But here's the thing: Scratch the surface of even the most right-thinking gourmet, and you're likely to uncover a dirty little secret filed away under the heading of "Guilty Pleasures." That is, there are moments when we'll gladly exchange the pianist and his baby grand for a jukebox full of rock 'n' roll, the elegant table appointments for paper napkins and a ketchup bottle, and the duck confit and Opus One for a juicy burger and a frosty brew. And if all that comes wrapped in a blanket of authentic atmosphere, with friendly and efficient staffers, and laughably low prices . . . well, even if the rest of the menu falters, we just might not give a damn.
That's about as good an explanation as any for our fondness for Ray's Place, a venerable tavern and eatery situated just across the street from the railroad tracks in downtown Kent. Talk about atmosphere: One look at the scarred wooden bar top is all it takes to recall that the place has been a fixture in this college town since 1937.
Just as the soft assault of a thousand elbows has produced the bar top's rich patina, so the thousands of souls who have passed through Ray's swinging double doors seem to have left behind a lustrous residue of spirit and good cheer. As a result, today's Ray's is a true community gathering place, welcoming everyone from KSU faculty, staff, and students to downtown business operators and local families. (Mom and Dad should be smiling too, thanks to the inexpensive children's menu.)
Current owner Charlie Thomas -- only the bar's fourth proprietor in nearly 70 years -- also did his part to broaden Ray's appeal, back in 1992, when he turned the former upstairs music venue, Mother's Junction, into a casual dining room, complete with pool tables, foosball, and another bar. ("Does the upstairs dining room have a name?" we asked our waitress. "Sure," she agreeably replied. "We like to call it 'the upstairs.'")
Other than the long, steep flight of steps, though, there's not much that separates the upper and lower dining areas. Both offer the same inexpensive, all-day menu of bar snacks, burgers, sandwiches, salads, and pastas; and after 5 p.m., both spaces add the same handful of entrées -- homemade meatloaf, beer-battered pollack, and the like, all priced at less than $8, salad included -- to the bill of fare. More to the point, both floors share the same huge beer list, jam-packed with nearly 200 reasonably priced brews from around the world, including a half-dozen varieties from Cleveland's own Great Lakes Brewing Company. Better still, nearly 40 of those beers are available on draft. (There's also a small, equally inexpensive wine list, but puh-leeze: Who but an English major would come to a place like Ray's and order a glass of Zin?)
To round out the beer-guzzling, we strongly recommend the freshly ground and pressed burgers: tender, beefy champs like the Atomic cheeseburger, with hot-pepper cheese and sliced jalapeño, or the Mo-Fo, a double cheeseburger with bacon, sautéed mushrooms, pickles, mayo, and the rest of "the works." And don't forget "Ray's famous French fries," freshly cut, sturdy, and at their aromatic best with a dash of malt vinegar and a generous sprinkling of salt. (Variations include jerk-seasoned fries, chili-cheese-topped fries, and gravy-coated "wet" fries; a gourmand's tastebuds fairly quiver in anticipation.)
The kitchen also cooks up homemade soups du jour (during one of our visits, it was a pleasantly mellow beer-cheese soup, flecked with bits of real bacon) and a decent Midwestern (by which we mean "mildly seasoned") chili. And while we didn't try them, we like the fact that ground-turkey or garden-burger patties can be substituted for the beef in all the burgers and that the menu includes a number of meat-free dishes, ranging from a simple grilled-cheese sandwich to a veggie stir-fry on basmati rice.
Still, our wanderings through the menu's vast and varied offerings turned up nothing else as genuinely good as the burgers and fries. Among the starters, for instance, we indulged our morbid curiosity by ordering the commercially made, deep-fried "Mac 'n' Cheese Bites," little blobs of cafeteria-style pasta and cheese sauce, bound up inside a thick layer of breading: not awful, we decided, but not something we'll ever need to try again. An order of hot nachos was better, the thin, crisp tortilla rounds layered with spicy cheese sauce, chopped tomato and green peppers, black olive rings, melted cheddar, and plenty of thickly sliced jalapeño peppers; however, a side of watery bottled salsa was merely fiery, not flavorful, and a small portion of guacamole was bland, with a disturbingly Crisco-like texture.
Our decision to order a roasted turkey sandwich for one day's lunch was uninspired. But then again, so was the sandwich, with its pedestrian arrangement of lettuce, pale tomato, Swiss cheese, and one thick breast slice on slightly stale sourdough bread. The same held true of a charbroiled-chicken salad, a tidy toss of iceberg lettuce topped with tender-but-unseasoned chicken strips, garnished with hard wedges of out-of-season toms, black-olive rings, and sliced raw mushrooms: hardly unsavory, but also scarcely worth leaving home for.
Even a handsome brick of beef lasagna turned out to be a yawner, with its pasty, overcooked noodles and sharp, acidic, homemade tomato sauce. In fact, two accompanying slices of golden garlic toast were the best part of this meal, with their warm, dense interiors and crisp, buttery edges.
Unlike many taverns, Ray's offers a variety of desserts, including sundaes, frozen pies, and cheesecakes. A slice of homemade Coca-Mocha Pie (a frozen, coffee-flavored blend of cream cheese and whipping cream, spread in a soft graham-cracker crust, topped with sliced almonds and a splash of chocolate syrup) was unmemorable. But an ample wedge of commercially distributed vanilla cheesecake tasted surprisingly fab, with clean dairy flavors and a rich, satiny presence on the tongue. (After-dinner coffee, served in manly china mugs, appeared to be freshly brewed, but no matter how many refills we requested, it never seemed hot enough.)
So, yeah, Ray's is not the usual gourmet's dream. But then again, that's probably the key to its appeal. It's really pretty simple. You come in, order a beer, a burger, and fries, sit back and chill or maybe shoot a little pool, then settle up with a $10 bill, and possibly even get some change back. You wanna splurge, go for the cheesecake -- but in any case, skip the coffee. And whatever you do, don't go blabbing about this joint to everyone you know: For now, at least, let's try to keep Ray's Place our own guilty pleasure.