Simple Life

The beer is domestic and the wings are otherworldly at Willoughby's Boulevard.

The Boulevard Grille & Sports Bar 38464 Lakeshore Boulevard, Willoughby, 440-942-9651. 6 a.m. to 1 a.m. Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday and Sunday; bar remains open until 2 a.m.
Mind your Manners: The Boulevard's behemoth burgers might remind you of days gone by. - Walter  Novak
Mind your Manners: The Boulevard's behemoth burgers might remind you of days gone by.
No matter how high we tilt our noses in public, you can bet that every foodie keeps at least a few plebeian proclivities stashed away in the pantry. Maybe it's the Frosted Flakes eaten over the sink by moonlight; maybe it's the Kraft Mac & Cheese hidden behind the tubs of organic quinoa. Or maybe it's the names and addresses of a few down-to-earth neighborhood watering holes -- the perfect antidotes to our usual gourmet obsessions.

To this collection of such egalitarian joints, we've just added the Boulevard Grille & Sports Bar, Lenny Merriman and Dee Tucker's groovy little hideaway, tucked into a vintage building on the corner of Lost Nation Road and Lakeshore Boulevard in Willoughby.

To say the place is unpretentious is an understatement. For proof, just try ordering a Blue Moon or a Hoegaarden from one of the no-nonsense waitresses: The last time we provoked such dramatic eye-rolling was when we nixed our teenager's plans to wear jeans to Giovanni's. No, here a smart guest makes do with the basics, including Budweiser and Miller Lite on draft, and Pabst and Rolling Rock in bottles. Sure, if you ask nicely, a server can probably rustle up a bottle of Corona, Guinness, Bass, or Foster's; just don 't push your luck and ask for a Stella Artois. On the other hand, when the domestic brews go for two bucks and the imports are a mere $2.25, it sort of compensates for the skinny selection.

Despite the no-frills beer list and the down-to-earth vibe, the Boulevard's interior appointments are as clean and tidy as any diner could desire, thanks to a thorough remodeling that Merriman and Tucker undertook in 2002, not long after they bought the spot. As a result, while local historians say the building dates back to at least 1939, the grille's decor is entirely up-to-date, with warm wooden floors, daylight-grabbing windows and doors, a front-entrance awning, and a shiny oak bar, its surface embedded with a collection of interesting oddities, including old photos, Confederate folding money, gum wrappers, sports memorabilia, and more.

On the off chance, however, that studying the bartop and tossing back the brews isn't entertainment enough, there's also a well-stocked jukebox, Silver Streak bowling, Golden Tee golf, and an Ohio Lottery vending machine. At least 10 tellies, tuned to sports, Texas Hold 'Em, and even occasionally The O.C., ensure that none of the 90 or so seats are without a pixilated view. And for those who prefer their fun delivered in real time, on Fridays there's live blues; on Saturday, it's karaoke; and on Sundays, an acoustic jam session kicks off at 8 p.m.

If that's still not enough to get your motor running, take a few minutes to check out the crowd, an eclectic gang that runs the gamut from couples in matching polo shirts and khakis to long-haired bikers in bandannas and blue jeans. Factor in the beer, the cigs, and the ear-splitting shrieks and wails that erupt when the Buckeyes fumble the ball, and the result can be as lively, loud, and smoky as the best the Flats ever had to offer.

Still, the Boulevard has positioned itself as more than merely a bar: It's also a full-service, breakfast-lunch-and-dinner-serving, seven-days-a-week eatery, with a small kitchen that dishes up what is probably an unnecessarily wide variety of options. For early risers, for instance, the morning menu alone contains more than a dozen dishes, running from the lean (two eggs and toast, for $1.69) to the lush (the Boulevard Skillet, with biscuits, eggs, sausage, sausage gravy, cheese, and home fries, for $5.79), and dallying along the way with the usual assortment of pancakes, omelets, and French toast.

There's no shortage of choices, either, come lunch and dinnertime. The written retinue of soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pasta, steaks, and seafood is joined by such daily specials as barbecued ribs and country-fried steak. Sundays, Mondays, and Thursdays feature 20-cent wings; Fridays are usually the nights for all-you-can-eat perch and crab leg dinners; and Saturday's special is generally an $11.95 prime rib chowdown. There's also a children's menu, with chicken fingers, spaghetti and meatballs, hamburgers, and fish.

While we hardly made a dent in the jumble of offerings on the dinner menu, we almost immediately stumbled on a winner in the form of the kitchen's jumbo chicken wings, sided with the requisite celery and blue-cheese dressing. A thoroughly seductive combo of crisp skin, tender meat, and flavorful, freshly made sauce options -- including barbecue, Cajun, sweet hot, honey mustard, lemon pepper, and garlic parmesan -- these bite-sized beauties could easily become a bad habit. In fact, if the hallucinations are any measure, we suspect we've already developed a jones for the "mild" wings, slathered in a tongue-tingling Tabasco sauce just hot enough to make our eyes sting; dipped in the blue-cheese dressing for its soothing, salty counterpoint, they were some of the best little tidbits we've had since our last trip to Buffalo's Anchor Bar -- and to wash them down, an icy Labatt (on tap) didn't hurt a bit.

The kitchen cooks up some fine burgers too. At a whopping eight ounces, the Boulevard Burger was a deliciously greasy, two-fisted feast of beefy ground meat, lettuce, tomato, melted mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms and onions, and bacon. And the double-decker Classic burger, with lettuce, cheese, and a generous dollop of the kitchen's savory "secret" sauce, was as good as anything that Big Boy ever dished up. On the side, the frozen onion rings aren't bad; but if you want a real treat, go with the freshly cut French fries sprinkled with seasoned salt, to complete the Manners' fantasy.

Big, moist, and amply endowed, the Philly steak sandwich was better than many, although it needed a little salt to perk it up. But the slices of done-to-order steak were juicy and toothsome, the melted mozzarella was generously applied, and the onions, mushrooms, and green peppers had been sautéed to a dark caramel.

If the kitchen had chosen to hang up the towel at this point -- after demonstrating its mastery of the basic bar grub -- we would certainly have understood. But the ambitious menu presses on, and in doing so, sometimes outreaches its grasp. Among starters, for instance, rubbery bits of langostino in a buttery bath were highly forgettable, although the broth did make a tasty sop for thick slices of warm garlic toast. And a peculiar take on the ubiquitous artichoke-spinach dip was light on the artichokes, heavy on the cream cheese, and entirely too thick and dense for actual dipping; on the side, though, the crunchy, buttery pita chips tasted just right.

Of course, a big menu needs a well-stocked larder to back it up, and the Boulevard kitchen stumbles here too. Over the course of two visits, the "not available" list included such basics as cole slaw, the menu's porterhouse steak, and by 7 p.m., the Saturday-night prime rib special. A house salad, dressed in a well-balanced bottled Italian dressing, featured a fresh, crisp toss of iceberg lettuce, black olives, shredded mozzarella, sweet onion, and tomato, making it a more-than-adequate substitute for the cole slaw. But the strip steak that filled in for the porterhouse was grocery-store quality: a little dry, a little gristly, and a bit overdone. And once the first serving was picked over, the all-you-can-eat crab legs that we tried in place of the AWOL prime rib weren't nearly good enough to make us ask for seconds -- not that this evening's brand-new server bothered to stop by to see whether we cared for more anyway. Of course, that turned the $24.95 meal (by far the most expensive item on the menu), served with a salad and a soggy, foil-wrapped baked potato, into a not-so-great deal.

Not that we slouch into a bar looking to have our minds blown. In fact, the simpler the grub, the better: That is, after all, what makes these neighborhood taverns a laid-back change of pace. So while we wish the kitchen would follow the bar's lead and stick to the basics, that's good advice for the patrons as well. Keep it simple, sisters and brothers, and the Boulevard just might turn out to be your own secret street of dreams.

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