Along with every additional barstool, table, chair, menu item, specialty cocktail and employee comes untold additional headaches. Add too many to the mix and we'll likely be seeing that business on the next episode of "Restaurant Impossible." While some operators elect to go big or bust, others follow the mantra that the smaller and simpler, the better – both for them and us diners.
For 20 years, that's been the unwavering path of Mike Moyer. In 1997, Moyer purchased Alvie's Gateway Grille, the last of a trio of popular downtown Alvie's branded restaurants birthed by Alvin Friedlander, father to Moxie and Red founder Brad, proof that restaurant ownership is a hereditary trait. Moyer ran that well-trafficked spot just off Public Square for 16 years before jettisoning the greet-and-seat grind for the boxed-lunch life of corporate catering, a sideline he developed and expanded while running Alvie's.
"But I've always wanted to go back to doing the breakfast and lunch thing, serving this kind of food – I'll call it comfort food," Moyer says. Asked what specifically he favors about this type of restaurant, he adds, "It's the hours – being able to have a life. At least that's the way it's been for most of my life, but right now, we're working our butts off."
The other half of that "we" is wife Diana, who's been at his side every step of the way. And the reason they are working their tushies off is a little breakfast and lunch diner called Mike & Dee's, a gem of a joint tucked inside the Holiday Inn Express on Euclid. Formerly Sammy's Grille, the spot changed hands earlier this summer.
For such a small operation, there's no shortage of things to do, Moyer assures me. From making the matzo ball soup and "famous" ranch dressing to frying up bacon and hand-forming the Angus beef burger patties, it's a bottomless to-do list. "And originally, I thought it was too small," he says of the 48-seat diner.
Mike & Dee's sports the classic diner chassis, which is to say that those balanced atop a swivel stool at the lengthy counter have unobstructed views of all the sputtering griddle-and-spatula action. In the morning, that flattop fills up with breakfast chestnuts like french toast, pancakes and three-egg omelets. At lunchtime, that expanse of hot steel is buried beneath an acre of oozing patty melts, grilled cheese sammies, and quesadillas, long a staple in Moyer's repertoire.
This is a bona fide "what'll ya have" hideaway, where servers greet regular customers by name and genuinely seem to care about the answer to the question "how is everything?" Weak coffee fills the mugs until your corned beef hash ($6.95) makes a landing, topped, in my case anyway, with over-easy eggs and accompanied by buttered wheat toast. My only gripe is the lack of crispy griddle-charred bits on the hash, but I keep that to myself. No complaints from my breakfast companion, who ordered the #1 ($6.50), a pair of eggs, home fries, bacon and toast. Breakfast sandwiches – on toast, bagels or muffins – and wraps are popular with the grab-and-go commuters who work in the immediate area.
"Simple things done well," Moyer's motto, is illustrated by the Diner Club ($8.49), which is filled with the kind of meat you don't have to close your eyes to enjoy. Real roast turkey (not that slimy, watery stuff) and smoky ham are interwoven among three slices of toasted Italian bread along with bacon, lettuce, tomato and ranch dressing. A mountain of crispy, salty fries were pulled from the fryer at the optimal moment in time. Corned beef is king here, served straight up on rye, griddled with swiss and kraut Reuben-style, or shoehorned between two fried potato pancakes for those whose only plans include a long nap in a cool, dark room.
Homemade soups like split pea or matzo ball ($4.50), a flavorful, peppery broth overtaken by one large, soft, airy orb, are served with the customary packets of Saltines. Chili and other substantial brews and broths will begin making cameos as the weather cools down.
For now, there are only a handful of heartier entrees like hot open-face turkey or roast beef with mashed potatoes and gravy on the menu, but Moyer intends to step up his comfort-food game when he's got a better handle on the fledgling operation. After 20 years on his own, not to mention the decades spent toiling for others, he knows not to bite off more than he can chew.