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Getting There

Cedar Creek Grille's service has yet to match the food

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Cedar Creek Grille just feels solid – like one of those timeless New York institutions where one can walk in for brunch, lunch or dinner and get just about anything they want in terms food, service and setting. Seven months of down-to-the-studs renovation has transformed the former Melange space at La Place into an upmarket eatery that likely will be a part of the Cleveland landscape for years to come.

But not until the service improves dramatically.

During two separate visits our experiences with staffers on every level – from hostess to server to manager – left more than a little to be desired. And frankly, that's surprising given the operational muscle behind the moniker. Owner Rick Doody and his family are responsible for such big-time hits as Lindey's in Columbus and the mega-successful Brio and Bravo chains.

On both occasions we were "welcomed" into Cedar Creek by a cheerless hostess who muttered, "How can I help you?" instead of, "Hi, thanks for coming. Party of two?" or any number of other pleasantries that wouldn't have made us feel as though we wandered into the wrong dentist's office.

The sumptuous and richly appointed interior goes a long way toward settling the nerves. Wide-plank wood floors, cherry wood paneling, tranquil lighting and marble-top bars displaying newspapers in neat spools give way to cushy leather booths and crisp linen-and-paper-topped tables. Apron-clad servers and black-and-white photos lend an old-timey feel to the proceedings.

It's a good thing those booths are plush, because we spent a good portion of our time waiting: waiting for drinks, waiting for our server, waiting for a fork, waiting for our meals... When there was an issue with my Bloody Mary ($6.50), I waited in vain for our server to reappear, but ultimately was compelled to tackle a manager. When my silver wasn't returned between courses, I signaled to the manager that I was stealing one from an adjacent table. He nodded – and then didn't bother to restore that place setting. Our server -- on an admittedly busy Sunday afternoon -- did not visit our table once between the moment he dropped off our starters and 10 minutes after we received our mains. Runners delivered the food.

Another night and another server netted similarly frustrating results. We had to inquire about the night's specials just to hear them. A runner again was the only human contact we had for vast stretches of the evening. My wine glass sat empty so long that by the time our server spotted it, my entrée not only had arrived but was half-eaten. Meanwhile, the manager did lazy laps of the dining room, never once extending his path to the perimeter of the room where we were seated.

Fortunately, the food often is very agreeable. Taking a low-risk approach, the kitchen has devised a populist directory of dishes that really does seem to have "something for everybody." We enjoyed one of the best bowls of lobster bisque ($7) in recent memory – a wildly flavorful brew served satisfyingly hot in a pedestaled bowl. The restaurant's French onion soup ($7) – shellacked with oozing cheese – looked even better. The bountiful chopped salad ($6) had just the right mix of crisp greens, eggs, tomato, cheese, croutons and dressing – all of it cut right and tossed well.

It would have been helpful for our server to offer a roadmap on how best to attack the wood-fired artichokes ($10), but instead she simply dropped the app and ran. Though split, trimmed and nicely charred, the artichokes could not be eaten whole as it appeared. Instead, they had to be eaten leaf-by-leaf, stripping the sweet and smoky flesh from the undersides of the petals with one's teeth. Luckily no instructions were needed to enjoy a large portion of airy provolone-stuffed meatballs in marinara sauce ($9).

Steaks and chops are good bets here. The USDA Prime sirloin ($21) was cooked to a perfect medium-rare, sliced, and served with a rich and silky béarnaise. That price includes a heap of dressed arugula and a stainless shaker of skinny fries. The kitchen pushed a beautiful double-cut bone-in pork chop ($19) past its juicy peak, but a generous brine-time saved it from ruin. An interesting mixed rice and grain salad was a welcome departure from boring potato-based sides.

I'd eat Cedar Creek's Tillamook cheddar cheeseburger ($12) any day of the week, but the chicken paillard sandwich ($11.50) was served on bread slices so buttery, they literally formed oil slicks on the plate. Next time I'll order the non-sandwich version of the chicken because it is good enough to give a second shot.  

It's too bad Cleveland only has two seasons because Cedar Creek's swanky three-season patio is as nice as it gets. Outfitted with an outdoor bar, real furniture and a fireplace, this patio will pry considerable business from every other one within a considerable radius. Let's just hope the service eventually matches the surroundings.

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