While no one would mistake the 180-seat J. Alexander's for a cozy neighborhood hideout, the corporate gurus of the Nashville-based business get high marks for infusing the restaurant (one of 22 nationwide) with style and sophistication. Plenty of polished wood, brick, and natural stone give the place a warm, lodge-like feel; white cloth napkins, black-garbed servers, and candlelight add class. And while the restaurant can get noisy on busy evenings, broad aisles, high-backed booths, and a circular floor plan foster a sense of intimacy. As for the food, the kitchen takes surprisingly few shortcuts, turning out savory, slow-roasted prime rib; dainty, freshly baked croissants; and exceptionally tender breaded calamari, as well as crisp salads, inventive side dishes, and good homemade desserts. And somehow, this all happens at moderate prices, with nary a gimmick or a gift shop in sight.
It's worth a drive into Avon to sample Theresa Bryant's award-winning Barbecue Chicken Pizza, a mouthwatering combo of breaded chicken bits, bacon, mozzarella, provolone, pineapple, and zesty homemade BBQ sauce, all piled onto a sturdy crust. Bryant won third place and $200 for the original-recipe gourmet pizza at the Mid-America's Pizza Pizzazz contest in February, topping 42 other contestants from six Midwestern states. It's no surprise: With its scrumptious balance of the sweet and the savory, not to mention its satisfying crunch, the pizza is nearly irresistible.
Normally we don't rely on drinking holes for our feng shui, but there's a soothing symmetry to the 5 O'Clock. To the right as one enters, swiveling stools surround a half-moon bar; to the left, semicircular booths encourage cozy gatherings of friends. It feels just right, like a Michael Graves clock. Lakewood suffers from no shortage of bars, but this is one of the few hip ones, where working-class beer drinkers and snug-slacked cocktailers alike can quench a thirst.
Unfortunately, the Lava Lounge dropped the veal meatball sandwiches when it revamped its menu a few months ago. Still, you'd be hard-pressed to find a better late-night meal in town. With appetizers like fresh guacamole and chips, oysters, hummus, and Brie, the Lava Lounge offers elegant dining at affordable prices. The sandwiches, pasta, and omelets are just as delicious. The kitchen is open until 2 a.m., and with DJs spinning down-tempo tunes six nights a week, the atmosphere ain't bad either.
When your server sets down a platter of Cooker's barbecued ribs, you'll swear you hear choirs of angels singing. The smoky-sweet-clovey aroma puts you into a trance even before your first bite. Slow-cooked for six hours, these slabs of pork baby-back ribs are meaty and tender, without a bit of fat. Before you know it, there's nothing left but a pile of gray bones. Just loosen your belt a notch and order another slab.
Tiny little Chubby's serves up exemplary slabs of St. Louis-style ribs and big corned beef sandwiches that could expand anybody's waistband. But what we usually pig out on are the giant pulled-pork sandwiches -- towering temples of tastiness, slathered in a sweet-and-tangy homemade barbecue sauce and stacked up on firm, fresh kaiser rolls. Side those suckers with a bowl of creamy homemade cole slaw and a platter of fresh-out-of-the-fryer potato chips, and that's what we call hog heaven.
Much of the Coventry vibe can be attributed to the granola eaters who once were the sole demographic of places like Tommy's. Nowadays, "hummus" and "falafel" snuggle next to "pizza bagel" and "Croissan'wich" in our culinary lexicon. And that's thanks to places like Tommy's, the Northeast Ohio health-food pioneers who've been doing wacky things with garbanzo beans longer than we've known what garbanzo beans are.
As long as we can get sweet lassi and iced masala tea with our exceptional tandoori breads, meats, and seafood, we don't care that this top-notch Indian restaurant doesn't have a liquor license. It's enough for us that the spice mixes are freshly blended, the paneer is homemade, and the warm paratha practically melts on the tongue. Besides, all of this is served in a spacious, attractive room under the watchful eyes of friendly servers. So what's there to "wine" about?
Don't go to this quirky Puerto Rican restaurant expecting to be coddled. The large bilingual menu is hard to decipher, the servers seem bored, and your meal's pacing may be idiosyncratic, to say the least. But these little eccentricities -- along with the tasty traditional fare, based on Grandma Lozada's family recipes -- are exactly what make Lozada's such an endearing spot. Homey "don't miss" items include the delicate burritos and tacos, garlic-drenched shrimp, and savory roasted pork -- all well-prepared, full-flavored, and inexpensive. Toss in the possibility that you may spot the occasional Major League ballplayer here, and the adventure is complete.
There are more than a few reasons -- fine service, impeccable foods, and the peerless ministrations of chef-owner Paul Minnillo among them -- to choose this stately inn as the best restaurant in town, period. But, jeez, it's pricey. When Veuve Cliquot goes for $17.50 per flute, and even a glass of milk will set you back $3.50, your occasion had best be damn special before you pull up a chair and unfurl your napkin here. Unless, of course, you can con someone else into buying. In that case, bring on the Beluga caviar and the Chapoutier Châteauneuf du Pape. If the tab reaches $300 for two, what the heck do you care? It's only (someone else's) money!
A gold-and-cobalt swirl of elegance and sensuality, Blue Point's aristocratic dining room makes a fitting setting for its fine and flavorful seafood. Whether we feast upon the namesake Blue Point oysters, the velvety seafood chowder, the ephemeral Nags Head grouper, or the buttery yellowfin tuna, we inevitably end our meals feeling pampered and indulged. Not that we'd expect anything less from a place with the motto "Voro Ostrifer Amor Diutius." Eat oysters; make love.