In my dreams, there is a homey little tavern, a place with smiling staff, a well-stocked bar, and consistently tasty food. It's nothing fancy, just a casual but civilized spot with reliably well-prepared standards like nachos, burgers, and Saturday-night prime rib. It's the kind of joint you could take your kids, your coworkers, or your friends, before the theater or after a walk in the park, and know that everyone would feel equally comfortable.
Well, wake me up and pour the coffee: My dreams have come true at Fisher's Tavern. Park the jalopy in Fisher's dusty gravel lot (punctuated by a big red barn), pull open the battered oak back door, and step into what may be the perfect casual dining spot, nestled into one of the few remaining nineteenth-century farmhouses on well-developed SOM Center Road in Mayfield Heights.
Jim Linkas, who owns Fisher's with his sister, Christine Taylor, and his parents, Mary and Pat Linkas, says the old building has had a colorful history over the past century, serving as everything from an ice cream parlor to a funeral home before becoming a neighborhood watering hole.
The Linkases bought the tavern nine years ago and have been busy updating the looks of the vintage building. New siding, carpeting, lighting, and landscaping have helped Fisher's retain its charm while meeting the expectations of 21st-century diners.
On the right of the entrance, perhaps where the parlor used to be, is the dark little bar, buzzing with conversation and laughter; on the left is a dim and cozy dining room done up in shades of pink and green. An enclosed porch, flooded with natural light, holds the airy nonsmoking eating space; at night, a dozen colorful stained-glass ceiling lamps provide sparkling illumination. And in summer, an ample outdoor deck lets diners sit among the maples, buckeyes, and wild grapes that still dot the property, giving the frankly suburban spot the feel of a country retreat.
If you want to enjoy your lunch or dinner on that deck, come early: Fisher's doesn't take reservations, and the deck is wildly popular among workers at the nearby cube farms. No wonder: It's easy to forget that the rat race is just around the corner as you sit beneath a green market umbrella, surrounded by trees, shrubs, pots of pink geraniums, and a little pond, and sip a Crooked River brew, on tap, or an icy margarita.
Lunchtime choices include hot dogs with cheese, chili, bacon, onion, or all of the above; huge, crisp salads with homemade dressings; burgers; and sandwiches. Sure bets include the House Special Burger, an enormous hand-shaped patty of ground chuck with plenty of charbroiled flavor, topped with Swiss cheese, grilled onions, and sautéed mushrooms, and served on a toasted Kaiser roll with a little tub of thick, herbed sour cream sauce on the side. It's as messy as all get-out, but the efficient waitresses are never far away with more paper napkins.
Another favorite is the Buffalo Chicken Sandwich, which isn't on the menu but shows up about once a week as a special. (All the specials, as well as the soup du jour and the daily dessert offerings, are listed on the chalkboards that hang in each dining room.) The two-fisted whopper of a sandwich includes a tender grilled chicken breast basted with a tangy-hot wing sauce, which Jim Linkas says is a secret recipe, and is topped with a creamy blue cheese dressing. One taste is all it took to convince me that the rich, zippy flavor was worth the inevitable messy chin. Both sandwiches come with impressively large mounds of hand-cut fries that are just right for soaking up the dribbles that make it back onto the plate.
After 5 p.m., a few more appetizers, entrées, and specials supplement the lunch fare. An appetizer of nachos that we recently sampled, with layer after layer of crisp tortilla chips, mildly spiced ground meat, shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, and bits of scallions and tomatoes, was very good and not a bit greasy. A chunky tomato salsa came on the side, but the blend of flavors in the nachos was already so satisfying that we barely touched it.
For the white-wine crowd, there is peel-and-eat shrimp. A quarter-pound serving included seven medium-sized, cooked and chilled tail-on shrimp arranged, à la shrimp cocktail, around an unremarkable red cocktail sauce. The firm-fleshed shrimp were crisp, sweet, and unmistakably fresh.
Dinners are reasonably priced, with the most expensive items on the regular menu being a $15.95 twelve-ounce New York strip steak and a $16.95 pasta-and-seafood dish. (During a recent evening, a special of grilled swordfish also checked in at $16.95.) Entrées come with buttery yeast rolls, cole slaw or salad, and french fries or boiled red-skinned potatoes.
Fisher's homemade cole slaw is a real treat. The finely grated cabbage, with a thin, sweet, and creamy dressing, conjures up fond memories of circa-1960 meals at the drive-in. The tossed dinner salads are big, crisp affairs of mostly iceberg lettuce, coyly adorned with a few leaves of trendy greens and a sweet little grape tomato. Homemade blue cheese dressing, served on the side, was thick, rich, and comfortingly mild.
A pasta dish of properly al dente fettuccine noodles topped with tender-crisp broccoli florets, a few firm and sweet shrimp, a generous amount of imitation crab meat (surimi), and an excellent buttery homemade Alfredo sauce was delicious and larger than most diners will be able to dispatch. Our only quibble was that the menu didn't identify the surimi as such. The dish is also available with just shrimp and broccoli, or with broccoli alone.
The fisheterian among us opted to try Fisher's Famous Fish Fry, three long filets of breaded Canadian pike set atop a mound of fries. The pleasantly crunchy cornmeal coating was crisp and light, and made a flavorful contrast to the mild, firm white fish within. Fried perch dinners and more health-conscious grilled fish offerings, like swordfish and salmon, are often available as specials.
Saturday nights are prime rib nights at Fisher's, where a jumbo twelve-ounce "Tavern Cut" will set you back only $12.95, and the even larger, sixteen-ounce "Fisher's Cut" costs a mere $14.95. My Tavern Cut, ordered rare, was at least one inch thick, firm, and succulent, with a mouthwatering, beefy flavor; it did require some tableside surgery, though, to remove the generous layers of fat. A side dish of boiled red-skinned potatoes was tender and buttery.
Fisher's also offers whole and half-slabs of barbecued St. Louis-style ribs with a homemade barbecue sauce. A half-slab order was reasonably tender and meaty, with little gristle or fat, and a strong pork flavor. The mild sauce was vaguely sweet, but otherwise unmemorable.
Fisher's desserts continue the tried-and-true theme of the rest of the menu. Creamy homemade rice pudding was cold and comforting, and arrived with a dusting of cinnamon on top. A portion of freshly baked apple crisp, served warm and capped with ice cream, was outstanding: The apples were tender throughout and flavored with just the right balance of cinnamon, sugar, and spices, and the crisp topping of oatmeal and crumbs made the perfect finishing touch.
We were less impressed with a slice of commercial pecan pie that seemed to be mostly syrup and very few nuts; as a result, the pie was overly sweet and gooey. And a brownie sundae was really nothing more than a big hot fudge sundae with a sad little brownie slapped onto the side, like an afterthought.
Or maybe I was just feeling curmudgeonly by then, because it was almost time to leave the cozy haven and head back to the real world. As a companion astutely noted, Fisher's is the type of tavern we would all love to have around the corner in our own neighborhoods, the better to stop by more often.