That's not to say that there are no good eats to be found at this chichi suburban "lifestyle center." After all, with seven full-service restaurants, three faster-food options, an ice-cream parlor, a coffeehouse, and a gelateria, a shopper's bound to come across something to like.
Furthermore, if that shopper also digs alfresco dining, so much the better. Except for the second-floor Melting Pot and the ultracasual Tropical Smoothie Café, all the spots have luxuriously landscaped outdoor dining areas; in fact, the adjacent groupings of umbrella-topped tables in front of Brio, Atria, California Pizza Kitchen, Häagen-Daz, and Stir Crazy (surrounding the central "village green") form one of the largest and most handsome outdoor dining venues in the region.
Still, like Disney World, many of these chain links suffer from a sense of artificiality and cookie-cutter sameness, with "personality" that rarely extends beyond the decor. Food choices tend toward the conventional, flavors are often pedestrian, and service is apt to be impersonal. In other words, for charm, innovation, and a sense of community, few of them can compete with your favorite neighborhood bistro.
To help you decide where to head when the hungries hit, we recently spent the better part of a week munching our way through most of the major restaurants. From "best bets" to "ho-hum," here's the lowdown.
Atria's Restaurant & Tavern
Cuisine: Standard American burgers, steaks, barbecue, pasta, and salads.
Price: Most entrées less than $20.
Decor: Bright, cheerful, and as artfully cluttered as a sunny Victorian tearoom.
Ambiance: Casually upscale, with white cloth napkins, votives on the table, and Old Blue Eyes singin' in the background.
Service: Reasonably attentive, but slow-paced; our weekday lunch consumed 90 minutes.
Bar service: Full bar; 44-label wine list with lots of boutiquey New World selections.
Reservations accepted? Only for parties of five or more.
Bring the rugrats? If you must; a 12-item children's menu is available, but the ambiance is adult.
The upshot: Next time we work up an appetite pawing through the cabinet knobs at Restoration Hardware, this is where we'll head, particularly for the meaty, greaseless, hickory-smoked baby-back ribs ($17.99) and the freshly ground, 8-ounce BBQ bacon burger ($7.99). And check out the pot roast nachos ($8.99), a beer-worthy twist on the standard, with tender shredded beef in place of the commoner ground meat.
216-691-8950. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
Claddagh Irish Pub
Cuisine: Traditional Irish pub fare as well as burgers, salads, and sandwiches.
Price: Most entrées less than $20.
Decor: A blend of ornate city pub, cozy country pub, and "Ye Olde Norman Keep."
Ambiance: Lively and relaxed, with Celtic music rippling through the air.
Service: Friendly and reasonably attentive.
Bar service: Full bar, with impressive collection of Irish whiskeys and bartenders who can pour a proper Guinness.
Reservations accepted? Only for parties of six or more.
Bring the wee 'uns? There's a separate children's menu, but what kid would turn down "Claddagh chicken tenders" from the grownups' bill o' fare?
In summary: We skipped over Claddagh during our recent visits to Legacy Village, but when we were there this past spring, we found the food -- in particular, Icelandic cod fish & chips ($16.95) and the beefy Irish stew ($12.95) -- to be well prepared and tasty. [See www.clevescene.com/issues/2004-03-10/cafe.html, for more details.] We wouldn't weep if a drinking buddy wanted to take us there again.
216-691-0534. 11 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday; bar stays open later. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.
California Pizza Kitchen
Cuisine: Pizzas, soup, salads, pastas, and sandwiches.
Price: Pizzas and most entrées less than $10.
Decor: Clean and contemporary, with lots of stone, wood, and stainless steel.
Ambiance: Casual, family-friendly, and noisy, with bare tabletops, big paper napkins, and pop music.
Service: Relatively young staffers were friendly but unpolished.
Bar service: Full bar. The list of trendy cocktails includes such drinks as the California Cosmo ($7.99) with Ciroc Snap Frost vodka, red grape juice, and Cointreau, with a garnish of frozen grapes; it went down with predictable ease, but seemed no boozier than Hawaiian punch.
Reservations accepted? Only for parties of six or more, so sneak in early. At 6 p.m. on a Friday, the place was dead; by 7 p.m., nearly every table was filled.
Bring the crumb-snatchers? Why not? Everybody else does. (Children's menus, crayons, and high chairs abound!)
In the end: We could see our way clear to stopping by again for one of CPK's sassy 'zas, like the sweet-and-tangy original BBQ chicken ($9.79), with a bit of chopped cilantro added as an astringent counterpoint. And the thin but pliable crust of the zesty Sicilian pie ($10.79) provided the perfect platform for sweet Italian sausage, spicy capicolla, julienned salami, and a blend of cheeses.
216-382-4907. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 a.m. Sunday.
Brio Tuscan Grille
Cuisine: Steaks, seafood, pasta, and gourmet pizza.
Price: Dinner entrées mostly under $20.
Decor: Like a softly lit Roman villa, its vast, open expanse is partially divided by arched colonnades, gauzy drapes of fabric, and prematurely aged Venetian plaster walls.
Ambiance: Upscale but relaxed, with paper toppers on white linens, big cloth napkins, and lots of chatter from the nearby tables.
Service: Well-meaning but rushed; servers consistently leaned across the table to place and remove plates, and salads were served only minutes after our starters had arrived. As a result, we were out on the sidewalk again in one hour.
Bar service: Full bar, but skip the Brio Bellini ($5.95), a sweet, childish slushy of a drink with nary a hint of the promised Prosecco.
Reservations accepted? Yes, even for parties of two!
Bring the ankle-nippers? Children's menu is available, but the atmosphere is definitely grown-up.
The bottom line: We aren't in love with the noise, the wide-open spaces, or the rush-rush service; a starter of battered and fried calamari was so overcooked, it could have been rubber bands. But an $18.95 rack of lamb, with mashed potatoes and asparagus, was a well-prepared value, and a massive portion of saucy lasagna Bolognese al forno ($12.50) came to the table bubbling-hot and luscious.
216-297-9232. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday.
Cuisine: Asian-style soups, salads, noodle bowls, seafood, and stir-fries; diners can create their own stir-fry combos and have them prepared by a chef as they wait in line, or they can order standard dishes, such as Kung Pao Chicken or Cashew Tilapia, off the menu, for regular kitchen prep.
Price: Entrées mostly less than $15; slightly less at lunch.
Decor: Colorful and energetic, with high black ceilings, concrete floors, oversized Japanese lanterns, and quirky wall murals.
Ambiance: Casual and youthful, with bare wooden tables set with black cloth napkins and chopsticks, and classic rock blaring from the sound system.
Service: Our server started out well, but sort of faded away as the meal progressed. By the time we were ready for our bill, he had disappeared entirely!
Bar service: Full bar, featuring Asian beers, sake, and big tropical drinks. For teetotalers, though, the nonalcoholic fresh mango or passion-fruit spritzers and tall Thai iced coffee make fine alternatives.
Reservations accepted? Nah, although "call-ahead" seating is available.
Bring the kids? Sure; high chairs and a kids' menu are available.
In conclusion: We appreciated the energetic atmosphere and colorful decor, and the broad array of meats, veggies, spices, and sauces for the "create-your-own" stir-fry looked terrific. But overall, we found flavors muted and unmemorable, in both our self-created opus and in the regular menu offerings. Chinatown's restaurants needn't worry.
216-381-7600. 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday.
The Melting Pot
Price: Complete, multicourse meals, including cheese, entrée, and dessert fondues, check in at $25 to $42 per person.
Decor: Sleek and minimalistic, with lots of nooks, crannies, and private rooms designed for either intimate snuggling or larger family gatherings.
Ambiance: Sophisticated and upscale, with dim lighting, black cloth napkins, and mellow ballads on the sound system.
Service: A little rushed in the beginning, a little slow at the end. Elapsed time for Friday-night dinner for two: two hours and 10 minutes.
Bar service: Full bar; large but pricey wine list.
Reservations accepted: Yes, and especially necessary on weekends.
Bring les enfants? Dim lighting, boiling oil, and restless toddlers do not mix. Leave the kids at home, at least until they can be trusted with a pointy fondue fork.
To sum up: Our menu pick was the "Big Night Out," a four-course, $42 per person feast that included a tossed salad. The starter -- traditional Swiss-cheese fondue -- was good; and the ending -- chocolate-caramel-and-pecan dessert fondue -- was amazingly indulgent. But in between, the process of battering, frying, and saucing the meats, seafood, and veggies that made up the main course was slow, tedious, and quickly lost its novelty. For this kind of money (more than $100 for two, with beverages, tax, and tip), we could have paid one of the city's top chefs to do the work for us, and we would have enjoyed it considerably more.
216-381-2700. 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday, 3 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 3 to 10 p.m. Sunday.
The Cheesecake Factory
Cuisine: You name it, they've got it, from bruschetta and Buffalo wings to steak Diane and pad thai noodles.
Price: Entrées mostly less than $20; lunch-sized portions a little less.
Decor: Possibly designed by a kid with ADD, the place is a dizzying amalgam of Egyptian temple, Moorish fortress, and Aladdin's castle, with limestone-topped tables, marble floors, and artificially aged stucco walls.
Ambiance: Casual, noisy, yet well-appointed, with cloth napkins, substantial flatware, and oversized white-stoneware plates. But can you say "rampant commercialism"? Almost half the menu is devoted to full-color advertisements for jewelers, car dealers, and the like!
Service: Friendly and well-paced.
Bar Service: Full bar; drink menu features lots of sweet-and-creamy concoctions.
Reservations accepted? No. We slid in just minutes after 11:30 a.m. on a weekday and were seated immediately. When we left an hour later, every seat was filled, a line stretched out the door, and the dozens of strollers parked in the lobby made it look like the entrance to Penguin Encounter.
Bring the tots? You betcha. There's no children's menu, but there are plenty of high chairs. And the regular menu is awash in childish, unchallenging fare.
The final word: The Cheesecake Factory is the ultimate chain restaurant, with a menu and decor that bear no connection to any particular place, time, or culture. Or as a companion put it, "It's anywhere and nowhere, all at once." As for the food, the French fries are good, and the cheesecake is well worth trying. But when a lunchtime burger, an entrée-sized salad, one app, one slice of cheesecake, and two iced teas come to more than $50, diners are paying a premium for mediocrity.
216-691-3387. 11:00 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:00 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday.