Fine Diner: Juniper Grille

Juniper Grille, Cleveland

Are you tired of fast-food lunches or, worse, bad food served slowly within your allotted lunchtime? Tired of being held hostage by Ampco and Parking Solutions and their iron grip on proximate parking in Cleveland? Fed up with the high prices you have to pay in certain parts of downtown (hint: all of the buildings used to be warehouses) to acquire a more-than-simply-comestible lunch? And, good citizens, have you noticed that the only breakfast joint near your office is the refrigerated display case at Starbucks? If you answered "yes" to any or all of the above questions, then Tom Szoradi, chef-owner of Juniper Grille, knows how to read a crowd and, as we've found, give them what they want.

Perhaps among you there are motorists who, driving along the crowded rush-hour artery of Carnegie Avenue back in the early autumn of 2002, witnessed an odd sight: Perched on an old office chair in front of the abandoned auto-parts store on the corner of Carnegie and East 14th Street was a large man with, apparently, nothing to do but watch the cars and pedestrians pass by. At other times of day, he sat in his car in the $1 lot next door or wandered the streets within a few blocks of the site, noting the comings and goings of the workaday world.

In this way, Tom Szoradi came to believe that the empty shell of the former World Auto Parts store could play host to the perfect breakfast and lunch spot serving downtown. Now, two years later, his observations have certainly paid dividends, with brisk business throughout the day. Add to that a burgeoning early dinner service catering to the Playhouse Square and Jacobs Field crowds.

From conversations with Szoradi, it's evident that his was not a blind leap into self-employment, but rather the product of careful analysis of dining trends, traffic patterns, restaurant design and personal necessity.

A member of the same generation of Cleveland restaurant trendsetters that produced Michael Symon at Lola, Doug Petkovic and Tim Bando at Theory, and many others who have shaped the way we dine in Northeast Ohio, Szoradi paid his culinary dues in some of the area's most notable establishments, including Players in Lakewood and Carl Quagliata's august Ristorante Giovanni's. He understands food and dining and, more importantly, the needs of the Cleveland dining public. This shows well in his expertly conceived menus, which showcase interesting yet accessible gustatory offerings.

Before we get to the food, however, a few words are in order about the surroundings in which it will be consumed.

With the help of his brothers, Tim and Dave, who own Northern Interiors, and local artist Chris Schramm, Szoradi spent eight months turning the drab storefront into a light, vibrant and welcoming space. The color palette is soft and cool with a suffusion of light sage, violet and earth tones countered by sleek silver and black. The kitchen is open and, unusually, so to is the service station that takes up a large portion of the center of the dining room. In this latter decision, Szoradi's analytical approach to design becomes most evident.

"When you decide to open your own place, you look back at things that you've seen that weren't done right," he says. "One of the things that I always found truly annoying from a restaurateur's point of view is that everything in a dining room became form, instead of function.

"Instead of form vs. function, we approached things with a function-vs.-form mindset. We knew we were going to operate a fast-paced, breakfast/lunch-type business, and the large central server's station made sense. In most restaurants, the server station is an afterthought that gets tucked into a closet large enough to hold a micros [ordering] machine and a coffee maker."

In this and other ways, Juniper Grille succeeds in offering a functional setting without compromising aesthetic sensibility and vibrancy. The design seems to address perfectly the needs of diners stopping in for an expedient, yet nontaxing, meal during their workday.

On the topic of workdays, we note that it's the odd chef who would choose to open a breakfast-and-lunch-only concept. Again, Szoradi's decision was based on observation and analysis.

"Going into this, prior to finding this location, we actually had three concepts, all of which were good and I think would have worked," he says. "We decided to let the space dictate the concept. When we selected this location, we felt it would be perfect for Juniper Grille."

Szoradi also feels a strong need to be a part of his family's life, something which can be difficult for industry employees accustomed to the late nights that usually accompany working in a normal fine-dining environment. Consequently, like many independent restaurants, Juniper Grille is very much a family affair. Tom is not the only Szoradi on the line and behind the scenes. His wife, Mary, has also worked her way through some of Cleveland's finer kitchens and helps out on the line during the days when the couple's 9-year-old son, Tom, is in school. She also possesses, according to Tom the elder, an unusual and arcane understanding of the perfect pancake, which brings us back to food--

When writing a review about a restaurant, we (any of us known as reviewers, critics, reporters, columnists or certain other unprintable epithets) often eat there two or three times. In some cases, these are the first and last visits we'll ever make. Juniper Grille, however, is very much the exception as we (that's the "we" writing this article and not any of the other "we's" referred to in the last parenthetical side note, as we can't say for sure what they've been doing) have been lunching there often throughout its two-year history and continue to do so. The attentive reader will, therefore, gather from our repeat custom that we like to eat at Juniper Grille. Subsequently, it may be inferred that Juniper Grille is a good place to eat. And it is. Szoradi's food is nothing if not consistently prepared, served as expected and priced below expectations.

At various points in the past, during periods of peculiar guilt regarding our usual eating habits, we have sampled the giant Caesar salad ($7.95), orzo chicken salad ($8.25) and the BBQ chicken chopped salad ($7.95), each of which were very good and amply sized to serve as lunch. The ranchero steak salad ($8.95) — grilled strip steak with romaine, tomatoes, onions, toasted pita chips and garlic-peppercorn ranch dressing — is excellent. So, too, is the tuna sesame salad ($8.50) with rare-seared tuna, tasty Oriental vegetable slaw, crispy wontons and Asian greens.

For those looking to multicourse their lunch (or dinner), the shrimp spring rolls ($6.95) are a good bet (and deep-fried!). Even more so, we were pleased by the empanadillas ($5.95) from the dinner menu. These wonderful mini-turnovers (empanar is Spanish for "to bake in pastry") are filled with roasted chicken, corn and chipotle and sided with fresh guacamole and cilantro sour cream.

Also from Szoradi's occasional forays into Southwestern cuisine comes our personal favorite: the Spanish chorizo bake ($6.25), which we have ordered at every lunch until our dining companion cautions us that "since we're writing a review, we should order something else." For those unaware of chorizo, it is a spicy Spanish sausage (which Sally sells by the seashore) that is muy popular in both Spanish and Mexican cuisine. At Juniper Grille, it shows up in the aforementioned chorizo bake, in the Southwestern chicken chorizo wrap ($7.95) and, at breakfast (which is a mysterious meal served before our alarm clock usually goes off), in the Mexican skillet ($6.25). All applications are excellent and highly recommended.

At lunch, Szoradi offers 14 different sandwiches, all very good, with the chicken and Brie wrap ($7.95) and the open-faced Carolina pulled pork ($7.95) being our favorites. Our only request of lunch would be the inclusion of some sort of dip for the homemade potato chips ($2.95 per side).

The menu also boasts several entrees during lunch and dinner. Szoradi's meatloaf ($10.95) is a practically perfect representation of the dish, accompanied by gravy, buttermilk mashed potatoes and crisp onions. Another well-executed classic is the Chicken paprikash ($10.95) in a good, but not good-for-you smoked paprika-sour cream pan sauce. Pasta dishes, such as penne Bolognese ($10.95), shrimp angel hair ($11.95) and squash ravioli ($10.95), have also been very nicely handled on our visits.

Service is brisk and well-suited to breakfast and lunch. By Szoradi's own admission, he is currently working on additional training for his front-of-the-house staff to prepare them for the more detailed pace and demanding requirements presented by their growing dinner business. On a couple of visits, we encountered wine service-related issues, though they were hardly detrimental to the dining experience as a whole. And Szoradi is quick to remind that Juniper Grille is, by design, an upscale diner concept and not to be confused with a fine-dining restaurant.

Fine dining or diner, Juniper Grille is sure to satisfy for breakfast, lunch or dinner with an unbeatable combination of great food, good atmosphere, reasonable pricing and general accessibility. Besides, don't you spend enough money on your car without having to pay $7 for parking at lunch?

Juniper Grille, 1332 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland, (216) 771-1334. Hours: Mon 6 a.m. - 4 p.m., Tue-Fri 6 a.m. - 8 p.m., Sat 7 a.m. - 3 p.m. and 5 - 9 p.m.

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