It was somewhere between happy hour and dinnertime, and every stool at the century-old wooden bar at Bistro 185 was occupied. As tipsy locals drained their cocktails, settled up and departed, they were immediately replaced by thirsty, hungry newcomers. Meanwhile, young couples, some with strollers in tow, waited in the now-crowded vestibule for a table in the adjoining dining room. The joint, as they say, was jumping.
If there ever was anxiety about the fate of this 10-year-old North Collinwood landmark in the wake of an ownership change, these last four months should put the neighborhood at ease. This past fall, longtime owners Ruth and Marc Levine sold the business to Ryan Kaston, their chef of three years. While the beloved founders and hosts are missed, to be sure, the loss has been softened by the knowledge that Bistro 185 will survive their departure.
Ownership changes are never easy, not often fruitful, and disruptive to all involved. But for the individual who signed on the dotted line, the transition is all the more nerve-wracking, especially if you intend to put your own stamp on things.
"Honestly, this was scary," Kaston confesses. "I was afraid to change anything. It had been the same thing for so long that everyone was accustomed to it and knew what they were getting. That's one of the hardest things: to change when you already have your expectations set."
Kaston says that he took the opposite of the Band-Aid approach.
"We did it very, very, very slowly," he says.
Bistro 185 has lasted this long in this neighborhood because it tastefully fills the void between divey wing joint and serious-minded bistro. While prices have steadily crept up over the years, diners could always count on quality ingredients, skilled preparation, excellent value, and warm-hearted service from longtime staffers.
Like many diners, we were bummed to notice the absence of the chicken schnitzel, a Ruth Levine classic that she's been doing since her Market House Grille days. What we didn't miss, however, was feeling like Mr. Creosote from The Meaning of Life after packing away the plate-size chicken cutlet, four potato pierogi, caramelized onions and tempura-battered asparagus.
Kaston put that fan favorite on a diet. He swapped it with the schnitzel-like veal Milanese ($29), a pounded, breaded long-bone veal chop paired, not with mashed potatoes or pierogis, but a refreshing green salad. The crispy coated cutlet is garnished with tomato-garlic confit and a soft-cooked egg that oozes into the breading.
Given his generation, Kaston is obsessed with sourcing the best ingredients he can, from whole sides of salmon to whole quarters of beef. That salmon ($28) gets a late-winter preparation with roasted butternut squash, Brussels sprouts and bacon. That beef ends up as braised short ribs ($28) paired with a trio of corn: corn puree, corn salsa and cornbread crumble. It also lands in the sensibly sized Loaf ($22), the Bistro's take on meatloaf, which is glazed with whole-grain ketchup, garnished with crispy onion straws, plopped into fluffy mashed potatoes and ringed with crisp-tender Brussels sprouts.
Every day is Friday thanks to Kaston's lake perch fish fry ($20.50), a plateful of crunchy filets, potato pierogi, red cabbage, coleslaw and housemade tartar sauce. No need to tweak long-running starters like silky house-cured gravlax ($10.50), given the full treatment with potato pancakes, sour cream, red onion and capers. Same for the seductive house-smoked duck breast ($9), which gets a similar presentation.
Lunch, still overseen by Ruthie Helman (the Ruthie of the former Ruthie & Moe's Diner), has received similar upgrades. Lunch meats like turkey, ham and corned beef all are made from scratch. French fries come in the back door as whole potatoes.
Bistro 185 was a gastropub before that term permeated the culinary lexicon. Inside this sturdy American tavern, long known as Fritz's, and then later as John Christie's, "comfort classics with a twist" has been the name of the game since the start. The Levines pioneered the concept of merging modest, middling surroundings with dishes like frog legs with garlic butter, calf's liver and caramelized onions, or slow-braised short ribs. Newer items like chicken and waffles, lobster mac and cheese, and pan-seared striped bass now join them.
But with tariffs now hovering in the mid-20s — with some even breaking the 30-dollar mark — this happy place has managed to outpace many of the pricier bistros to which it has served as an alternative. In fact, the Bistro's narrative reminds me of another "gastropub" pioneer, the Grovewood Tavern, whose stratospheric rise — and subsequent fall — saddened this very neighborhood.