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Beach Buns 

Cropicana brings burgers and more to Whiskey Island

Love it or loathe it, Whiskey Island no longer is a hidden gem. Despite its maddening inaccessibility and out-of-the-way locale, this hedonistic retreat on the shores of Lake Erie is attracting more visitors than ever. This summer promises to be the busiest yet.

In a move that scared the bejesus out of longtime fans — folks who rightly adore the spot for its unpretentious vibe ­— chef Steve Schimoler announced back in spring that he was taking over food operations. The prevailing fear was that Schimoler, owner of the upmarket Crop Bistro, would fancify the food to the point of no return.

Until then, food ops had been handled by the folks at Sunset Grille, which operated out of the historic timber-frame boat shack. Given the size of the tiny kitchen — and the crush of 2,000 or more hungry guests per weekend — the system was anything but efficient, consistent, or fulfilling. A review of the restaurant last summer revealed a menu replete with frozen mozzarella sticks, fries squirted with noxious "cheese" sauce, and an utterly offensive buffalo chicken sandwich.

Schimoler's goal when crafting Cropicana, as the new operation is called, was not to promote the food to Crop levels, as some had feared. It was simply to offer good food fast. To that end, he constructed an elaborate outdoor kitchen and bar, instituted a streamlined system of ordering and payment, and jettisoned the table service.

While not a popular decision, Schimoler says that ditching table service was necessary. Given the free-flowing nature of dining at picnic tables on an expansive lawn, servers were finding it difficult to track down customers who move from table to table to socialize with friends.

Now guests wend their way through a nautical-rope line, order their meal, pay, and wait for it to be loaded onto a plastic tray. This system works for crowds small and large, with ticket times ranging from three to five minutes on average. A small service station is equipped with napkins, plastic silverware, and condiments.

Just because the food is served fast doesn't mean it's "fast food." St. Louis ribs, tender pork loin, and flavorful leg of lamb all get the low-and-slow treatment in a weighty barbecue rig. Chicken wings are smoked before getting finished on the grill. Hamburgers and hot dogs are grilled to order, fish tacos are deep-fried at the last minute, and the onion rings and french fries arrive crisp and golden brown.

That prices have barely edged up from last summer is remarkable, given the cost of food and the quality upgrades instituted by the Cropicana staff. At $7 for a half-dozen, those meaty chicken wings (barbecue or buffalo) actually cost less today than they did last year. Same goes for the beefy hot dog, which is a bargain at $3.50. Angus cheeseburgers with chips are $8, up just 75 cents.

A half rack of mouthwatering ribs comes paired with fries and slaw. Juicy smoked pork is piled into a soft bun with cheese and slaw. And luscious smoked lamb and sauce form the basis of a Greek-style taco. Other menu items include a pair of decent fried-fish tacos, a run-of-the-mill Caesar salad, and a vegetarian Caprese sandwich with mozzarella, tomato, and basil.

"Now that we have the system down," Schimoler explains during a break, "we can start having some real fun."

"Real fun" for Schimoler means pig roasts, clam bakes, Long Island clam and lobster rolls, and other beachy-style fare that he intends to introduce later this summer.

Of course, there are some things that haven't changed at Whiskey Island. Volleyball players still descend upon the sand courts in droves. Dogs still populate the peninsula in sizable numbers. Bands still take to the stage on weekends. And the sun still sets over a panorama of bobbing sailboat masts, providing one of the most picturesque views a Cleveland diner can have.

It's true that Whiskey Island is no longer a secret — but why should it be? It is one of the only places in town where we can eat on the shores of Lake Erie, which makes it a pretty special place indeed.

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