We strode buoyantly through the rear door of Boss Dog, past the bar, and directly into the dining room. It was another frigid evening in Cleveland Heights and we assumed the restaurant would look like most others on this dark, bleak, January night: That is, a ghost town. How wrong we were. Every table in the dining room was occupied, including a boisterous 20-top that was celebrating a big birthday. We glanced over to the high-tops in the lounge area, where guests have views into the brewhouse, but those too were gobbled up. Our last resort, stools at the bar, came up craps as well.
"I guess we should have made a reservation," I said to my wife.
For three long years, this building on Lee Road has been a gaping wound in the landscape of the community. For two decades, Lemon Grass Thai Restaurant ebbed and flowed in popularity, but at least the lights were always on. That run ended in the spring of 2015, after the old mare finally kicked it. When brothers Josh and Jason Sweet — "Heights folks" — staked a claim on the building, neighbors were collectively chuffed but admittedly guarded, a sentiment that seemed only to magnify with each passing month of construction. At long last, after nearly a year and a half of fits and starts, Boss Dog Brewing opened its doors this fall to receptive crowds.
In place of the chopped up, janky and dated interior that was Lemon Grass sits a contemporary 140-seat brewpub with an edgy, industrial bent. At the heart of the structure lies the wrap-around bar, which is flanked on two sides by the dining room and lounge. Walls were knocked down to open up sight lines and the shiny 10-barrel brewhouse is prominently positioned behind a wall of glass. Above the main hallway hangs a dramatic light fixture fashioned out of repurposed kegs, and inside the men's room, kegs are readapted for a completely different purpose.
Crowds appear to have warmed so quickly to the newcomer because, like all great neighborhood hangouts, it's approachable, convenient and flexible. A variety of seating options caters equally to a pair of buddies watching a game at the bar, a couple grabbing a quick weekend lunch before the matinee, and a full-on dinner for the entire family. Like many breweries, this one isn't exceedingly comfortable given that it's all concrete, glass, stainless steel and brick, but it certainly beats indoor picnic tables and paper plates.
Perhaps wisely, Boss Dog leans more pub than gastropub, a move that opens it up to the broadest possible audience. It's hard to take issue with a giant, warm and soft pretzel ($6), especially when it's paired with gooey beer cheese for dipping. Same goes for potato and cheese-filled pierogi ($9), each well browned and buried beneath buttery sauteed onions and mushrooms. After sliding on a sheet of ice from the car, an order of plush garlic and cheese bread knots ($6) feels like a warm hug. There's marinara on the side for dipping.
Other worthwhile starters include a trio of braised beef sliders ($9) with slaw and an Asian sauce, an earthy and comforting bowl of duck, beef and black bean chili ($7), and whole grilled wings ($9) with, in my opinion, a slightly off-putting sweet and spicy BBQ sauce.
Boss Dog's pizzas ($11-$12) are sturdy and dependable options, with three pre-designed pies (two of which are meat-free) ready for takeoff. Neither too thin and brittle nor fat and doughy, the crust, you might say, is Goldilocks approved. Every great saloon requires a great burger and I'm happy to report that the one served here ($10) is that. The meaty, beefy, juicy patty is topped with fragrant gruyere (or Swiss or cheddar), lettuce, tomato and onion and tucked into a pillowy brioche bun. A cocktail shaker of fries is included in the deal.
In terms of stick-to-your-ribs comfort foods, the stout-braised short rib ($22) ticks all the boxes: It's rich, it's hearty, and the fall-apart meat just melts into the cheesy mashed potatoes. The kitchen gets bonus points for crisp-tender heirloom carrots and flavorful gravy. A penne pasta ($17), which arrived on the cold side but was quickly remedied, aims for the middle with an agreeable toss-up of noodles, white meat chicken and tomatoes in a cream sauce.
Not every beer I've sampled has been perfect — a few had noticeable off flavors like diacetyl — but those have been the exception, not the rule. The Holy Toledo pilsner ($6) was crisp and clean and the Twisted Citra IPA ($6) appropriately juicy and fragrant. Unlike many breweries — heck, bars too — Boss Dog offers a lovely wine and cocktail list for those who prefer to stay away from the suds.
But the best is yet to come for Boss Dog and its neighbors. Come spring, a greatly expanded and improved patio, which connects to the interior via a massive garage door, will debut, adding another outdoor option for area diners.