If it hadn't been for the bleak, colorless skies, freezing rain, and plummeting temperatures, the California dreamin' would have come a little easier during a recent stopover at Willoughby's San Francisco Oven (34601 Ridge Road, 440-860-0130), a year-old "quick-casual" eatery that celebrates the gustatory prowess of that city by the bay. Still, there's nothing like a bowl of steaming clam chowder in a La Brea Bakery sourdough bread bowl or a chewy-crusted pizza, fresh from a brick oven, to brighten up a miserable Northeast Ohio day. And SFO has those sorts of comforts by the cable-carload, along with sourdough-bread sandwiches, Ghirardelli chocolate brownies, Anchor Steam Ale, and a small list of inexpensive Napa and Sonoma Valley wines.
Local restaurateurs Eddie Cerino and Matt Harper, who have operated Eddie's Creekside Restaurant & Market in Brecksville since 1993, created the San Francisco Oven concept after years of travel to the West Coast. Harper provides the business acumen, and Cerino (a 1980 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and grandson of the late founder and namesake of Carrie Cerino's, an Italian restaurant in North Royalton) brings the food smarts.
The cheerful 120-seat restaurant, decorated with wall-sized photos of the Bay Area, has the kind of cookie-cutter good looks of a Panera or Bruegger's -- and sure enough, Harper and Cerino plan to take the concept statewide, with at least one new SFO next spring and as many as 10 regional outlets in the coming years. The Willoughby outpost is in Pine Ridge Plaza, at the intersection of routes 91 and 84, just off I-90; store hours are Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday till 10.
Baby Bodega . . . If SFO is corporate-slick, Tremont's tiny La Bodega (869 Jefferson Avenue, 216-621-7075) is as one-of-a-kind as Grandma's loopy handknit sweaters. Open since September, this 20-seat soup, sandwich, and salad emporium is the work of Jeff Eisenberg and Mike Weigand, whose other gigs include the nearby Hi & Dry In (see review) and Heck's Café. Sandwiches range from the perennial school fave Peanut Butter, Banana, and Honey ($4.95) to the more adult Grilled Eggplant, Mozzarella, and Pesto Mayo, served on rosemary ciabatta ($5.95). Portions are plenty big, and here's a bonus: Manager Ruth Gutschmidt and her staff make soups, salads, and desserts -- like Chocolate-Bourbon Brownies -- from scratch. La Bodega is open every day from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.