I was walking through Times Square with a girl who didn't like to get wet, when the skies let loose a biblical downpour. The good news is that, as much as she loathed rain, she adored booze — so we ducked into the first pub we came across. This being the mid '90s, there were still plenty of real bars around, where day-drinking was the rule rather than the exception.
I hadn't thought much about the beers we drank that afternoon until a few weeks back, when I popped inside Ontario Street Café for the first time. It wasn't raining outside, but that's not the point. The room swallowed me up whole, just like that New York bar did on that wet autumn day all those years ago.
No sooner had I settled onto a stool and answered the bartender's "What'll it be?" that I became a bona fide fan of the joint. Feel free to call me a Johnny Come Lately — frankly, I was busy drinking everywhere else — but you shouldn't wait as long as I did to check out an honest-to-goodness piece of Cleveland history.
It was the news that Randy Kelly, Linda Syrek, and Alan Glazen — the team behind ABC and XYZ Taverns — had purchased the bar that lit a fire under my ass. I wanted to experience the place early on so that I'd detect changes if and when they occurred.
A 15-year regular sitting next to me at the bar assured me that no such change has taken place. Sure, prices seem to have inched up here and there, but that's been happening all along. Our conversation quickly advanced from prices to prison stints (his, not mine). That's just the kind of place Ontario Street Café is.
Of course, when a shot and a beer cost all of $3, conversation comes cheaply.
Despite ridiculously low prices — $2 for a mixed drink, $2 for a 23-ounce draft, and five bucks and change for an entire pitcher — Ontario is no dive bar. Bartenders wear white shirts and neckties. Service is prompt and professional. Booths are reserved for parties of two or more. And the bar earns its wood paneling honestly — as opposed to ironically.
There are no tabs at Ontario Street: Drinks are paid for in cash, round by round, a necessary tactic given the frequency with which customers sneak out for a smoke. Those customers are a diverse group that includes casino workers, RTA drivers, unemployed, and downtown workers who know a good deal when they see it.
After a couple rounds of off-brand bourbon and Genesee, a person works up an appetite. The good news is that Ontario Street is more than just a bar; it's a true pub, where good food is made to order. There is no flattop, stove, or deep fryer — just the friendly guy in the front window who slices hot corned beef and cold roast beef while greeting and bidding farewell to all who pass by him.
At $8.95, the corned beef on rye is the richest item in the house — but it's worth it. As large, plush, and tasty as they come, this sandwich is a meaty surprise to say the least.
My companion — a compulsive eater of chicken salad sandwiches — devoured half his order before I even noticed. We went halfsies on the remainder and I'm glad we did. Light and fresh, with crisp lettuce and thin-sliced tomato, the sandwich provided the fortification for the rounds to come.
Ontario serves food right up until 1 a.m. But get there before 4 p.m. and all sandwiches — corned beef, roast beef, turkey, pastrami, smoked ham, and chicken or tuna salad — are just $5.99, including potato salad, chips, pickle, and soft drink.
Tucked into space just south of Public Square — beneath the former May Co. parking deck, and behind windowpanes of reflective glass — Ontario Street has one of the least welcoming storefronts in Cleveland. But what's that saying about books and their covers?
"I never would have come in this place," notes my drinking partner, also an Ontario virgin. "But now that I know what it's like, I'm always coming here."