Time shifts the moment we cross the threshold. On a humid July evening, heat crouches in every corner, waiting for the ceiling fans to send it scurrying across the worn linoleum floor, where it plays tag with 68 years' worth of cigarette smoke. Dark paneled walls and a pair of ancient phone booths form a backdrop for black tabletops that weren't even new when your granddaddy was a boy; the rickety wooden chairs beside them seem to sigh at the thought of bearing yet another broad backside.
The long, scarred Art Deco bar is a workhorse, from its patinated brass rail to the tinted mirrors, where, if you look closely, you can almost see the shadows of long-gone steelworkers, pounding back the Leisys and the P.O.C.s at the end of a sweaty shift. In this ancient room, the flickering images of forgotten film stars -- of Fredric March and Marjorie Lord -- seem like kinetic art, not merely Turner Classic Movies beaming from a pair of tellies. So when Sheryl Crow starts crooning from the jukebox, it hits us like a head-on crash.
But the heat is what drives us farther back into the tavern and slightly forward in time -- past the pool table, the bowling machine, and the mid-century table lamps -- onto a pretty little patio, equipped with long wooden picnic tables, 1950s-style travel posters, and those bouncy, brightly enameled lawn chairs that used to beckon from every motel along the entire length of Route 66.
Even out here, the smell of cigarette smoke lingers, but we relish an evening breeze as we peruse the menu. It seems inevitable that we'll start our exploration with the mixed drinks, divided into "Sunshine Cocktails," like Mojitos and Mai Tais, and "Prosperitinis," featuring such libations as the bubbly-based French 75 and the Swimming Pool, with Ciroc, blue curaçao, and lime.
One of us settles on the novel Spa Gin ($7), a refreshingly potent pour of cucumber-infused Hendrick's and soda over ice, with a garnish of fresh cucumber and lemon; the other opts for a spicy, fruity wheat beer called Bell's Oberon Ale ($4.50, on tap).
In all this boozy enchantment, we see the hand of owner Bonnie Flinner, the industry pro who launched Prosperity last October. After 12 years as bar manager at Cleveland Heights' venerable Nighttown, Flinner clearly knows her tonic from her Tanqueray Ten, and she has put together as enticing a collection of beer, spirits, and wine as any tavern's in the city.
Flinner also gets props for Prosperity's vintage vibe. An admitted devotee of "old-man taverns," she found a beaut in the former Dempsey's. In the course of transforming it into her vision of an eclectic neighborhood bar, she wisely chose to let the circa-1938 ambiance speak for itself. (On the other hand, we certainly would embrace a few modern touches, like air conditioning and a no-smoking section.)
But it's Prosperity's kitchen that remains a work in progress, as Flinner and her cook, Ed Kubitz, continue to seek just the right blend of old-fashioned comfort and modern style. This may explain why, during our visits, some of the offerings fall short.
Mostly, it's the little things: A house salad arrives without the promised blue cheese crumbles, although it does have a generous sprinkling of sliced almonds, dried cranberries, and a fan of apple slices; the real deal-buster, though, is the limp romaine, which is as tepid as bath water.
We dig the wholesome, nontraditional flavors of the dill-piqued gazpacho, but note that the chilled soup is far more broth than veggies. And while an entrée of flower-garnished yellowfin tuna packs plenty of eye appeal, the fish itself is dry and flavorless.
Among sandwiches, the home-cooked corned beef, tucked into a potato-pancake Reuben, proves to be a tough chew, and the 'cakes themselves border on burnt. (And the stack of frozen French fries seem like carbohydrate overkill.)
But there are winners too. Among the starters, an ample hummus platter could sub as a light entrée, and panko-breaded fried oysters offer plenty of fresh flavor and crisp appeal. As a main event, a grilled chicken sandwich, drenched with zesty Buffalo-style hot sauce and topped with bacon and crumbled blue cheese, is dribble-down-our chin delish. And a $10 strip steak is a steal: juicy and flavorful beyond all expectations, despite predictable amounts of gristle and fat. But afterward, a wedge of commercially made "Mud Pie," with greasy layers of toothachingly-sweet chocolate and coffee mousse, sends us straight back to Dullsville.
Obviously, the boss still has her work cut out for her. For us, though, the solution seems obvious. On our way out the door, we recalibrate the time machine for a few months into the future. By then, we figure, Flinner will have this "food" stuff all figured out.