Graffiti Social Kitchen brings a new look to an old Battery Park address

The writing's on the wall

Graffiti Social Kitchen 1261 West 76th St., 216-651-6969,

Perhaps the time has come for restaurants to move beyond the practice of assigning clever names and tongue-in-cheek descriptions to menu items. At best, the habit merely complicates the ordering process and requires an extended briefing from the server. At worst, the custom results in a diner ending up with something very different from what he or she expected, which may ­— or may not — end well.

At Graffiti Social Kitchen ­— and sister establishment Cork & Cleaver in Broadview Heights — that practice usually does end well, because chef-owners Brian Okin and Adam Bostwick are both masters of the genre, a talent honed by years of hosting boundary-pushing Dinner in the Dark events.

Order the Shepherd's Pie ($17), for example, and the resulting dish will have about as much in common with the homey ground meat and potato casserole as a Big Wheel does with a Harley-Davidson low rider. All the components are there — lamb, potatoes, peas, carrots, gravy ­— but they have been deconstructed and reconstructed into a beautiful swan in place of the customary ugly duckling.

The same goes for the Chicken Parmesan ($15), which swaps the expected pounded-breaded-and-fried cutlet for one fabricated from supple chicken confit. The crispy flank is perched atop, not spaghetti marinara, but rather spaetzle in a zesty tomato puree. While infinitely more thrilling than the original, the dish might disappoint a diner who arrives with very rigid assumptions.

For a neighborhood as deserving as this one, it was a fortunate set of circumstances when Okin & Co. laid a claim on such a prime piece of restaurant real estate. Long credited with possessing one of the most attractive alfresco dining rooms in town, the "old Snicker's building" has changed hands three times in a handful of years. Now, diners can be confident that reliably good food and service will be backing up that lovely scenery.

Indoors offers diners two very different experiences. A 30-seat barroom comes with all the buzz and verve one would expect given the setting, while the upstairs dining room is better suited to larger groups wishing to spread out and hold court. Thanks to recent upgrades, both rooms look better than they have in decades.

Not every dish here is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma; in fact, the guys seem to be playing it straighter in Detroit Shoreway than they are in the 'burbs. Meals begin with a fistful of seasoned popcorn in a brown paper bag, as humble a snack as they come. Fried oysters are, in fact, oysters that are fried ($11), all crisp, plump and briny from the sea. They are perched next to a swoosh of red pepper aioli.

A chips and dip ($8) starter changes by the day. One evening netted a basket of housemade tortilla chips with a watermelon and black bean salsa that was alarming light on watermelon. Thinly shaved Brussels sprouts are the heart and soul of the Grainffiti salad ($8), a delightful toss of greens, grains and champagne vinaigrette. Prepare to do battle over the warm polenta croutons.  

Like the now-famous Reuben Ribs, which taste like their namesake sandwich, the French Onion Egg Rolls ($10) are a dead ringer for the classic soup gratinee. Sliced on the bias, the slender rolls are filled with caramelized onions and gruyere cheese. When dipped into the accompanying broth, magic happens.

Most of the entrees are pleasantly straightforward, like a perfectly grilled flatiron steak ($23) and potatoes, or the Graffiti burger ($14), a jaw-breaking beef bomb topped with fried tomatillos, goat cheese and banana peppers. A burrito ($16) as big as your head is crammed full of rice, beans and meaty hunks of braised beef shortrib. The sub-sized loaf is griddled crisp and topped with crunchy fried onions. The Friday fish fry with pierogis gets a spring tune-up here, with pearly white sautéed cod ($17) alongside cheddar pierogis in a dilly creme fraiche sauce.

Not every dish is a masterpiece of invention, like the fluffy but bland omelet ($15) topped with shortrib chili, a pair of components that should be required by law to keep a distance. We found the bologna fried rice ($8) exceedingly salty, a flaw that might have been mitigated had the fried egg been runny enough to ooze on in.

It would be petty to nitpick what essentially is a spiffed-up neighborhood bar if not for the talent in the kitchen and the tariffs on the menu. That goes for the wine list too, which has way more by-the-glass pours above $10 than below. No such complaints about the draft beer list, a rousing and reasonably priced roster of pints.

Brunch at Graffiti is fast becoming a neighborhood ritual, where friends meet up over brie-stuffed French toast, coconut waffles, and a $24 Bloody Mary for two garnished with housemade pickles, a soft-boiled egg and an entire deep-fried Cornish hen.

And that's no joke.

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Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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