Clad in a sturdy brown Carhartt coat, a knit cap and a carpenter's belt, local artist Andy Marusic circles Great Scott Tavern's 110-seat dining room like a teacher on test day, pausing here and there to measure the length of a table, test the strength of a booth back, erase a smudge on the wall. The sound of an approaching truck sends the carpenter hurtling toward the door, where four men begin unloading a 12-foot slab of reclaimed wood set into a custom-made steel divider. Guided by Marusic, the men navigate easily through the room and begin to install the artwork, which will break the cavernous space into one that's more intimate and visually appealing.
Located along a short historic strip of Euclid in a massive restored post office, the East Side eatery underwent a million dollar, nearly 3-year build-out by longtime Euclid resident Janet Scott that also transformed an adjacent gas station into an ample parking lot.
While opening day was more than six months ago, the restaurant is still undergoing design updates, menu tweaks and other adjustments. With a focus on steaks and chops, creative comfort food and classic cocktails, Great Scott Tavern is striving to gain footing and regular customers even as its personality develops.
For instance, although the restaurant and executive chef Michael Keyerleber are already establishing a reputation for culinary excellence — particularly in the chain-heavy East Side suburbs — the overly bright, stiff dining room and undeveloped wait staff have attracted criticism.
"That's a work in progress," says Keyerleber. "You don't hear chefs say this all the time, but the food isn't the most important thing. It has to be great, but what makes a good dining experience is when you're comfortable and feel like you're being taken care of. I don't think we have that yet."
It's a process that may have already turned some diners away. But for the patient, it's a visible illustration of an evolution that all new restaurants go through, and one that shows a lot of promise under Keyerleber's clarity of vision.
"I actually wrote a little mission statement," he laughs. "Ninety-eight percent of what we do we make in-house, and that's important to me. And I think that's what can set you apart from similar restaurants or your neighborhood competitors. People would be surprised at the quality of meal you can really get in Euclid."
When the concept for Great Scott Tavern was first discussed and announced, Keyerleber was not yet on board. Scott had contracted Nick Kustala (most recently proprietor of the Estate on Coffee Creek in Austinburg, Ohio) as consulting chef. He helped with the concept, renovation and kitchen design — a sprawling layout that includes two grills and more than three dozen burners, although such volume is still theoretical — before Keyerleber came on board last February.
Formerly executive chef of Jonathon Sawyer's Noodlecat and chef de cuisine at Greenhouse Tavern, Keyerleber brought his technical, from-scratch cooking skills to an area known primarily for mom-and-pop shops with sprawling menus and developed a tight, 28-item menu that would allow his kitchen staff to consistently nail his dishes.
The menu is divided into first courses such as from-scratch daily soups ($6), classic comfort food such as a bacon-wrapped veal, beef and pork meatloaf ($13), main courses like the 8-ounce Scott burger with pork belly and aged cheddar ($14) and larger filets, strips and rib-eyes ($20, $24 and $28 respectively), plus specialties heavy in seafood and vegetarian dishes such as vegetable cassoulet ($13).
Most of the options coming from Great Scott's kitchens are satisfying, particularly for a family-friendly, suburban market. But even knowing that the restaurant is still developing, there are a handful of dishes that make it worth traveling the length of Interstate 90.
"It's not rocket science," says Keyerleber. "If you have good technique and you get good ingredients, your food's going to be good. That's where it starts." His style eschews the finishing oils, extraneous sprinkling of fine herbs and the like in favor of a more streamlined list of ingredients. "Simply done but very well done," as he puts it.
For instance, the braised beef stroganoff ($18) made with Ohio City Pasta pappardelle and lightly coated in a rich mushroom cream sauce gets to the heart of Cleveland comfort food without the accompanying stomachache. Toothy pasta meets butter-soft braised Ohio beef, with just enough sauce to pull it all together. A double-bone pork chop ($17), cooked to a perfect medium — something many diners are still uncomfortable with but which is safe when correctly done and results in a moist, tender chop — and served with creamy, unctuous heirloom corn grits and braised collard greens is a value beyond any you'll find in Tremont or downtown, with just as much finesse.
Not every item is an immediate hit. We recommend skipping Great Scott's massive desserts, for instance, unless your sweet tooth leans toward the super-sugary, while a chef's board ($17) of various cheeses, charcuterie and pickled vegetables likely would have been better received with even a cursory explanation from a knowledgeable server.
But strong, classic cocktails such as a Bulleit bourbon lemonade ($7.50) make up for pastry shortfalls. Also recommended is the eclectic wine list. The 25 selections are even more approachable thanks to thoughtful menu pairings alongside unfamiliar labels. Try a Michael David 7 Deadly Zins zinfandel ($9 per glass) with the stroganoff.
So if the high-backed booths, harsh lighting and industrial carpet of the sprawling dining room don't make for comfortable meals (and many weekday families with young children would disagree), step through the lounge into the bar area. Unique wood counters — designed and constructed by Marusic, who also built the booths and tables in the dining room — and sturdy bar stools face the large, spotless open kitchen, where you can both watch and smell food coming off the wood-burning grill.
And if that still doesn't do it for you, give it another month or two. The restaurant is undergoing constant change, and so far every indication is that each new alteration brings the concept into clearer focus.
"I try and just hold up the idea that we can't chase every little concept or criticism [from the neighborhood]," says Keyerleber. "We have to provide what we're doing, which is approachable comfort food done really, really well. That should sell itself."
When You Go: Great Scott Tavern, 21801 Lake Shore Blvd., Euclid, 216-417-3019,greatscotttavern.com, Mon-Thu 4-10 p.m., Fri 3-11 p.m., Sat 4-11 p.m.
Itching for an excursion outside the 216? Consider Detroit — yes, Detroit — for a plate of yummy unity.
Great Scott Tavern's executive chef Michael Keyerleber may have grown up in Mentor, right down the road from the shiny new steak-and-ale house in Euclid. But he earned his kitchen chops in Detroit, where he lived with his wife for nearly a dozen years. "We were looking for a way to move back to Cleveland. I was keeping an eye on the scene here," says Keyerleber. "One of the things that attracted me to coming back to Cleveland was the collaboration amongst the chefs in town."
Keyerleber points to new-school chefs such as Matt Mytro of Flour, Brett Sawyer of Plum Cafe & Kitchen and Mike Schoen of Local Sol as creative professionals with extra willingness to share knowledge and collaborate on projects — a behavior that's nearly unheard of in cutthroat climates such as New York City.
"We want to do things together," he says. "But on a more macro level, as a region, why shouldn't we be collaborating with chefs in Detroit, or Pittsburgh, or Columbus, or Buffalo? I think it'd be really cool if we as a Rust Belt region could put our cuisine on the map as a counterweight to, say, the Southern cuisine [or] Portland."
Given his experience with the former, and the food renaissance going on just 170 miles away — "sort of where Cleveland was 10 years ago maybe," Keyerleber says — here's his recommendations for places to frequent. Who knows, you might just spot one of these guys behind the line at Great Scott Tavern as Keyerleber begins to put his ideas (such as a chef takeover night) into action.
With a highly curated (and often-changing) menu, plus a rustic but beautiful plate presentation reminiscent of Bar Cento, Selden Standard describes itself as a "New American small plate" restaurant committed to the seasons and local farms. Try their smoked potato with creme fraiche, raclette and dill ($9) or celery root agnolotti with short-rib ragu and mushroom conserva ($16).3921 Second Ave., Detroit, MI, 313-438-5055,seldenstandard.com
Wright and Co.
"Dine on a selection of seasonally rotating small plates" at this hip gastropub with a touch of luxe. Executive chef Marc Djozlija was nominated last year for a James Beard Award for best chef great lakes region (nabbed, in fact, by Cleveland's own Sawyer) and has peppered the menu at Wright and Co. with an eclectic range of dishes including braised oxtail with Parisian gnocchi and tri-color carrots ($16) and pork belly sliders with tomato jam and arugula ($9). 1500 Woodward Ave., Floor 2, Detroit, MI, 313-962-7711,wrightdetroit.com
Johnny Noodle King
Like Noodlecat before it launched the new simplified menu, Johnny Noodle King is a fusion ramen house in the heart of Detroit. Try a "brothed" champon bowl made with seafood, egg, black mushroom and cabbage ($12) or a "sauced" smoked butter noodles with smoked butter, mustard greens, capers and ramen ($9). Add chicken or pork fat free to any bowl.2601 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI, 313-309-7946, johnnynoodleking.com