Church bells chime, ice crystals sparkle, and the hard-packed snow squeaks beneath our boots as we hurry toward Heck's Café. On this venerable tree-lined street, the circa-1860 building's worn red brick seems to ooze historic essences, right along with the scent of bacon and eggs. So pausing at the threshold to recall Heck's saga seems only fitting.
The truth is, it's been a fairly bumpy ride, dating back to the late 1960s, when the cozy café became one of the first Cleveland eateries to spotlight giant "gourmet" hamburgers. They proved so popular that founder John Saile was able to launch additional locations in Woodmere and Rocky River. Eventually, though, other local eateries shouldered their way into Heck's niche, and Saile shuttered his outposts and sold off the original. Since then, a series of owners has followed, some conscientious and others not so much. And don't forget the 1998 fire, which shut the place down for most of the year, and the brief closure in July 2000, reportedly due to staffing shortages.
Despite the inevitable ups and downs, generations of Northeast Ohioans have continued to view Heck's as the regional burger king. Some also swear by its Sunday brunch, best enjoyed in the airy garden room with mugs of signature cinnamon-scented coffee; still others merely dig the large lunch and dinner menus, with offerings that extend far beyond burgers to salads, steaks, seafood, and pastas.
As for us, we just wanted to see what current owner Fadi Daoud and his crew were up to. A longtime Heck's devotee, Daoud took the helm in November 2005, with a vow to spruce up the space, focus on quality, and bring back some old faves. And so far, he seems pretty much on target. Most of the food -- sauces, dressings, and the ever-popular Maryland crab cakes -- is made from scratch. Ingredients, including freshly ground sirloin, are of good quality. Portion sizes are impressive. And with nothing on the menu topping $20, prices are fair. (The dozen or so half-pound burgers, with a mountain of freshly cut fries on the side, check in at less than $10.)
But now, settled near the garden room's winding iron staircase, the question is simply "What's for brunch?" Choices range from the indulgent (whipped-cream-topped waffles) to the virtuous (a fresh fruit salad, scented with rose water), along with the usual lineup of omelets, fried eggs, burgers, and wraps. Finally, the two of us settle on three choices -- eggs Benedict, stuffed french toast, and an ABC omelet. If our friendly server finds our appetites excessive, he's polite enough not to let on.
Of the trio, the champ turns out to be the fat, fluffy omelet, overflowing with the namesake sautéed apples, bacon, and cheddar cheese. Sided by deep-fried potatoes and caramelized onion bits, slim slices of fresh orange and cantaloupe, and a buttery slab of grilled French bread, it's both good and plenty. Second place goes to the cinnamon-scented French toast, each double-thick wedge stuffed with cream cheese and orange marmalade, a plastic tub of pancake syrup on the side. The flavor is fine; we just wish the soggy Italian bread had snagged a little more griddle time. (Later, during a dinner visit, we'd have the same complaint about the meaty Maryland crab cakes: The taste is delightful, but the limp texture is a turnoff. A little crispness around the edges would have made a world of difference.)
In the third spot: eggs Benedict. Allegedly invented at Delmonico's in New York during the 1920s, the classic brunch staple is a stackup of toasted English muffins, Canadian bacon, poached eggs, and a spoonful of light, lemony hollandaise sauce. Heck's construction follows specs, but the execution falters: While the poached eggs are perfect, the homemade hollandaise lacks the assertive rush of lemon, and the untoasted muffins are simply boring.
When we return for a weeknight dinner, it's with burgers on the brain, and the accoutrements seem nearly endless. Swiss, Havarti, or blue cheese? Crushed peppercorns, Cajun spices, or teriyaki sauce? Mushrooms, onions, peppers, or pineapple?
Daoud has recently reintroduced the herb-enhanced Ohio City Burger and the mushroomy Basque Burger. But we settle on the Rocky River, a thick sirloin patty cooked, as ordered, to a still-juicy medium and loaded up with grilled mushrooms, bacon, melted Swiss, and a dollop of sour cream. A two-fisted beast, the burger is a good'un. Still, in this era of Kobe burgers, CAB burgers, and foie-gras-topped burgers, we can't honestly call it the best in town.
We also try the Boursin Chicken, an entrée recently added to the lineup. While the plating is a little sloppy, the mélange of mashed potatoes, sautéed chicken breast, sun-dried tomato, meaty portobello slices, and melted Boursin cheese proves itself a savory palate-pleaser. And the big, crisp salad that comes with -- garnished with walnut bits, blue cheese crumbs, and dried cherries, in a light, fruity housemade apricot vinaigrette -- makes the meal a good value too.
Afterward, we order a giant slab of mousse-filled torte, made by a local wholesale bakery; predictably, it's sugary, ho-hum stuff. Better is the Hot Thin Mint ($6.50) after-dinner martini, like mint-flavored cocoa with a whipped-cream flounce. We've gotten better buzzes off rum balls, but what the drink lacks in firepower, it makes up for in sweet, comforting warmth.
As it heads into its fourth decade, the same could be said of Heck's.