There might be no better sign of the times than the recent transformation of the Literary Cafe in Tremont to the Literary Tavern. For nearly 30 years, the Literary Cafe — or, simply, the Lit — served as a sanctuary of creativity, a bohemian hideaway where events like art exhibits, poetry readings and life-drawing sessions could take place with blithe abandon. Now, the building is home to another place to eat.
When it comes to the pursuit of fun, dining out has eclipsed antiquated pastimes like art, theater, dance and music. And nowhere is that more apparent than in Tremont where, for better or for worse, gallery hops have given way to small-plate sorties, progressive dinners and Taco Tuesday. We can now add the freshly minted Literary Tavern to the list of places worth checking out.
It took three years, heaps of cash and bottomless reserves of resolve for new owner Ross Valenti to see this ambitious project to the finish line. When he finally got there, he had succeeded in reshaping the come-as-you-are saloon into a crisply tailored tavern that likely will appeal to his neighbors, many of whom have plunked down upwards of half-a-million dollars on an angular new townhome.
In terms of a culinary identity, the Literary Tavern is tough to categorize. It's not a chef-driven bistro, Italian trattoria or newfangled deli. It doesn't specialize in tacos, pizzas or ramen. It's a bar with food, much of it Mediterranean in origin, some of it American, and all of it dished up in a clubby, cosmopolitan lounge away from the main drag. Some will lament the loss of "character," while others will appreciate the stylish decor, comfortable fixtures, relaxed atmosphere and consistent hours of operation.
Also new to the 150-year-old building is a kitchen. Valenti, a Tremont resident, operates a pair of Broadview Heights restaurants, D'Agnese's and Cantine, two very different styles of dining united by a common cuisine. Those menus appear to offer inspiration for the one proffered at the Lit, where a modest selection of largely satisfying fare is dished up at below-market prices. Nearly half the menu is devoted to snacks, appetizers and salads. The rest is handed over to burgers and sandwiches, pastas and large plates.
Much like our visits to the restaurant, an appetizer of veal meatballs ($10) produced mixed results. Valenti knows balls, and the trio that landed on our table were light, beefy and stuffed with a surprise dollop of cheese. All are gilded with pesto and cream sauce, perched in a summery marinara and sided by thick toasted bread for dipping. Too bad they were presented in a cold cast iron skillet that essentially functioned as heat-sink, rapidly draining the food of its warmth. The same fate befell an otherwise solid version of elote ($6), the popular Mexican street corn slicked with crema and cotija cheese, and other items served in similar skillets.
A handful of stellar ingredients shined in a seasonal salad ($11) of ripe heirloom tomatoes, supple dollops of buffalo mozzarella, fresh basil and sweet-tart fig balsamic dressing. Another salad ($10) tamed the bitter bite of frisee with a fruity raspberry vinaigrette. Tossed into the mix were walnuts, bite-size chunks of green apple, and droplets of goat cheese. Again, each component was flawless.
A light breading allows the delicate texture of calamari ($10) to come through, and we enjoyed the unconventional method of tossing the hot squid with garlic, greens and bell peppers and presenting it atop a pool of charred tomato salsa. A plate of Brussels sprouts ($7) is representative of the genre oddly finding room on menus as an appetizer, this one approaching fine, but generally kind of limp.
While lacking the classic loaf, a muffaletta ($8) does approximate the flavors and textures of that famous Big Easy sandwich. Layers of good-quality mortadella, sopressata and provolone are bound to the bread with a sharp olive spread. Burgers come in both meaty and meat-free constructions, the former in the omnipresent diner-style double ($10) with cheese and pickles, the latter in the form of a roundly satisfying housemade veggie patty.
I was served a fetid piece of squid ($12) that somehow managed to escape detection despite the fact that it was hand-stuffed and laid to rest on a bed of risotto. It was discarded with apologies. Far better was a many-layered lasagna ($15) starring fresh pasta and flavorful braised lamb. Another pasta, this one an indulgent carbonara ($12) with charred corn and flurries of grated cheese, also featured housemade noodles.
Gone are the days when a single working tap dispensed Miller Lite. Visitors to these storied halls now have a choice of stellar wines by the glass, crisp and clean craft drafts and expertly blended cocktails. Bemoan the transformation all you want, but prices like these for scratch-made food are nearly impossible to find these days, much like art galleries in Tremont.