Not So Satisfying

Snickers' hit-or-miss menu makes for a bittersweet experience.

Snickers Tavern 1261 West 76th Street 216-631-7555. Summer hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, and 4 to 9 p.m. Sunday
Forget the food and go mellow out on Snickers' - gorgeous patio. - Walter  Novak
Forget the food and go mellow out on Snickers' gorgeous patio.

What with Snickers' long-standing history as a gay-friendly venue and all, one hesitates to call the gorgeous outdoor patio a fairyland, but there you have it. Shadowed by the hulking skeletons of abandoned factories and guarded by a tall stockade fence (mind the triple row of barbed wire), the shaded brick patio at the end of West 76th Street is a veritable secret garden of umbrella tables and verdant landscaping, complete with tiki torches, twinkling mini-lights, and a fern-lined pool featuring the always amusing "little boy peeing into the water" fountain.

But whether or not one is looking to get pissed, if there is a more lush and lovely spot in town to sip a tall, cool drink -- with or without a paper umbrella -- we've yet to stumble across it. And like the setting, the 28 options on the long "summertime libations" menu are mighty good-looking: sky-blue Electric Lemonades, for instance, with Absolut Citron and blue curaçao ($7); pale-gold Bahama Mamas ($8), with rum, fruit juices, and coconut cream; and lime-tinged Grande Margaritas ($7), with Cuervo 1800 and Grand Marnier, just to name a few of the way-too-easy-sipping and amply alcoholic sweeties. (As for the menu's disclaimer that "Snickers cannot be held responsible for uninhibited acts committed after the enjoyment of these beverages," not to worry: Despite the sultry kiss of summer air, we saw nothing that amounted to more than PG-rated behavior during our two visits.)

Of course, patio-friendly weather has been scarcer this summer than Texas prosecutors at a gay-pride parade, so guests may well find themselves dining inside the vintage tavern instead. This is not a bad thing: The upstairs dining room is spacious and comfortable, and the cozy main-floor barroom, with its ornate tin ceiling, mahogany-and-mirrored back bar, gilt-framed paintings, and cabbage-rose tablecloths, is Victorian-saloon-girl pretty.

You almost expect to see a guy in a red-striped vest and derby hat banging away at an old piano in the corner. But no, the room's soundtrack is supplied instead by a wall-mounted jukebox, with artists ranging from Elton John to Billie Holiday (at least, we think it was Lady Day, and not David Sedaris doing one of his nuts-on impersonations). There's also candlelight, Fiestaware, and a muted television, which was tuned to X-Men on a recent Saturday night. ("I love the X-Men!" a manly voice proclaimed. "Don't we all?" came the rumbling rejoinder.)

But while the physical surroundings may have been charming (with the exception of the restrooms, that is -- about which the less said, the better), the food proved to be full of frustrating inconsistencies, with more ups and downs than a Cedar Point thrill ride.

Current owner Ron Heinbaugh purchased Snickers in April of 2000, cleaned it up considerably, and helped create the restaurant's eclectic menu of starters, salads, sandwiches, and entrées, which is now overseen by executive chef Matthew Miller. It's a tasty-sounding read, filled with gorgonzola-stuffed this and prosciutto-topped that, and with plenty of pesto, pine nuts, and butter thrown in for good measure. But right from the starters, it became clear that the descriptions set expectations that the dishes often strained to meet. Bocconcini Bread Loaf was a case in point. While the menu's wordy recounting went on at some length about asiago-cheese bread stuffed with fresh tomato and mozzarella, topped with butter, garlic, basil, and olive oil, and baked "to perfection," the reality wasn't nearly as glamorous. The few thin slices of bocconcini and pale tomato that had been slipped into the partial loaf between a series of deep slashes seemed more like garnish than stuffing. And if the final product was pleasantly moist and warm, the piquant flavor notes of garlic, asiago, and basil were notable only by their absence.

And so it went: an indistinct lobster bisque reduction here, an alleged wasabi-coconut cream sauce there, and an undetectable sun-dried-tomato-and-roasted-garlic vinaigrette somewhere else, until an unimpressed diner could begin to suspect that the kitchen was trying to stage the culinary equivalent of The Emperor's New Clothes.

Even that wouldn't have been so bad, if prices had seemed fairer. But when a $4 surcharge added only three small strips of grilled chicken to an already modest portion of artichoke-and-cheese ravioli, for instance, and when entrée prices, mostly in the mid-to-high teens, didn't even include a slice of bread, questions of value predictably moved to the fore. (Heinbaugh later explained that bread should have accompanied our meals, but guessed that our server had forgotten to bring it.)

And yet, just when we were about to dismiss the food as unimpressive and relatively overpriced, along came a sublime semi-boneless chicken breast, generously stuffed with fresh spinach and havarti, wrapped in a stocking-sheer slice of prosciutto, and pan-seared until it gleamed like gold. Settled on a bed of creamy scalloped potatoes and sided with a tidy fagot of haricots vert, this dish was major dope -- succulent, juicy, and bursting with savory flavors.

So how, then, to explain the disappointing 14-ounce strip steak, topped with crushed peppercorns, that came out of the same kitchen mere moments later? Ordered medium rare, it was served bloody raw -- so cool, in fact, that a little disk of butter on top wasn't even breaking a sweat. A side of mashed potatoes, studded with cloves of roasted garlic, was well seasoned and flavorful, but almost as tepid. And if we were entertaining the notion of sending the plate back to the kitchen for reheating, we soon came to our senses: Our friendly server had the maddening habit of disappearing for a quarter-hour at a stretch, and by the time he reappeared, our appetite had pretty much bolted, too.

We can't say for certain that Snickers service, overall, isn't up to par, because it was our bad luck to snag the same waiter for both our visits. But we can attest to the fact that this particular fellow seemed perpetually distracted. We waited for drinks, we waited for apps, and then we waited some more when it was time to pay our bill. "I'm losing my mind!" we heard him confide to a nearby party, and all those delays weren't doing much for our state of Zen, either.

So here's the bottom line: Snickers' patio is great. Gay or straight, head there in the summer prepared to drink, commune with nature, and kill some time -- especially if you get our server. Gay guests will be rightly attracted to Snickers' bar year-round, for its warm, welcoming vibe and comfortable ambiance. But regardless of sexual orientation, guests who are hungry, hurried, or value-minded could do better at any one of half a dozen places within a five-mile radius of Snickers. Those people should jump into their cars and drive to one of those restaurants immediately -- before anyone has a chance to drop a quarter in the Snickers jukebox and play another Elton John song.

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