Bell & Flower is what you end up with when operators get their hands on a prime piece of real estate but have run out of good ideas for a restaurant concept. Those owners are Shawn Monday and Michael Schwartz, the team behind the fine dining bistro One Red Door, gourmet burger bar Flip Side, and Neapolitan-style pizza parlor 3 Palms. All told, their holdings span 10 locations spread across the region and beyond.
That real estate is the iconic Rick's Cafe building in the heart of Chagrin Falls, a coveted spot dripping with fond memories and nostalgia. All that ended last summer, when the business was sold after 40 years, shuttered and retooled. Few would disagree that Rick's Cafe had run its course, going the way of other august but unfashionable dinosaurs like Gamekeeper's and Raintree in the very same neighborhood. But just as many people likely would agree that there was no pressing need to replace it.
After stripping down the walls, opening up the façade and fumigating the kitchen, the owners unveiled a freshened up dining room that looks and feels like a genuine upgrade. On warm evenings, the glassy front opens up to the storybook village, and the charming alley patio quickly fills with couples, families and groups all trying to wring the last good bits out of summer.
Bell & Flower is not the kind of restaurant that a chef would be particularly proud of, if he or she was being perfectly honest. And it's not the type of place that diners will be overly enthusiastic about returning to. But that doesn't mean you can't have a decent meal here. I was never blown away by any particular dish, but I was usually satisfied with its preparation and quality. Like any unfocused, shotgun-style menu, this one has its floaters and sinkers. How could it not, when it careens from French onion soup to tacos to lasagna to lobster rolls?
Who can argue with the appeal of warm biscuits served with fluffy butter and silky jam? If those sound delicious (and they are), consider ordering them as an appetizer rather than a side because they are priced at $4 rather than $5 for the same portion. They always say that eating shishito peppers ($7) is akin to hot-pepper Russian roulette because one in 10 is spicy. Said differently, that equates to 90-percent boring.
Two other starters get good marks for flavor and execution if not originality and panache. In the ahi tuna lettuce wraps ($14), chunks of raw fish are marinated in citrusy ponzu and presented in clean (mostly unblemished) lettuce leaves with guacamole, radish batons and sesame seeds. Dipped in a gingery sauce, the wraps exhibit an appealing contrast of tastes and textures. You can't get more unimaginative than fried chicken tenders ($9), but at least the ones served here approach perfection. They are crunchy and plush in all the right places, and we could have burned through a gallon of the creamy buttermilk ranch dipping sauce if given a bucket and two straws.
It's rare for the grits to outshine the shrimp, but that's definitely the case here, where decadent white grits form a satiny base for large overcooked shrimp ($18). The seafood is joined by savory chunks of ground sausage and a sweet, thin barbecue glaze.
If the goal was to recreate the famous ribs that were an indispensable menu item at Rick's Cafe, I'd say the kitchen succeeded. If the goal is to make real barbecue, the opposite is true. These ribs ($14/half) are "fall-off-the-bone tender" in the way that slow-baked ribs often are, and they have zero smoke flavor. Too little time on the grill left the exterior pale and featureless.
"This is the opposite of a dive bar — and not in a good way," says a friend who I was meeting for dinner one night. Apparently, he had been ignored for 10 minutes at the bar while waiting for my arrival. It was an omen of things to come.
The bartender was kind enough to offer a sample taste of a draft beer, but he never bothered to remove the empty glass. Appetizers were served with no accompanying side plates. And when a fly landed five inches away from our food, the bartender turned it to goo with his palm before returning to the task of polishing glassware. When our entrees had not arrived after 30 minutes, we queried the very same bartender, whose face went slack with the realization that he never put in the order.
You never really did go to Rick's for the food or service; you went for the atmosphere and camaraderie. Perhaps the same will be true of Bell & Flower.