Stages: In the Spotlight

The Cleveland Play House Club, a private dinner theater, had a long run — almost half a century. But it took a final bow last summer, and the red velvet drapes and old cast pictures came down. In September, the stylishly renovated space debuted as Stages, a restaurant open to the public.

Operated by Gary and Matty Lucarelli, local industry pros who own four other places (including Star at Playhouse Square and Players on Madison), it’s still part of the theater complex and the perfect spot for a pre-performance meal or after-show drink. But even if you don’t have tickets to see the latest production at the Bolton or the Drury, Stages has plenty to offer. A recent dinner there was an experience in three acts.

Act 1: Happy Hour

We had reservations for 7:30 p.m., but arrived early to take advantage of “5 at 5.” Selected noshes, cocktails and wines by the glass are available at the bar for $5 from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. We weren’t the only ones kicking back after work. The crowd was a mix of suits-and-strings-of-pearls couples and younger jean junkies. The lady next to me chain sipped dirty martinis while her companion, tie loosened, nursed a pour of Renwood Syrah. I did the same with a passable Viognier and watched patrons tuck into bowls of steamed Prince Edward Island mussels and half-pound bistro burgers. The big dining room, partially visible from my barstool, was busy too. Down front, on an elevated platform, a guy played “Moon River”
on a baby grand piano. We were eager for a front-row seat.

Act 2: The Meal

The walls in the multilevel room are the color of hot cocoa. Tablecloths are cream, napkins black. It’s a classy look. Combined with the live music, it evokes images of ’40s-era supper clubs. The menu has a retro side too. There are French-inspired classics including shrimp de Jonghe, coq au vin and steak fritte, plus liver and onions, a holdover from the club days. But chef Robert Buehner, who’s run the kitchen since 1999, also does more creative and contemporary preparations, including confit pizza, Thai chicken salad and grilled salmon with pink peppercorn citrus vinaigrette. We mixed and matched freely.

For starters, we ordered potato chips. Paper-thin slices of freshly fried Yukon golds were coated with white truffle oil, truffle salt and shreds of Gruyere cheese ($8). To accompany this delectable munch, we chose a bottle of Artesa Elements 2004 ($36), a Bordeaux varietal blend and one of the nice, reasonably priced California reds on the list. By the time the chips disappeared, the Coquilles St. Jacques ($12) arrived. It’s a tasty trio of plump seared scallops in a fan-shaped shell topped with a creamy sauce veloute. The addition of mushrooms and potato puree made it a sort of surf-and-turf take on the traditional dish. Quick on its heels was a sunset-pretty and palate-pleasing salad ($11). Roasted red and yellow peppers, splashed with Dijon-balsamic vinaigrette, were plated with marinated feta crumbles.

Next up was a grilled lamb chop special: four bones in a Madeira reduction and green peppercorn sauce ($29). The meat, done medium-rare as requested, was accompanied by a mock risotto featuring roasted yellow tomatoes.

We had agreed to share entrees, but once I tried my lobster thermidor ($27), the deal was off. Buehner reinterprets the traditional shellfish in bechamel by popping chunks of lobster into a pot pie. The flaky pastry crust, awash in a brandied bisque spiked with sherry, vermouth and heavy cream, was wonderful.

Act 3: Show Time

At 7 p.m. there were about 150 patrons in the room. By eight, there were only four people left. That’s when the curtain goes up at the Play House. There is a late-night menu Friday and Saturday and our server said they sometimes get a rush of after-show diners. But typically the bustling restaurant becomes a ghost town when the house lights dim next door.

We stayed for another hour, enjoying espresso, cappuccino and desserts —chocolate tiramisu and a pear frangipane tart ($8.50 each). Nobody came in and the other folks departed. Mike Leamon, one of the restaurant’s talented piano men, usually leaves too, but the manager coaxed him into doing one more short set just for us.

We didn’t mind having the place to ourselves, but Stages deserves a larger audience; the food, service and ambience were definitely worth a round of applause.

Stages at the Cleveland Play House, 8501 Carnegie Ave., Cleveland, (216) 795-1111; Tue-Thu 5 - 9 p.m., Fri & Sat 5 - 11:30 p.m. when shows are running. Other times, call for hours.
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