Even without the Browns or Baldwin Wallace, Mike's Bar & Grille does just fine. For eight years, this supremely appealing pub in the heart of downtown Berea has relied, not upon coeds or football fanboys to prop up its business, but rather its neighbors. And after a recent visit, it's easy to see why. "The people of Berea take such good care of me," says owner Mike Gantous. "I can't thank them enough."
That feeling apparently is mutual as diners line up on a Wednesday night for one of the 50 or so seats in the high-ceilinged barroom. Many elect to sit at the wrap-around wood-topped bar, where they're waited on with equal care as those seated at tables. From Memorial Day to Labor Day that capacity nearly doubles thanks to a snug back patio complete with bar and draft beer.
Gantous has a knack for selecting the best qualities from both the "bar" and "grill" categories, while omitting the worst. Craft beer lovers get to enjoy an ever-shifting crop of fresh drafts with none of the boisterous crowds and sticky floors typically found in college-town taverns. In the "grill" department, Mike's places importance on quality, value and consistency instead of fads, trends and buzzwords.
Of course, Gantous had a great teacher. His father, Sam, shepherded the celebrated Academy Tavern on Larchmere for close to 20 of its 75 (so far) years of service. Like most good sons, Mike worked for his father on and off for ages. And like most sons, he eventually grew tired of it and was on the lookout for a place of his own.
Luck landed him in Berea, where he was having a clock fixed at a long-running local repair shop. He saw the space, called his real estate guy, and got to work. When asked about his guiding principles of design and operation, Mike answers simply, "I made it the kind of place that I'd like to go to."
The food has always been solid at Mike's, but it's never been better than it is today. In place of the fryer jockeys that run most saloons, Gantous invested in an honest to goodness chef. Prior to starting here, Mike Sunseri, a graduate of the Le Cordon Bleu-affiliated school in San Francisco, worked at Crop Bistro, Lola and Chez Francois. It might sound like an odd career move to go from Ohio City bistro to Berea bar, but that's not how the chef sees it.
"I love all food, and this is unique for me as it's my first bar experience," he says "I'm excited to take the next step and start pushing the envelope. I'm very excited to see where we can take this."
In addition to improving every aspect of the longstanding core menu of house favorites, Sunseri is rolling out monthly specials menus. On them are seasonal dishes that are designed to push the clientele in a new direction, which is never an easy sell at a place like Mike's.
It was Beer Week when we landed at the bar, which was hosting a Southern Tier tap takeover. We paired our drafts with a trio of warm, fresh-baked pretzels ($8), served with a melted cheese sauce. An item that seemed to appear on every table — including ours — was the Buffalo egg roll, a chimichanga-size beast sold by the half ($5) or whole ($10). The housemade roll is filled with shredded cabbage, celery, chicken, bacon and Buffalo chicken. It's served piping hot with ranch or blue cheese.
One dish that Sunseri can't take all the credit for is the meatloaf. "I stole that recipe from my dad," Gantous confesses. Still, it's all in the technique, and this meatloaf — served as a sandwich ($10) or entrée ($13) — is thick-cut but light, beefy and moist. In the entrée version it's propped on a hill of mashers and covered in well-seasoned gravy.
Another classic that Sunseri can improve but likely never eliminate is the Hot Brown ($10), a loose interpretation of the Kentucky mainstay. Beef is roasted in-house, shaved thin and piled high on top of Italian toast. In between is a layer of mashed potatoes and covering it all is beef gravy. It's a tasty beast to be sure. That shaved roast beef also lands in the Philly ($9), along with sautéed peppers and mushrooms, and cheese. Burgers are half-pounders made with fresh Certified Angus Beef. Vegetarians can sink their teeth into an eggplant parmesan sandwich ($9), topped with provolone and marinara.
Longtime fans of Mike's — and they are legion — already are reaping the benefits of the kitchen's fresh talent, but much more is yet to come, promises Sunseri. "I love to see the regulars come back and I also really enjoy introducing new things to the area," he says. "It's a blank canvas here for the first time."