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CHEESEBURGERS IN PARADISE 

With great views and vibes, Sunset Grille brings Put-in-Bay to Cleveland

On a gorgeous summer day, there may be no sweeter patch in town than the narrow spit of land known as Whiskey Island. Sporting a hedonistic disposition not unlike Put-in-Bay's, the county-owned parcel at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River is a popular spot with boaters, birders, babes and the sand-volleyball players who love them. In addition to a 250-slip marina, Whiskey Island boasts the 20-acre Wendy Park, a picturesque retreat hugging the shores of Lake Erie. And serving as social director and sustenance provider of this perfect little ecosystem is the Sunset Grille.

Though it's just a little more than a mile down the road from Edgewater Park, the area surrounding the Sunset Grille seems to exist in a parallel universe. Pull up on a sparkling summer evening, and you'll swear you've been teleported to South Bass Island. An eclectic mix of hipsters, young professionals and the working class sip ice-cold Coronas at wooden picnic tables, while a DJ blasts beachy Buffett tunes. Boaters load up coolers before boarding their crafts for a sunset cruise with mates. League volleyball players grab a last-minute burger in preparation for the first serve of the night. This may be one of the few places in Cleveland where the sign reads: "No shirt, no shoes, no problem."

Given the setting, nobody would expect — or even desire — four-star cuisine. When the dress code calls for flip-flops and shades, the menu should follow suit. But unfussy food needn't be "cheap" food. Some of the hottest trends in dining right now include upmarket snack bars dispensing high-quality burgers, dogs, fries and shakes. If only the loveable Sunset Grille could learn that casual can coexist with delicious.

The Sunset Grille claims something even NYC's famed Shake Shack lacks: a historic timber-frame boat shack just feet from the surf. Tall ceilings, spinning fans and wide-open windows fill the festive room with a breezy vacation vibe. At the center of it all is a long wooden bar, fashioned from the hull of a retired sailboat. You practically have to "come aboard" to order a brew. Though the beer list trails trends as well, there are enough choice brands to quench most thirsts ($3/domestic; $3.75/imported).

When you serve 500 to 800 people on any given weekend day, as Sunset Grille routinely does throughout the summer, it's obvious you need to devise a menu that can be executed with all deliberate speed. Salads, burgers, dogs and fried things are the natural choices, and that is precisely the route taken here. Unfortunately, most of those items barely rise to the gastronomic level of satisfactory. Some are just plain off.

It only takes one nibble of our mozzarella sticks ($6) to detect a familiar flavor: squid. Obviously prepared in the same deep fryer as the calamari, and most likely in an old batch of grease at that, the cheese sticks possess an off-putting fishy flavor that even the marinara sauce can't obscure.

Despite their billing on the menu, I'm going to presume that the cheese fries ($5) are physician-approved for the lactose intolerant. Smothering the life out of a mound of crispy fries is the sort of pale-orange goo that is normally found at a ballpark concession stand. Real cheddar cheese is used in the chicken quesadilla ($7), and it makes a huge difference. The large flour tortilla is stuffed with grilled chicken, scallions, tomatoes and cheese. It is grilled, carved into wedges and served with plastic tubs of sour cream and salsa.

Had my burger ($7.25) remained on the grill long enough to vanquish that last bit of inner chill, it would have been a highlight of the meal. Instead, I'm compelled to slather on fake mayo and nibble my way around the edges where the meat is fully cooked. It is a decent hamburger, all in all, the kind one can find at pubs throughout town.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the buffalo chicken sandwich ($7.25). Clearly another pre-prepared frozen product, the chicken arrives bearing a preternatural cherry hue that resembles neither buffalo nor chicken. An odd plastic flavor prevents us from finishing even half the sandwich.

Management may be starting to get the message. Just recently, a coal-black barbecue rig rolled onto the scene, and the kitchen has begun smoking pork shoulders, chickens and various other meats. Whether the crew can reliably turn out enough quality barbecue to feed the masses has yet to be seen, but if it can, the Sunset Grille is destined for Great Lakes greatness. After all, it is one of Cleveland's only true lakeside dining spots. That alone makes it special.

dining@clevescene.com

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