During the 1970s, while most of downtown devolved into a wasteland of littered sidewalks and boarded-up facades, Jim Swingos and his Celebrity Inn kept the flickering flame of Cleveland nightlife alive almost single-handedly. Situated on the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 18th Street, the hotel and its restaurant, the Keg & Quarter, were where Swingos played accommodating host to what has been called "the longest-running rock and roll party" in the land, with a cast of characters that included everyone from Elvis to Lynyrd Skynyrd, Led Zeppelin to über-groupie Christine Boris. So integral was the hotel to the history of rock and roll, in fact, that it snagged a cameo in Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous.
Fast-forward now to the new century. Cleveland has engineered an enthusiastic comeback. The excesses committed behind closed doors at the Celebrity Inn have faded into legend. And Jim Swingos has moved west, to Lakewood's upscale Gold Coast, where he and his son, Matt, have spent the past 15 years operating a fine-dining restaurant on the ground floor of The Carlyle.
Given the elder Swingos's remarkable history, Swingos on the Lake is surprisingly low-key. The dining room decor is nondescript; its view of Lake Erie and the downtown skyline is not-quite riveting; and its dinner menu is a compilation of the usual steaks, chops, chicken, and seafood, more or less successfully accented with fruit, nuts, wine, or liqueur. Many items, like crisp Shrimp Marionga, sautéed with garlic, lemon, butter, and white wine, are prepared tableside, although not with the theatricality that diners enjoy at places like the Maisonette. And while presentation is tidy -- and occasionally vertical -- it is generally unspectacular.
Not that being cutting-edge is the final word in dining out. Shrimp cocktail, Chateaubriand, and Caesar Salad have survived the decades for one good reason: People like them. But if a restaurant hopes to attract today's savvy diner with classic cuisine and tableside cookery, it is important to do it up right, lest the experience move from being deliciously retro to simply seeming odd or old-fashioned.
But since Swingos has decided to follow this route, we wish it had gone all the way. This means honoring time-tested flavor combinations, like topping a savory steak with a buttery béarnaise, for example, not drenching it in a dessert-sweet reduction of Cabernet, Port, and cocoa. And it also means making performance art out of tableside preparations -- tossing the Caesar Salad with panache, say, or flaming the Cherries Jubilee with verve -- as opposed to toiling quietly in the background and presenting the dishes as a fait accompli, as we found it done at Swingos.
That wine- and cocoa-drenched Tenderloin Gorgonzola was a notable example of the kitchen's capacity for miscalculation. The pair of broiled filet mignons had a magnificent texture, pulled from the flame at precisely the right moment. A topping of crumbled gorgonzola cheese offered a delightfully salty complement . . . a toss of exotic mushrooms contributed smokiness . . . but in the end, all nuances were lost in that ocean of sugary syrup.
At the other extreme, the Caesar dressing was bland, without the anticipated bright notes from citrus or anchovies. The vinaigrette on a generous Greek salad of shredded lettuce with green pepper rings, sliced cucumber, kalamata olives, a sprinkling of excellent feta, and a few bits of cooked red-skinned potato was so oily, a companion joked it could double as lip balm. And an entrée of Lobster Macadamia (angel-hair pasta topped with sautéed chunks of lobster and langostino, and a few toasted macadamia nuts) managed to be monotonous, with scarcely a hint of the promised butter, garlic, and Chenin Blanc.
More interesting was an odd-sounding but successfully wrought weeknight dinner feature of breaded and sautéed veal roulade, stuffed with ricotta, red onion, and strawberries, and served on an understated strawberry cream sauce, spiked with dollops of thick balsamic reduction. The meat was meltingly tender, the berries and onions added a delicate fruitiness, and the balsamic syrup gave the whole dish an earthy kick in the culinary pants. That same sweet-savory flavor interplay was also deftly handled in a Sweetest Day special of Chicken Limone: breaded and sautéed breast filets treated to a piquant bath of lemon-butter sauce.
A good mixed-greens salad, with creamy onion dressing and lighter-than-air croutons, is included in the price of entrées, and most main courses also include a choice between a standard-issue baked potato and, better, golden onion-studded potatoes lyonnaise. As for the contents of the breadbasket, the room-temperature loaves of pale, flaccid white bread, served with butter, are anything but enticing.
First-course choices range from lobster risotto to Greek saganaki. Twin Maryland crabcakes, stacked up and sporting an antenna of toasted spaghetti, were nicely crisp on the outside and moist within; a spoonful of spicy mustard sauce, and cayenne-brushed threads of carrots and summer squash, added color and dimension. Baked Eggplant Fromage (sautéed sliced eggplant layered with creamy ricotta, baby spinach, and melted mozzarella, on a spicy marinara) was deftly prepared and almost dainty; on the other hand, kalamata-olive tapenade was dominated by the salty essence of anchovy -- a circumstance that was fine by us, but a little off-putting to our "hold the anchovies" companions.
The ambiance, including service, was rife with contradictions. Hostesses were welcoming, and the service team was diligent in replacing soiled flatware and crumbing the tabletop between courses. However, on one of our visits, more than 20 long minutes passed from the time our dessert plates were cleared until our server brought our check. And on both visits, our party of nonsmokers was inexplicably seated in the smoking section.
When a high-end restaurant opts to eliminate salt and pepper from the tabletops, they do so in the hopes that their guests will at least taste the chef's creations before tampering with the flavors. So we can only wonder what the folks at Swingos had in mind when they substituted servers, armed with salt and pepper mills, for the tabletop units: We scarcely had a chance to look at our food -- never mind taste it -- before staffers were itching to season it for us.
That same misguided "service" was evident in the handling of the wine list. Thicker than the Cleveland Yellow Pages, the massive tome contains more than 1,600 entries. While certainly impressive, its sheer size makes it impossible to browse. Staffers try to get around this by urging guests not to be "intimidated" and by offering to make a selection for them. As a result, however, we felt rushed and patronized, and we also ended up with a $20 half-bottle of Alsatian Riesling that we never would have chosen if we had been left to peruse the list in our own good time. A more user-friendly option would be to offer diners a pared-down listing, with a larger Captain's List available by request.
After dinner -- capped by a rare Peach Melba, served in a martini glass beneath a cloud of first-rate whipped cream -- we indulged our taste for pop culture by strolling down the long hallway leading from the dining area to the restrooms. Here were autographed photos of faded stars, framed clippings from the old Cleveland Press, and myriad awards recognizing Jim Swingos and his particular place in Cleveland's history. Reading between the lines, it's obvious that Swingos was The Man of the Hour back in the '70s. But today's Swingos on the Lake doesn't approach the glory.