Kiss My Grits: Flo Café

Flo Cafe, Cleveland

When I was a kid, I watched a lot of television — not Mike Teevee of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" a lot, but quite a bit. While I can easily go a month without ever turning on the tube now, some portion of my adolescent life seemed to regularly revolve around the idiot box and its bright, colorful, moving images. (This same, misplaced moth gene allows me to stare contentedly at a campfire for hours.)

It follows then, that the worst part of my prepubescent day, besides attending school, was when the after-school cartoons ended and were replaced by, as I recall, "Happy Days," "Laverne & Shirley," and my least favorite, "Alice." While the former creations settled somewhat happily into my gray matter, the strange scars left on my delicate psyche by the gruff and sardonic personalities of Mel, Alice, Flo and the gang probably put me off diners altogether for years.

Ultimately, though, my love of comfort food (and, really, food in general) triumphed. I have since come to see diners and their tasty wares as an important part of America's culinary tradition.

At Flo Café, the Warehouse District's 4-month-old uberdiner concept, solid, traditional comfort food is very much the order of the day. But the surroundings in which said food is consumed are as far from the corner greasy spoon as could be imagined.

The brainchild of Gordon Dinerman, Flo probably has one of the coolest (The Fonz cool, not HVAC cool) rooms on West Sixth. Anchoring the northeast corner of Cleveland's hottest entertainment district, Flo has come to play with a big, open space filled with stainless steel, sleek black and hot-red decor that mix one part diner with equal parts sophisticated and sexy. (This is no more evident than in the three unisex bathrooms with one-way glass doors. Incidentally, you can see out, not in.)

A raised dining area with dramatically curved, brushed metal booth backs overlooks the bar scene on one side and the lake and Cleveland Browns Stadium on the other. Two walls of windows allow for the restaurant's views and give the room a more airy vibe than you find in a building with two neighbors.

Partners Ross Verba (the former Cleveland Browns tackle) and Fredo LaPonza (of "Average Joe: Hawaii" fame) were also looking for a spacious feeling when they designed the bar that runs along one side of the space. Unlike most bar/restaurant concepts, Flo features plenty of open floor area behind the bar stools, eschewing the sardine-can vibe that one often gets in smaller joints and allowing for more mingling and, on Fridays and Saturdays, even a bit of dancing to the house DJ.

Frankly, though, aesthetics and whatnot aside, on our three visits the most interesting thing we found at the bar were the excellent and often inventive martinis. Not too badly priced for their size and Flo's location, each martini we sampled rivaled any in the city. Some of our favorites were Smoretini, Keylime Pie, Strawberry Short-cake, Buffalotini, Espresso-tini, Mojitotini and Gold Margarita-tini. Over the course of one visit, we carefully reviewed much of Flo's list, enjoyed compli-mentary promotional drinks and stumbled out into the night as perfect examples of dignity and composure. (I am pleased to report that there are plenty of cabs in the area.)

Now, after all of that liquor, I think we all need a little something in our stomachs. In fact, some comfort food would be just right ...

Chef Angel Samano's kitchen does a good job of pumping out solid, enormous portions of many of the dishes one would expect to find in a venue dedicated to comfort food sensibilities and, with a couple of exceptions, we were very pleased with our meals and overall experience at Flo. As a working chef myself, I also need to give the kitchen staff some serious props for working the latest hours in the city: 1 a.m. Tuesday through Thursday and a stunning 4 a.m. on Friday and Saturday.

Incidentally, on those super-late weekend nights, Flo offers an After Hours Menu that adds three-egg omelets and four other breakfast items to their selection of salads, starters, sandwiches and casseroles. The Elvis Lives ($8), a grilled peanut butter, banana and bacon sandwich, seems particularly intriguing, but I haven't been in late (and wasted) enough to try it.

On the regular menu, comfort can be found from the soups all the way through the desserts, with all of the dishes (except steaks) topping out in the $12 to $14 range. We sampled the smoked chicken and andouille soup ($4 cup, $6 bowl) on one evening when the temperature outside finally dipped below 80 degrees, thoroughly enjoying the warm, slightly spicy Cajun flavors. Flo offers a house salad ($5), Caesar salad ($6), and chopped salad ($7) for you health nuts out there. Somewhat more interesting are the starters (appetizers for the minimally perceptive). Standouts included the giant pile of shaved, crispy Flo rings ($6) served with spicy, Cajun mayo and the Southwest seven-layer nachos ($7), which were a good, if fairly standard, rendering. The Flo sticks ($7), far and away the best app, wrap remarkably flavorful curried pork and Havarti cheese inside deep-fried tortilla sticks. Add some zesty garlic aioli and you've got a whole lotta heart-stopping fun. Hurray!

For their sandwich selections, the boys at Flo have gathered some favorites from around the country and presented them with a flair for authenticity. The Philly cheesesteak ($7) — Cheese Wiz included — tastes just like it's from the City of Brotherly Love, and the Miami Cuban sandwich ($8) was on par with most others in town. The New Orleans Muffalatta ($8), which originated at the Big Easy's Central Grocery in 1906, is a great hero-style sandwich with salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and olive salad on a crusty roll. (Finally, I've cured my salt-deficient diet. Won't the doctor be pleased?)

On a low note, the Chicago Italian beef ($7) was a little dry and sadly lacking in the promised giardiniera mix, which sucked because this sandwich is one of my favorites. Sandwiches are served with your choice of Flo fries or homemade potato salad, both of which were good, so the choice is up to you.

Completely devoid of disappointments, though, was the TV Dinners section of the menu (again with the television thing). Reasonably priced at $10 during lunch and $14 during dinner, the meals come with choice of potato (the mashed are excellent), chef's veggies (they change, but on both occasions the veggies were perfectly cooked) and a baked fruit cobbler for dessert.

Of the eight toothsome selections, we sampled three. The bacon-wrapped homemade meatloaf was, as with all of the TV dinners, a giant portion of really good, home-style food. The same could be said of the roasted turkey and stuffing (a perennial crowd favorite) and the really wonderful (and extra enormous portion of) country fried steak. In each case, the kitchen almost ensured that doggy bags would be requested and finished out the meal with a simple, well-executed cobbler. (We had cherry on one visit and peach on another.)

To round out your dining selections, Flo offers a trio of baked casseroles, including the extra-ubiquitous, but always comforting, macaroni and cheese ($10), classic lasagna ($12) and chicken pot pie ($12).

As much as I hate to break up the feel-good vibe of this review, I have to say that the chicken pot pie was so poorly executed in terms of flavor and consistency that it leads me to wonder if anyone on the staff has tried it. Or perhaps they have never tried any other versions and lack a point of comparison. Either way, the dish needs attention. (From one culinary brother to another, the problem seems to begin — and possibly end — in the dish's weak, under-flavored veloute and lack of savory vegetables.) The menu also features three broiled steaks, each $20 or less, if you're feeling like breaking a little way out of the comfort vibe.

To complete your meal, if you somehow have room, Flo features some stupid-big desserts, including the largest banana split ($6) we've ever seen.

Flo is a solid bet if you're looking for simple, well-prepared and affordable food on a street that can too often charge above and beyond what the market will bear. Granted, with only a few months under its belt, all of the kinks haven't disappeared, but they are certainly eclipsed by the overall experience of dining at Flo. So stop in, loosen your belt and enjoy.

Flo Café, 1213 W. Sixth St., Cleveland, (216) 443-9080. Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m. — 1 a.m., Fri & Sat 11:30 a.m — 4 a.m., closed Sun.

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