on capturing just the right ratio of substance to style. Looking good is important, as is attracting the right crowd. But to keep that crowd coming back, the food and service need to be flashy too.

These are the deep thoughts we entertain as we sit at the Warehouse District's Flo Café, perched in a windowside seat well above the sidewalk, taking in the weekend's usual soft parade of limos, horse-drawn carriages, and woozy bachelorettes toting inflatable men with remarkably erect endowments.

It's summer again in the city's most happenin' 'hood, a time when style necessarily trumps substance. The young and restless are here in their seasonal quests for love, sex, and mechanical bull rides; kitchen flair doesn't figure in this equation.

But long nights of clubbing and canoodling can work up a whopper of an appetite -- not to mention an urgent need to sop up the booze with high-carb grub. That's when Flo pours on the charm, with its amalgam of retrofitted style, sassy ambiance, and an enticing menu of modern comfort foods.

Owner Gordon Dinerman (whose name may well have sealed his fate) launched the neo-'50s Flo in March, with long hours and a big lineup of mostly casual fare -- soups, salads, sandwiches, and homestyle classics like meatloaf, turkey, and mac and cheese, as well as a monthly "coast-to-coast" menu of regional items that so far has visited New England, Memphis, Miami, and the American southwest -- thereby positioning his nouveau diner as an all-day alternative to the district's pricey steak-and-seafood houses, as well as its less than elegant burrito, panini, and beer joints.

While the bilevel, glass-enclosed surroundings are casually chic, with white linens, heavy flatware, and plush seating, prices are generally moderate. Giant burgers and behemoth sandwiches check in at $6 to $8, while lunchtime entrées are pegged at around $10 and dinner prices peak at $20, which will get you a 14-ounce strip steak, served with a bacon-potato cake and a bouquet of fresh veggies.

Massive, silvery booths seem to float along the side of the window-lined, upper-level dining room, their wedge-shaped backs stretching into the distance like a line of sailboats on Lake Erie. Meantime, on the lower, lounge level -- where, incidentally, three unisex restroom stalls reside behind one-way-mirrored doors, for a bit of what might best be called "potty humor" -- a curvaceous stainless-steel and blue-vinyl bar is the domain of equally pert and shiny bartenders, who specialize in shaking up a long list of girlish "martinis" with names like Strawberry Shortcake, Cola Float, Creamsicle, and Banana Split, as well as overseeing a small list of inexpensive grocery-store wines like Ecco Domani Pinot Grigio, Ravenswood Zin, and Toasted Head Chardonnay.

When we dawdle over the unpriced martini menu, our Saturday-night server slides into a seat beside us to offer recommendations; we take her up on a Key Lime Martini ($9), like limeade for grown-ups, served in a graham-cracker-crumb-rimmed glass; and a classic Bombay Sapphire 'tini (also $9), garnished with blue-cheese-stuffed olives. Both prove to be honest, bracing libations -- and, in the case of the Key Lime, much less cloying than it could have been.

At around 8:30, our fellow diners include mostly smartly garbed couples and gaggles of twentysomethings, all apparently fueling up before hitting the streets. In a small niche high above the dining room, a DJ spins tunes; while we can barely catch the beat at 9, an hour later the music is so loud that we can hardly carry on a conversation. That's no problem for the Stoli girls, who are busy setting up shop near the hostess stand; when we leave at a few minutes after 10, we depart with not only lots of leftovers, but also a Stoli Razberi sun visor and a promotional chug.

At lunchtime, though, Flo caters to a cadre of white-collar types, their suit jackets flung over the seat backs and their teeth sinking into those oversized sandwiches. We join in by ordering a sleek torpedo of a Philly cheesesteak; unfortunately, we immediately discover that good looks only go so far, and that shavings of lean rib-eye and a scattering of sautéed mushrooms and onion lose their sizzle when smothered in the embrace of a giant, bready bun. A New Orleans-style muffuletta, too, proves to be more bread than filling; and while the thick layer of finely chopped olive salad (the signature touch that distinguishes a muffuletta from any other hoagie) adds pizzazz aplenty, kitchen staffers have apparently forgotten to strip off the plastic rind from the mortadella slices -- and while the ham (Italian capicolla) doesn't taste unwholesome, it is a disturbing shade of brown, not the ruddy mahogany prized by our forefathers.

Still, we find some solace in the ohmygawd-good side of Flo fries, a combo of Idahos, sweet potatoes, and leeks, finished with crystals of sparkling kosher salt. Both homemade potato salad and black-sesame-seed studded coleslaw are fab too, with a panoply of pure, clean flavors. We're less amused by an amply sized house salad, though. While the mix of greens tastes astringently fresh, the pool of watered-down strawberry vinaigrette at the bottom of the bowl confirms what we already suspect: The salad was assembled while the greens were soaking wet.

By Saturday night, though, the kitchen seems more or less back on its game. Topped with strands of julienned carrot and cucumber, with a mild ranch dressing on the side, our salad's greens are cool, crisp, and properly dry. A turkey "TV dinner" is modestly apportioned, but the tender breast meat is real, not sliced from a roll, and the mashed spuds taste nearly as good as Mom's. A generous serving of broccoli florets -- the night's Chef's Veggies -- seems to shimmer with sweet freshness and has been carefully done to a welcome al dente. And after having sloughed our way through innumerable portions of flaccid macaroni and cheese over the past few years, we are almost giddy to discover that the elbows in a bountiful portion of Flo's creamy, crumb-topped mac and cheese also offer some pleasant resistance to the tooth.

We begin our dinner with a trio of appetizers, including skinny deep-fried onion rings swathed in a light, crunchy breading and, from the menu's special southwestern addendum, a pair of chipotle-tweaked pulled-pork tostadas, finished with refried beans, cheddar and jack cheeses, and a garnish of chopped lettuce and tomato. On the side, a creamy avocado-ranch sauce offers a gentle counterpoint to the pepper's slow, smoky burn and makes this snappy little starter a fave.

The third app, though -- finely shredded pork and melted Havarti, wrapped inside tortillas and fried to a shattering frangibility -- rates only a shrug: We can taste none of the promised curry seasoning, and the too-smooth, paté-like texture of the filling consistently makes us think of -- oh Lord, no! -- gooseliver.

Still high on chipotles, we select adobe beef enchiladas as an entrée; but while the ground-beef filling is lean and tender, and the brick-red adobe sauce is all satin and silk, someone in the kitchen has gone nuts with the salt. Water would be a swell idea at this juncture; unfortunately, our tumblers are empty, and our formerly helpful server has long since vanished.

For dessert, Flo's offerings strike the same comfort-food chords as the rest of the menu, with homemade cobblers, apple pie, and ice cream sundaes. Make-your-own s'mores prove to be an entertaining option, at least until the flame on our little ceramic hibachi sputters out; by that point, though, our party of two has adequately revisited its Girl Scout camp/graham cracker/ Hershey's chocolate/marshmallow memories and is ready to move on. On the other hand, it takes three of us to do justice to a towering brownie sundae, composed of thick, fudgy brownies, vanilla and chocolate ice cream, and oodles of whipped cream, piled into a wading-pool-sized goblet. Too bad the stale after-dinner coffee that accompanies it is so bitter that it nearly merits chewing.

Later, waiting for the valet to recover our chariot, we add it up. Flo's concept? Clever as all get-out. The attitude? Abundantly hip. The food? Often, but not always, on the mark. Service? Friendly, but inattentive.

In terms of style, Flo Café has it down pat. As for substance, there's still work to be done.

More by Elaine T. Cicora


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