Nuts to You

The Black Squirrel is quirky, like a college pub should be.

The Black Squirrel menu appeals to both students and - seniors. - Walter  Novak
The Black Squirrel menu appeals to both students and seniors.

Wiry, aggressive, and adaptable, the frisky black squirrel has been Kent State University's unofficial mascot for more than 40 years. How the peripatetic rodents first showed up at KSU is the stuff of legend; one from our own era asserts that they were escapees from a psych lab, the product of cross-breeding experiments gone terribly awry.

But as much fun as it is to imagine interspecies hanky-panky between gray squirrels and rhesus monkeys (that's the version we heard), the truth is a good deal more prosaic. The critters were purposely brought to campus in 1961 by two local naturalists, who rounded them up on a trip to Ontario. They've been merrily reproducing ever since.

This natural history note may help explain the allure of the Black Squirrel Pub, a casual, clubby little restaurant that's technically just over the Kent border in Twin Lakes. As is its namesake, the place is a wee bit quirky -- in fact, just the sort of spot you might expect to find on the edge of a college town.

Chief among its charming eccentricities is the way the Squirrel resolutely eludes attempts at classification. The presence of a big bar, pool table, and menu items that include reasonably priced burgers, hot dogs, and wings paints it as a place designed to attract, if not rowdy undergrads, then at least graduate students, teaching assistants, and other blue-jean-wearing, backpack-toting, under-resourced academics. On the other hand, the comfortably appointed surroundings and the golf-themed decor (in fact, three courses are within a five-mile radius) seem designed to woo an older, slightly more upscale crowd -- diners more likely to sup on the menu's warm baked brie, say, instead of gnawing on wings, or to feast on well-marbled, 14-ounce strip steaks rather than making do with the four-ounce hot dog.

Manager Eric Sawyer says the split personality is purely intentional. When owner Denny Symes opened the pub nearly two years ago, in a rambling vintage building that has housed eateries since well before the arrival of the black squirrels, it was with an eye toward providing a casual dining spot that was more than a bar but less than a chichi bistro. The resulting duality is apparent not only in the wide-ranging menu offerings, but in the physical space, where beer-guzzling smokers are likely to feel as welcome as iced-tea-sipping parents and their squirming youngsters.

What with its being a pub and all, it's no surprise that the Squirrel's heart belongs to its big, rectangular bar, outfitted with sturdy stools and topped with highly polished oak. There's a decent martini menu; a lengthy listing of imported and domestic beers, by the bottle and on draft; and an approachable, reasonably priced menu of mostly West Coast wines.

To the right of the bar sit a "smoking permitted" dining area and a tiny poolroom; to the left, two cozy nonsmoking sections, decked out in perky plaid tablecloths and matching window treatments. Throughout, barn siding, knotty pine paneling, and exposed ceiling beams lend a rustic flair, while cushy seating, wall-to-wall carpeting, and recessed lighting make the place seem anything but primitive.

Perhaps the Squirrel's best architectural feature, though, is its secluded brick patio, filled with oversized umbrella tables and surrounded by soaring hardwoods, cascading trumpet vines, and glossy holly bushes. And here's a real scoop: Even on a perfect Saturday evening, following what seemed like a month of rain, we had no trouble scoring a prime piece of outdoor real estate -- something that can't be said for most of the region's better-known restaurant patios, where an alfresco-minded diner could starve to death before landing a seat beneath the trees.

But despite the pub's accommodating vibe, the kitchen has its share of ups and downs, and preparations often seemed to suffer from corner-cutting (for instance, an overreliance on the use of frozen products) or a simple lack of imagination (as in the case of an otherwise decent homemade chicken salad, in desperate need of seasonings).

Still, there were some winners. While starters tend toward the breaded and/or fried, several unexpected exceptions proved worth exploring. For one, freshly made deviled eggs are a Squirrel specialty; a single one garnishes the plate with most burgers and sandwiches, and true aficionados can order them by the dozen or the half-dozen. (Kitchen manager Rob Wolfe says customers go through hundreds of eggs each week. Our own little posse established early on that they go down especially well with frosty pints of Great Lakes' Dortmunder Gold and John Courage Scottish amber ale, both available on tap.) Warm baked brie -- stroked with honey, sprinkled with sliced, toasted almonds, and served with four thick, lightly browned baguette slices -- was another pleasant surprise. A big bunch of sweet, seedless red grapes and wedges of crisp-tart Granny Smith apple completed this tasty still life and put us in a cheerful frame of mind. A good thing, too, since many of the dishes that followed weren't nearly as interesting.

We had a hard time, for instance, mustering much enthusiasm for a cup of bland broccoli-cheddar soup, one evening's frozen and reconstituted soup du jour. While the cream base was pleasantly smooth and light, we weren't able to detect much in the way of cheese; instead, the strong, insistent rumble of overcooked broccoli was the predominant flavor note.

Likewise, "jumbo" chicken wings, available in mild, hot, barbecued, garlic, Parmesan, and teriyaki versions, delivered fewer thrills than we'd expected. Despite being plenty meaty and moist, they seemed entirely unseasoned, and the hot variety were merely fiery, bursting with the sharp bite of Tabasco, but lacking any real depth or nuance of flavor. A more satisfying nosh turned up in a basket of crisp, ungreasy, beer-battered onion rings, served with a simple housemade dipping sauce of sour cream, ketchup, and horseradish.

Among the sandwiches, a massive Onion 'n' Shroom Burger was first-rate: tender, juicy, with a hint of smokiness, and topped off with a slice of melted swiss and a heaping helping of sweetly caramelized onion and mushrooms. But the homemade chicken salad (served on a croissant) was dull and uninspired, and a few sliced almonds, a single bit of grape, and the merest suggestion of dill were not enough to shake this yawner back to life.

Beef dominates the list of main-course "pub favorites," with one chicken and two fish dishes thrown in for good measure. A thick 14-ounce strip steak was grilled to order and reasonably tender, although we wish the kitchen had zapped it with more salt and pepper. But the Oriental Chicken dinner was another exercise in tedium, with only a bit of thick, sticky, subtle-to-a-fault ginger-sesame sauce to liven up the thin, slightly dry filet of breast meat. The side dishes didn't exactly jump off the plate either: Frozen veggies were criminally overcooked; the insubstantial dinner roll was scarcely worth buttering; and already-run-of-the-mill dinner salads, composed of iceberg lettuce, a pinch of shredded cheddar, some red-onion rings, and croutons, suffered greatly from a tart, artificial-tasting bottled balsamic vinaigrette, masquerading as the "house" dressing. Only the slender fries (frozen, but not bad, although not freshly cut as the menu claimed) and the sweet, sturdy baked beans made us sit up and take notice.

The usual lineup of cheesecake, carrot cake, and crumb-topped apple pie, from an area food distributor, are what's for dessert. An enormous slab of tri-layered carrot cake, large enough to cut into three decent-sized slices for sharing, was fresh enough, but cloyingly sweet; next time, we may finish up, instead, with a flirtatious Pink Squirrel (crème d'amande, white crème de cacao, and cream), an obviously apropos choice from the martini menu.

Casual, friendly servers took our orders promptly and kept our water glasses full, even if they weren't exactly hung up on detail. On one visit, our waitress seemed intent on rescripting our meals, bringing ranch dressing when we'd ordered balsamic, baked potatoes when we'd ordered fries, and fries when we'd ordered pasta salad. On the next occasion, our waiter plopped our salads and rolls onto the table while we were still working on the starters, and couldn't tell us much about the beer list's John Courage, other than that it was red and "From Europe. I think."

In the face of so much mediocrity, though, the truly peculiar thing is how much we enjoyed our visits to this spot named after a bushy-tailed local icon, where deviled eggs are the house specialty and patio seats are easy to snag. Throw in a cold brewski and a two-fisted burger, and a meal at the Black Squirrel doesn't seem so nutty after all.