Dating Game

Players is for lovers.

Players on Madison 14523 Madison Avenue, Lakewood 216-226-5200. Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 1 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 5 to 9 p.m Sunday.
The upscale side of the menu includes herb-grilled - New Zealand lamb chops. - Walter  Novak
The upscale side of the menu includes herb-grilled New Zealand lamb chops.

We dining devotees are a gregarious bunch, always eager to trade opinions on what's best and most interesting on the local restaurant scene. So we were all ears when a colleague casually mentioned Players on Madison as "the best place to take a first date."

Sure, our own dating days -- much like the Clinton administration -- are now just a bittersweet memory. But just because we're out of that particular loop, it doesn't mean we weren't intrigued. Exactly what, we wondered, is it about this little Lakewood restaurant that earns it the coveted "first date" title?

Obviously, a fact-finding mission was in order.

This much we knew going in: When restaurateur Gary Lucarelli took over Players from previous owner Mark Shary, way back in 1992, many Greater Clevelanders still thought of dining out as a special-occasion treat, reserved for celebrating birthdays, anniversaries, or that big promotion. But Lucarelli (whose other operations include Star at Playhouse Square, Café Sausalito in downtown's Galleria, and the seasonal Sweetwater Landing on the banks of the Rocky River) and other restaurant owners of that era challenged such precepts, introducing in Players the notion that restaurant dining could be both upscale and casual -- as well as inexpensive enough for folks to indulge in several times a month.

The proof of Lucarelli's acumen is that, 11 years later, Players is still going strong. In fact, after two recent visits, we can vouch that the restaurant does an exemplary job of melding the refined with the relaxed, deftly balancing a sophisticated attitude with a comfortable, welcoming, and thoroughly unpretentious vibe. We noted happily, for instance, that the amenities include such suave touches as flickering votive candles, colorful dishware, and soft, creamy table linens, as well as big cloth napkins for dabbing one's lips; and that the golden ambient lighting in the restaurant's two snug dining rooms was universally flattering. But we also noticed this: When a young mom and dad strolled in, toddler in tow, a high chair materialized almost before they reached the table.

This accommodating personality extends to chef Anthony Romano's diverse, something-for-everyone menu, printed on both sides of an oversized sheet of cream-colored paper. Feel like putting on the dog? Then turn to side one, and discover chichi dishes like tuna carpaccio, a salad of baby arugula, and pistachio-crusted lamb chops. If, on the other hand, you are looking for nothing more than homey comfort, flip to side two, and peruse an impressive array of variations on the theme of pizza and pasta.

The bottom line is that both big spenders and budget-watchers can find something here to make them smile. If that wad of benjamins is burning a hole in the pocket of your Polos, put out the fire with a three-course, 50-buck blowout -- washed down, perhaps, by a $121 bottle of Far Niente Cabernet Sauvignon, chosen from the well-organized wine list. If, on the other hand, you're counting your pennies, a Bud Light and a small pepperoni pizza will set you back a mere $10.25 -- and the tastefully appointed surroundings are yours to enjoy, for free. (Portions are ample, and if you decide to spring for a starter or dessert, a single serving will easily feed two.) No wonder, then, that Players' patrons are a slippery lot to classify: We spotted everyone from beefy guys in cutoffs and work boots, sucking down brewskis and soft-crusted pizzas, to silver-haired gents in gray flannel suits, sipping dry martinis while waiting for their steaks.

This pervasive egalitarianism not only makes Players the perfect neighborhood "come-as-you-are" spot, but, more important for our purposes, clearly makes it a solid bet for a stress-free first date: Regardless of what a prospective honey's food preferences, style of dress, or spending habits turn out to be, a meal at Players is almost bound to fill the bill.

Unless, of course, your potential snuggle bunny proves to be an exacting gourmet. In that case, you might need to hedge your bets a bit, for while most of Players' food was very good -- especially the savory specialty pizzas like the Roberto Finito, which was loaded with smoked chicken, mild chorizo, and roasted red peppers -- not everything was consistently great.

Take, for instance, the lobster taquitos, a blend of roasted corn, black beans, and lobster, dominated by the pungent flavor of fresh cilantro, all wrapped up, burrito-style, in a thick fried flour tortilla, and sliced into four lengths. Not only did the filling prove surprisingly monotonous, but the initially crisp wrapper grew more and more soggy over time, until its texture became downright unpleasant.

Naturally raised, free-range Niman Ranch pork tenderloin is high on the list of our favorite things, so we were stoked to spot it on the menu, "ancho-pepper glazed," and topped with a ragout of roasted corn, smoked bacon, onion, and garlic. But while the thick pork slices were predictably lush and tender, their flavor was all but obliterated by the highly seasoned ragout, which had been applied with a generous hand -- to the point that it overwhelmed the delicate meat.

Other missteps included bland, gummy risotto, served with an otherwise good-tasting special of grilled swordfish steak; and the crusty, overcooked meatballs -- nearly too hard to cut with a fork -- that accompanied a dish of exquisitely firm cavatelli, tossed with a savory, well-balanced sauce of tomato and smoky pancetta. (We've since been informed by the kitchen that they've fixed "the meatball problem.")

That's the downside. But in the plus column, the kitchen did commendable work on one evening's special of sleek, summery gazpacho, a cold, refreshing, uncooked soup of finely diced peppers, onions, tomatoes, basil, and cucumbers, all lent some significant sass by way of Thai chile paste. Although it was offered as a starter, it could easily have served as a light meal, accompanied by a glass of Chardonnay, perhaps, and thick slices of warm, crisp-crusted, Italian-style bread, spread with one of the kitchen's flavored butters. Salads, too, impressed us with both their variety and their interplay of flavors. The mixed-greens mista salad, for instance, was loaded with plump, chewy dried strawberries, crumbs of salty gorgonzola, and slices of red onion, varnished with an adroitly balanced balsamic vinaigrette. And the Mediterranean salad (mixed greens, now carrying a generous cargo of pitted kalamata olives, pine nuts, sliced artichoke hearts, and sliced Roma tomatoes, lightly stroked with a zesty lemon-feta dressing) was a crisp, classic beauty, full of complementary flavors.

On a first date, of course, sweet endings are to be hoped for, and here, too, Players didn't disappoint. The nine-item dessert list demonstrates as much diversity as the rest of the menu, with offerings that range from a very grown-up French-cheese platter, accompanied by dried fruit and an almond-fig cake, to an over-the-top deep-fried banana split, made with pineapple and coconut ice cream, caramel sauce, whipped cream, and macadamia nuts. Tempting as they sounded, though, we skipped over those two options (as well as the mascarpone cheesecake and the more commonplace tiramisu, crème brûlée, and flourless chocolate cake), and zeroed in on the house version of "coffee and doughnuts," a richly satisfying dessert of creamy coffee gelato sided by three chubby, greaseless cake doughnuts, fresh from the fryer and dusted with powdered sugar. In a word, yum. (There is also a small but enticing list of ports and dessert wines, as well as smooth, robust coffee, for additional last touches.)

Afterward, my well-fed companion and I slipped out of the softly lit dining room and into the late-summer twilight, and I reached out and took his hand. "Wanna come home with me?" I whispered breathlessly. "Hell, yeah," he answered, looking at me as if I'd lost my mind. "You've got my damn car keys, and the kids are expecting us home by 10."

Players is a romantic spot, all right. But -- first date or 500th -- some men are a lost cause.

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