Sometimes there's an upside to homesickness. Iris Wheeler, who moved to Cleveland from her native Germany eight years ago with her husband, missed the lively cafés of Europe, where people meet for drinks, conversation, and small plates, and linger until midnight.
"Here, you are in a restaurant at 10 p.m. and they start putting the chairs on the tables," Wheeler says. "You are rushed." She decided that if she wanted a European café in Cleveland, she would have to create it herself.
The result is Fountain, the stylish Moreland Hills café that, after only a few short months, has garnered no shortage of acclaim.
The name — which is reflected in the large, cherub-ringed fountain on the outdoor patio — is meant to capture the lively spirit of a European plaza. "The fountain is where people meet, where they kiss, where kids play," Wheeler says. The decor is a distinctive intersection of classical and modern, blending classical sculptures and sleek lines with a long, gleaming wood bar, warm lighting, and comfortable couches for lounge-style dining and socializing. Each area is illustrated with photographs of a particular European country: Austria, Switzerland, France, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Germany.
European expatriates — as well as those interested in European culture — are pleased to discover Fountain's genuine Continental cuisine and even copies of foreign-language newspapers for reading. "It's rare to find a European restaurant that is authentic," Wheeler says. "The bread and rolls are from Germany, and we have authentic German sausage and pretzels. We put in a lot of effort — and it's expensive," she adds, though those costs are not reflected in the reasonably priced menu.
Fountain's upscale look belies the fact that it is unusually family-friendly. High schoolers gather there for non-alcoholic drinks because it's "hip," and there's a children's room with games and DVDs. Senior citizens can be found taking turns on the dance floor (on varying nights, there's a DJ and live piano music). And the first and third Tuesdays of every month are Ladies Nights.
Open only since July, Fountain has already acquired a loyal following, with offerings to suit all appetites and schedules. Starting at 7 a.m., the menu boasts a bounty of European pastries, coffees, quiches, strada, and the savory German Breakfast (white sausage, sweet mustard, and pretzel) — as well as curbside concierge service.
Lunchtime ushers in an eager crowd for European plates; salads; German "Mouth Pockets" filled with braised beef brisket, spinach, and marrow butter; and Beef & Lamb Meatballs, among other options. The restaurant serves until midnight each evening. "There are a lot of people here at night," Wheeler says. "It's very vibrant."
The Lounge menu offers small "social plates" for sharing and an impressive list of wines, cocktails, and sweet crepes and gelatos.
"People say 'Your food is so light.' They are smaller portions, not heavy and not fried," says Wheeler, who is elegantly slim. "They leave you satisfied but not stuffed."
Fountain made news recently when it parted company with its original chef, the celebrated Donna Chriszt. But Brian Okin, formerly of downtown's Verve, has capably assumed the reins. Wheeler forsees few changes, apart from previously planned seasonal modifications. "We will still have our crepes and our tapas, and maybe expand our Greek items."
Fountain is Wheeler's maiden restaurant voyage, but she has strong instincts about what makes a satisfying experience. "We are not a 'restaurant,'" she explains, any more than heavy "German chocolate cake" is a genuine German dessert. "We're not formal. We serve good food, but we want people to feel welcome and homey — like being at home on your sofa."