Talk about "Hidden Gems." Snickers Tavern is the perfect example just finding the restaurant can be a challenge. It's on a little-traveled but surprisingly well-kept residential street near the intersection of Lake and Detroit avenues. Snickers occupies an ancient tavern building (circa 1905) at the north end of West 76th Street, where the road dead-ends into the Shoreway amid a cluster of abandoned factories.
The place is full of surprises. First, there's simply the shock of finding an upscale watering hole in such an unlikely spot. Inside, the pleasant surprises keep coming. The first-floor bar, boasting its original tin ceiling, has been lovingly and tastefully restored. The patio, paved with brick, shaded by a venerable catalpa tree and surrounded with lush greenery, is surely one of the most beautiful alfresco dining spots in town. The upstairs main dining room is airy and spacious, extraordinarily comfortable and inviting.
The food here is extraordinary, too. Owner Ron Heinbaugh and executive chef Chris Brunst put their heads together to devise dishes that delight the palate with their originality and creativity. Brunst trained at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and worked at the Johnny's locations downtown and on Fulton Road before joining Heinbaugh shortly after he acquired Snickers Tavern in April 2000.
"The crowd here is younger than at Johnny's and more willing to try new things," Brunst says. He satisfies their willingness to experiment, but experience and his innate food sense keep him from pursuing novelty for its own sake. Heinbaugh, a self-taught chef in his own right, seeks to balance Brunst's creativity with the practical necessities of running a business. Their collaboration works well.
We can think of few better ways to unwind after a tough day at the office than to relax on Snickers' shady patio with a cool drink and a selection of Brunst's appetizers from around the world.
Try the "chicken cigars" ($8) for a lesson in how best to fuse a variety of Asian ingredients into a spectacular dish. Chicken breast meat and scallions seasoned with garlic and a dash of sesame oil are tightly rolled into eggroll wrappers and deep fried. They're presented with a dipping sauce that combines the punch of wasabi with the sweetness of coconut cream. The "cigars" are mounted on a salad of Chinese cabbage and drizzled with a reduction of balsamic vinegar. The result is one of the best, and best-looking, appetizers in town.
Italy is represented with bocconcini bread loaf ($7). The chef starts with the ingredients of a classic Caprese salad perfect tomatoes and creamy fresh mozzarella then surprises us by stuffing them into a loaf of Asiago cheesebread, basting the loaf with olive oil, sprinkling it with fresh herbs and baking it to a golden brown. Each bite is a surprise: alternately warm, crispy, creamy, fruity and cheesy. It's plenty for two to share.
From the Middle East comes a platter of creamy hummus garnished with grilled peppers, onions and mushrooms, and accompanied by a generous side of crunchy fried pita bread ($8). All-American Buffalo wings, hot and garlicky, are served with celery, carrots and the traditional bleu cheese dipping sauce ($6).
Favorite entrees include beef filet stuffed with chunks of lobster and Asiago, then topped with a creamy reduction of lobster bisque ($22). Our beef was full-flavored and perfectly cooked: deliciously charred on the outside, rosy and medium rare on the inside, precisely as ordered. Perfectly cooked, too, is the long-bone pork chop ($14). The accompaniment, a salad of arugula and onions dressed with vinaigrette of truffle oil and balsamic vinegar, provides a perfect counterpoint to the rich sweetness of the chop ($14).
Seafood selections vary with market availability, but you'll usually find an expertly grilled salmon fillet basted with a luscious honey-Dijon mustard sauce and perched atop a salad of spinach greens atingle with wasabi dressing ($14). Another regular is mahi-mahi served with a salsa of black olives, artichokes and tomatoes, and topped with a crumble of feta cheese ($14).
Chef Brunst promises that his fall menu, due to debut soon, will move our own personal favorite from sometime special to everyday availability. A brace of top-quality veal cutlets are dredged in breading studded with roasted pecans and sautéed in butter until crisp and golden ($18). Not to be missed.
Side dishes reflect seasonable availability and quality as well as the chef's fancy. Some prizes to look for include Savoy potatoes (think the creamiest, most buttery scalloped potatoes ever), creamy tarragon redskins, garlic mashed potatoes, asparagus (a tad undercooked on one visit), snow peas and green beans.
Desserts are all made on premises and well worth the caloric splurge. Our top choice is German chocolate cake moist, delicious and loaded with coconut and pecans. Crème brûlée, carrot cake and chocolate mousse are also worth a try. New to the menu and already winning fans is a cheesecake brownie served in a puddle of sweet caramel sauce. All desserts are priced at $5.
Snickers' servers are friendly and courteous. They know the menu and wine list well enough to offer sound advice, but they won't intrude. They also have the energy to race from ground-floor kitchen to second-floor dining room without becoming winded or grouchy.
The second-floor dining room is not wheelchair accessible. All menu selections are available in the bar area and patio, both on the first floor, but getting to the restroom from either the bar or patio requires some stair climbing. All major credit cards are accepted.
At lunchtime, Snickers offers salads and sandwiches, as well as smaller portions of some dinner entrees. For a real treat, try a club sandwich made with a crabcake topped with bacon, lettuce and tomato ($9) or grilled chicken topped with guacamole and smoked Gouda ($8).
Snickers Tavern, 1261 W. 76th St., Cleveland, (216) 631-7555. Call ahead to confirm hours (because so many of Snickers' customers come for patio dining, hours of operation may be curtailed during fall and winter). Summer hours: lunch: Mon-Fri 11:30 a.m. - 2:30 p.m.; dinner: Mon-Thu 2:30 - 10 p.m., Fri and Sat until 11 p.m., Sun 4 - 10 p.m.