With its nonsmoking dining room and simple but upscale decor, the Chagrin Falls restaurant is just the spot for relaxed family dinners or casual Saturday night gatherings. Golden-yellow brick walls are punctuated with large picture windows, each framing a miniature Tiffany-style lamp. Black oilcloth-covered tabletops are set with small bread plates and cloth napkins in a riot of deep jewel shades; the same rich colors are echoed in the upholstery and the window treatments. And sleek black pendant lamps provide ample lighting, as well as a touch of contemporary style.
The restaurant's large menu of salads, sandwiches, pasta, steaks, chops, and hickory-smoked barbecue must assuredly contain something for everyone. Should the kids get cranky as they wait for their own little plates, they surely can be appeased with thick slices of sesame-seed-crusted Italian bread from the nearby Breadsmith bakery, smeared with freshly whipped honey butter. As for stressed-out parental units, they can seek their own solace in the restaurant's solid assortment of domestic and imported beers, both on tap and in bottles, and from the modest list of inexpensive wines. Staffers in the separate "smoking permitted" barroom (a notably civilized space, with a garden-like atmosphere and a handful of televisions operating at low volume) can also mix up a favorite cocktail.
While not everything that comes out of Stix's kitchen is perfect -- otherwise flavorful homemade soups arrived at the table scarcely more than lukewarm on two occasions, for instance, and a sorry side of broccoli had been cooked within an inch of its life -- much of the output is above average. A huge platter of delicate angel hair pasta, tossed with chunks of Roma tomato, fresh basil, spinach, roasted red pepper, and pitted kalamata olives in a creamy feta cheese sauce, was so good that the leftovers almost didn't make it home. And the morning-after battle for the remnants of an unusual nut-crusted chicken breast --fork-tender and brushed with a light honey-cream glaze, then paired with fluffy vegetable-rice pilaf and a pile of respectfully treated fresh green beans -- threatened to get downright ugly.
Stix also does good things with platters of hickory-smoked barbecued meats, including hearty, St. Louis-style pork ribs, the leaner baby-back pork ribs, mammoth Texas beef ribs, chicken, beef brisket, and our favorite, the boneless pulled pork drenched in a thick, sweet-and-peppery Kansas City-style sauce. All of the meats are dry-rubbed with a blend of chili powder, kosher salt, cumin, brown sugar, and black pepper before being smoked for up to 12 hours in a hickory-wood fire; when they come out, they are finished with a light glaze. As a result, the meat is firm, flavorful, and irresistibly aromatic. For diners who can't decide which one to try, the kitchen offers several large combination plates, like The Belt (ribs, chicken, and shredded beef brisket) and The Chuck Wagon (two Texas ribs, four baby-back ribs, and four St. Louis-style ribs). In each case, the platters come with a square of moist cornbread, sweet with an almost cake-like crumb; celery-seed-studded cole slaw in a light buttermilk dressing; and a choice of potato, including homemade twice-baked, better-than-average frozen french fries, or cottage-style sweet potato fries. Diners whose eyes are significantly bigger than their stomachs can also throw in an ample house salad -- mixed greens, tomato, shredded carrot, and crunchy homemade croutons, with one of several freshly made dressings on the side -- for an additional $2.
As for first courses, Stix's list of starters is long and varied, with everything from jumbo crab cakes and calamari to chicken wings and stuffed potato skins. Spicy Louisiana gumbo -- thick and hearty, with lots of shredded chicken and peppery smoked sausage -- had first-rate flavor, as did a bowl of New England clam chowder rife with clam, potato, and carrot chunks; unfortunately, neither soup was served hot. A half-order of homemade onion rings -- thinly sliced Spanish onion in a delicate breading of flour, paprika, chili powder, salt, and pepper -- was irresistibly crunchy and more than large enough for two diners to share; the rings were sided by a tongue-tingling homemade chili ketchup that added a zestful bite. On the other hand, a sophisticated-sounding mushroom strudel was a flop, with its damp, doughy crust, bland filling, and undistinguished demi-glace.
Also lacking character was a large New York strip steak, which proved dry-textured and mealy. The unfortunate steak was paired with a twice-baked potato, the aforementioned overwrought broccoli spears, and an alleged bordelaise sauce that tasted quite similar to the commercial demi-glace that accompanied the mushroom strudel.
Still, it was hard to get too testy, what with owner and genial host Nick Karakas moving from table to table like a favorite uncle, welcoming newcomers and chatting with the regulars. Servers, too, seemed to take their cues from Karakas, and proved to be a friendly and good-natured lot. Unfortunately, they could have been more attentive: We had to repeatedly request refills of our water and soft-drink glasses, and found ourselves waiting much too long to pay our bill at the end of the meal.
Stix's desserts are generally simple and unspectacular, with the signature crème brulée -- a large portion of light and creamy custard topped with a whisper-thin shell of crisp melted sugar -- being the best of the lot. A generous brownie sundae for two was pretty standard stuff, with a gummy brownie supporting scoops of average French vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, a bit of raspberry sauce, and whipped cream. Warm apple crisp, with a decent flour-and-butter-crumb topping, had oodles of julienned almonds mixed in among the cubes of Granny Smith apple; while we liked the surprise addition of the almonds well enough, they might not have been so kindly received by those with an allergy -- or a simple aversion -- to nuts. Perhaps the menu, or the servers, should begin to make mention of them.
Not that everything Mom put in front of us was universally popular, either. But that didn't keep us from showing up night after night for the warmth and companionship of the family table. Similarly, we wouldn't hesitate to stop by Stix again for ribs, for that nutty chicken, or for a comforting bowl of pasta. With its friendly atmosphere and modest prices, it's almost as good as a trip back home. Maybe better: Uncle Nick will never make you wash the dishes.