Set close against a rural, tree-lined road, and just at the border between Walton Hills and Valley View, Tinkers Creek Tavern is a casual watering hole and restaurant in a remarkable natural setting. To the west, the Cuyahoga Valley National Park beckons; to the east, a section of the Cleveland Metroparks' Bedford Reservation awaits. And just outside the back door, rocky Tinker's Creek, the No. 1 tributary to the mighty Cuyahoga River, forms a splashing ribbon of silver.
From the street, the present-day tavern looks tidy and well maintained, with a rambling quality that suggests decades of remodeling and expansion. Not surprising, since the building's provenance stretches back to 1902, when it started off as a private home before morphing into a public house. (According to the tavern's website, its liquor license is one of the oldest in Ohio.) In 2007, the property was purchased and completely remodeled by Kathy Price; son Robert Price serves as executive chef and Kathy's sister, Kim Steinbrenner, is operational manager.
Still, the tavern is easy to miss. Should you happen to zoom past it, as we did on an early visit, just roll down your window: Chances are the woodsy aromas emanating from the giant black smoker, set between the parking lot and the restaurant, will beckon you in the right direction.
Beyond the door, you'll find a tiny lobby area, with the snug barroom on the left and a brighter, more airy dining room on the right. Both rooms are small-ish, neither are elegant, but each have big windows and a rustic charm that suits the rural location and the campfire fragrance that permeates the space.
The real draw, however, is the patio. Some restaurants may claim to have a riverside patio; on Tinkers Creek Tavern's patio, about the only thing separating you from a plunge down a steep embankment into the water is your own good sense.
Perched high above the stony creek bed, the patio is, especially for nature lovers, one of the most beautiful in Northeast Ohio. The long upstream view from any one of the 13 red-umbrella-topped tables is as bucolic as anything you'll find in the region. The sun sparkles on the fast-flowing water, and rather than Sirius XM, the late-summer soundtrack is blue jays, cicadas, the breeze in the trees and the soft rushing of the creek. While we sit, two deer come out of the underbrush for a sip of water. A peripatetic kingfisher flies back and forth between a favored fishing spot and her nest.
A cadre of young servers in black T-shirts and jeans provides casual, competent and friendly service. Yes, the dreaded "you guys" was spoken more than once; and yes, one runner did inquire, rather disgustingly, "Are ya still pickin' at that?" But in the most important arenas — attentiveness, timeliness and accuracy — the staff delivered.
The tavern's meat-centric offerings take up both sides of the 11-by-17-inch laminated menu, where diners will find everything from tacos to an 8-ounce prime filet. In a nod to those who eat their veggies, there is a selection of seven salads; four of them are actually meat free. That includes a well-executed Fried Goat Cheese Salad ($9.95): spinach tossed in sundried-tomato vinaigrette, and topped with grilled red onion, cherry tomatoes, toasted pinenuts and an ample disk of panko-breaded-and-fried goat cheese. It does not include the attentively prepared B.B.Q. Salmon Salad ($11.95): mixed greens, blood-orange vinaigrette, pickled red onions, mandarin oranges, and a plush filet of grilled Faroe Island salmon — crisp along the edges and succulent within — that was as precisely prepared as any you will find for even twice the price.
It doesn't take long to see, though, that the output of the cherry wood-fired smoker — beef brisket, baby back ribs, and especially pulled pork — is the star of the show, and these meats turn up in dishes ranging from the indulgent Mac & Cheese ($15.95) — perfectly al dente cavatappi in a creamy cheese sauce piqued with tiny dice of red tomato and applewood smoked bacon, then topped with an abundance of pulled pork — to the more than ample B.B.Q. Platter, with a sampling of ribs, smoked brisket and that pulled pork. At $24.95, it's the most expensive dish on the menu. It is also worth every penny if only for the firm, tender and astoundingly meaty baby back ribs encased in a savory mahogany char.
For starters, consider the Memphis Nachos ($9.95), a veritable mountain of thin, crisp homemade potato chips topped with a tangle of moist and mellow pulled pork, a melty layer of Colby Jack cheese, sliced jalapenos, a bit of fresh, tomato-y salsa and a fanciful drizzle of sour cream. Not unique, but beautiful in its ridiculous abundance, it was a well-executed riff on the theme; particular kudos to the kitchen for the trick of keeping the chips crisp and greaseless beneath the strata of pork and cheese. Leaner than most, yet still tender, that pulled pork delivered a petite pop of smoke beneath a scant amount of slightly sweet and sticky Kansas City-style barbecue sauce, with just a hint of tanginess and the barest whisper of black pepper. As a result, the major sensory notes came from meat and wood, a victory for subtlety over in-your-face sauciness.
While there is a lot of repetition on the menu, and not a lot of novelty — and flavors across the board tend to be understated — the kitchen generally executes each dish with commendable precision. An attentive diner gets the impression that what comes to the table is exactly what the chef intended and not simply whatever gets thrown on a plate. The exception to this was one Saturday night's special of fried chicken ($14.95): The poultry was dry, the mashed spuds were bland and the pretty, slightly charred green beans were overcooked and limp.
For dessert, the kitchen produces an outstanding warm bread pudding ($6.95) — a custardy first cousin to the finest French toast – with rivulets of melting vanilla bean ice cream running down into its crannies, and a touch of chewy caramelization around the edges. Not too sweet, not tarted up with raisins or bananas or other froufrou additions: just a velvety mouthfeel, a buttery flavor and that always welcome hit of cold against hot. Even the coffee was outstanding: Served in big, white mugs, the Kenyan blend was robust but exceptionally smooth.
"Under promise and over deliver" is a trope in the restaurant world. But that doesn't mean it's not a smart business philosophy.
Given the price points, the portion sizes, and the high perceived value — not to mention the captivating creekside setting — both the food and service at this charming spot are far more polished than they have to be. That makes Tinkers Creek Tavern a fine example of that philosophy at work.