Even more compelling than the aromas of simple cooking that drift through the air at Whitey's is the faint, singularly enticing fragrance of time and place. A little musky, a little bittersweet, it's a nonetheless comforting amalgam of nearly 50 years' worth of food, beer, and cigarette smoke, tempered by the cool, clean air that rises up from the nearby Cuyahoga Valley.
It was way back in 1953 when Tremont native Harry "Whitey" Bigadza left the big city to seek peace and profit in rural Richfield Village, and since that time, his little roadhouse has grown into something of a landmark. Renovations in the early 1990s expanded the space, adding room for dartboards, a projection television, and a variety of video games. But these modern amenities haven't altered the tavern's essential nature as a suitably dim, noisy, and thoroughly unpretentious spot to down a brew, eat some chow, and share a couple of laughs with family or friends.
In its current configuration, the tavern's heart beats loudest within its sturdy wooden bar -- a dark, rectangular corral where fast-moving, no-nonsense bartenders ride herd on bottles of top-shelf liquors, inexpensive wines, and a large selection of beer. Ancient-looking red vinyl barstools, anchored to the floor on all four sides of the bar, provide the seating. Stiff, brown pretzel rods, sprouting out of beer mugs like boozy bouquets, provide a free nosh.
Patrons can drink at the bar or at one of the high-top tables in the game room to the left, surrounded by an awe-inspiring collection of kitsch and clutter. An inflated facsimile of the Oscar Meyer Wienermobile shares space with a full-sized traffic light, a bicycle, and a stuffed deer's head supporting a black lace bra between its antlers. Team schedules and sports memorabilia hark back to the days of the Richfield Coliseum (now busily reverting to a grassy meadow) and the old Municipal Stadium. A jukebox is stocked with everything from Shaggy to classic David Bowie, from Weezer and Green Day to Bob Marley and Frank Sinatra. (There's also karaoke Friday and a DJ Saturday.) But should one hope to eat at a table in the small, undistinguished dining room, be prepared for a wait: Whitey's doesn't accept reservations, and even early on a weekend evening, it can take 20 to 45 minutes to snag a seat.
As befitting a burgers 'n' booze joint, Whitey's food is simple, inexpensive, and plentiful. Great knots of handcut french fries, served with malt vinegar, tumble out of cardboard "boats." Avalanches of mushrooms and grilled onions cascade from plate-sized cheeseburgers. Stuffed baked-potato skins are approximately the size of softballs and considerably more dense.
But Whitey's meaty midwestern-style chili (ground beef, kidney beans, tomato, and seasonings, melded together through attentive cooking) is the specialty of the house -- and for good reason: Rich, thick, and subtly spicy, it is comforting and filling, the perfect antidote for chilly Ohio nights. It can be ordered by the cup or bowl, with a tall head of chopped onion, shredded Monterey Jack cheese, and sour cream, or "naked" and unembellished, save for a little stack of oyster crackers on the side. It also shows up in those giant stuffed baked-potato skins, where it's smothered with melted cheese, bits of real bacon, and sour cream; on nachos; on taco pizza; and on several of the hamburgers. And if that's not enough, the chili can be purchased frozen, to go, in 1-, 5-, or 20-pound tubs. Laying in a tub or two for snowbound winter evenings doesn't seem like such a bad idea at that.
Also popular are the tavern's eight-ounce all-beef burgers, which are tender, greasy, and cooked to a uniform medium. Toppings -- everything from pickles to blue-cheese dressing -- add a flavor boost, and do-it-yourselfers can pour on salt, pepper, ketchup, mustard, steak sauce, or Tabasco from the tabletop selection of condiments. The Maggie Burger, loaded with canned mushroom slices, nicely browned onion, and American cheese, was a messy treat; the Westlight Burger, a guiltily gooey nutritional nightmare, was even more of a challenge to handle, with its cargo of cheese, mayonnaise, lettuce, tomato, and at least a half-dozen strips of savory bacon. Beware the Chili Burger, however, if you are looking for a "hands-on" dining experience: This burger is served in a soup bowl, beneath a mountain of shredded Monterey Jack, smack in the middle of a deep pool of chili. Knives, forks, and maybe even spoons are called for here, to handle the plentiful goods.
Among the appetizers, a dozen large New Zealand green-lipped mussels, served with warm garlic butter, were disappointingly dry, and golden onion rings, piled into a cardboard basket, looked great and smelled enticing, but ultimately proved bland. But a dozen meaty chicken wings were winners, with meltingly tender meat inside their crunchy, battered exteriors; diners can choose from buttermilk, blue cheese, barbecue, honey mustard, or hot sauce for dipping, although we liked the wings just fine without any other enhancements.
The kitchen also whips up a handful of dinners -- items like breaded veal cutlets and baby-back ribs, served with french fries and either a ho-hum head lettuce salad or, better, a bowl of vaguely sweet, finely diced cole slaw. (The menu says hot rolls are included, but on two different nights, with two different servers, we never so much as caught a glimpse of a breadbasket.) The fish dinner, with three crisp filets of battered cod, was good, although it left a noticeable oil slick on our lips; the full slab of baby-back ribs, slathered with a flavorful housemade barbecue sauce, had a hearty aroma, but the meat was mushy and dull.
Although Whitey's friendly servers might not win any prizes for attention to detail -- expect to flag them down when you want another can of soda, for example, and to watch while the soiled paper napkins mount up, with impunity, around your ears -- they are a fast-moving crew who invariably bring orders to the tables piping hot. Once seated, diners can count on getting fed and back out the door in less than an hour, which makes Whitey's a good choice for a bite and a sup on the way to or from somewhere else. But in any case, don't plan to linger over dessert here; if you want a sweet ending, you'll have to pick up a carton of ice cream on your drive home.
Which actually seems fitting, in a roundabout way. After all, Whitey's success was predicated on the popularity of the automobile, in an era when Sunday afternoon rides in the country were a highly regarded form of entertainment and roadside restaurants were wildly popular. Certainly, life's pace has quickened considerably since those days. But here's hoping we never get too busy to take a ride out to Whitey's.