Big on the Little Bar

Pub food gets a chef's touch at the Little Bar.

Little Bar 614 Frankfort Avenue Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m.; Saturday, 5 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.; Sunday, 8 p.m. to whenever


Spectacular burgers top a long list of midday favorites at the Little Bar. - Walter  Novak
Spectacular burgers top a long list of midday favorites at the Little Bar.
He paused for a moment in the doorway, shaking the rain off his old fedora and turning down the collar on his rumpled trench coat. Outside, in the alley, a black De Soto crept by, its headlights probing the darkness; dour-faced Officer O'Reilly, the weary beat cop, scowled forcefully in its general direction, then went back to swinging his billy club in the rain.

But here inside the little bar, the stranger felt as though he had found sanctuary. He was grateful to be out of the storm and in a joint where the burly bartender was friendly and the barmaids were easy on the eye -- a dim, gritty spot where a fella could sit alone at the worn marble bar, nursing a Guinness, without once having to look over his shoulder for fear of what might be gaining on him.

Yeah, it's kind of like that at the Little Bar, a tiny Warehouse District refuge established in the 1950s, now sagging patiently beneath its patina of the ages. From its oft-trod wooden floors to its sturdy hand-hewn beams, the place is as different from its trendy nearby neighbors as, say, the manly Bogey is from the boyish Brendan Fraser. You've clearly stumbled down the wrong alley if you hope to find fancy table settings, plush upholstery, or frosted glass panels here. Instead, Indians banners dangle from the ceiling near the bar, while the aged brick walls are trimmed with such urban exotica as extinct stock certificates, the front page of a Cleveland newspaper proclaiming the death of F.D.R., and a photo montage documenting the demolition of a downtown building.

And talk about your truth in advertising: The joint is small, with no more than 10 tall barstools and perhaps a dozen peeling, faux-wood laminated tables, sided with a sorry assortment of elderly bentwood chairs. A wall-mounted jukebox coughs up a tune every now and then -- anything from the Grateful Dead to Counting Crows. Sports highlights flicker across the screen of the lone TV.

What a surprise then to learn that this shabby little hole-in-the-wall has been operated since January by Joe Santosuosso and Paul Anthony, the duo who brought us the opulent Johnny's Bistro, Johnny's Downtown, and Johnny's Bar. The only changes that have been instituted since the takeover have been in the kitchen, which has been cleaned and updated to accommodate the new, expanded menu. No further interior upgrades are in the plans, at least for now. But if what can be laughingly called the "decor" here doesn't provide a clue as to the current ownership, the careful preparation of the simple food -- most especially the spectacular burgers -- certainly hints at something special.

They are bigger than your hand, these half-pound ground sirloin patties, and soft and tender, all bundled between the halves of a sturdy kaiser roll and topped with lettuce, tomato, and raw onion. The meat is freshly ground daily from the tailings of Johnny's-bound tenderloins, and it couldn't be more savory. Don't expect anyone to ask you how you want your burger done; such modern-day precautions clearly have no place here. Instead, the sandwich simply shows up on a sturdy oval platter, a few degrees south of medium-rare and spurting juices the way God intended burgers to be served. On the side is a handful of definitive homemade potato chips -- crisp, just slightly chewy, and well salted, and cut so thinly they threaten to melt on your tongue. Good as these are, though, the savvy patron will also order a basket of hand-cut french fries: long hot spears of freshly made goodness. We had them in all their naked glory during one day's lunch; on another afternoon, we asked the kitchen to dress them up with homemade chili, cheese, and chopped red onion for what may have been the ultimate guilty pleasure. (The bar serves its full menu mostly during the lunch hour, with a stripped-down selection of eats available on into the evening.)

The Little Bar may be the only place of its size and stature hereabouts that can lay claim to actual chefs, and Joe Fall and Matt Miller, straight out of Johnny's kitchen, also whip up good homemade soups, salad dressings, and daily specials that range from substantial dishes like roast beef and gravy to a light, summery salad of sliced, vegetable-stuffed chicken breast, fanned over a bed of iceberg lettuce. (The latter was nice enough in theory, we thought, but too virtuous and bland to hold its own against the more gleefully greasy dishes.)

Other midday meals include a half-slab of smoky ribs in a sweet barbecue sauce and a Friday-only fish fry, served with french fries and a pile of creamy cole slaw. There's also a long list of sandwiches, including a serviceable grilled cheese, a quarter-pound hot dog, and a towering double-decker BLT, generously stuffed with crisp, meaty bacon. A plump grilled chicken breast on a kaiser roll was juicy and flavorful; thick slabs of hand-sliced turkey breast with mayo on freshly baked bread were exceptionally moist and tender. Only a late-afternoon sandwich of hand-sliced roasted ham, served with delightfully fiery hot mustard, disappointed: The bread had lost its freshness, and the ham had a mealy texture that made us wonder if it had been frozen.

Besides the chips and fries, go-withs include the usual bar noshes like mozzarella sticks (served with a good homemade marinara sauce), mild jalapeño poppers, crunchy onion rings, and a simple tossed salad. A half-dozen large Buffalo-style chicken wings had a nice, buttery Tabasco tang, although they could have been crisper; they came with carrot and celery sticks and the traditional blue cheese dressing.

Like the place itself, the Little Bar's lunchtime clientele is far from flashy. You've got your downtown office guys in Dockers and sports shirts here, along with your office gals in pantsuits, all rubbing shoulders with jeans-clad students, construction workers in hard hat and boots, and the occasional tattooed man. (In the evenings, the place is best known as an after-hours hangout for other restaurant workers.) While the bar carries the makings of all the traditional drinks, along with some unusual beers, most of the midday diners seemed satisfied to settle for massive mugs of soft drinks or freshly brewed iced tea, replenished often by pleasant if sometimes harried bartender/servers.

The Little Bar even dishes up dessert: rich French vanilla ice cream sundaes, topped with either caramel or chocolate syrup and walnuts, or have the kitchen add some strawberry sauce and a banana, and call it a banana split. In either case, it brings lunch to a pleasant ending and tempers the deliciously seedy atmosphere with a bit of sweetness and light.

He drained the final drops of Guinness from his glass and wiped the back of his hand across his lips. The rain had finally ended, and the night held promises yet unkept. He slapped a five-spot down on the bar and beckoned to the barmaid, a pretty blonde wrapped in a gauzy yellow number that hugged her hips like a lover.

"Be anything else, mister?" she asked, as if she couldn't read his mind.

"No, doll," he replied. "I think I've got everything I need." Then he slipped past the heavy oak door and into the shadows of the city on the lake.

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