Livin' large is the way to go -- particularly when it's done on The Company's dime. Those are the times we can be up to our jowls in foie gras, filets, and roasted figs with mascarpone, and give nary a thought to the lonely wails of the dead presidents hiding in the shadows of our wallet. It's an entirely different chapter and verse when we're footing the bill. That's when we seek out more modest haunts: restaurants where the food is unique, delicious, reasonably wholesome -- and relatively inexpensive.
We got to pondering all this after the 6,238th time someone asked us to reveal our favorite dining spots. The previous 6,237 times, the snappy comeback had been "Favorite for what? For ambiance? For service? For burgers? For fish?" But we finally realized that the best, most honest measure of the joints that are our faves might boil down to just this: Which are the spots we head to when we're spending our own bread?
Here are some of them.
As great as it is to spend an evening tottering around on our stilettos . . . and as much as we love the challenge of bullying some unsuspecting guy into a suit and tie . . . there is a sense of infinite relief that comes with merely shaking off the garden dust and slipping on some flip-flops, before heading to a completely unpretentious eatery like Udupi. When we get there, the rustic flavors of the all-vegetarian, southern Indian menu -- filled with treats like sheer, shatteringly crisp crêpes wrapped around fragrant fillings of onions, peas, and coarsely smashed potatoes seasoned with turmeric, fennel, and mustard seed (the butter masala dosa); or the very special rava masala dosa, composed of the same unctuous filling, now cosseted by a chewy, lacy "cream of wheat" pancake flecked with onions and chile peppers -- make a perfect antidote to the rich, ultrasophisticated dishes we find at the priciest eateries. And so what if Udupi's strip-mall surroundings are plain and spare? Inside, the vibe is as delightfully, magically foreign as a trip to Bombay.
6339 Olde York Road, Parma Heights; 440-743-7154
So retro-shabby that it's downright chic, this Akron institution not only shimmers with the aromas of garlic, tomatoes, and beer, but it's also rife with local pop-culture references, from the front-door bandbox immortalized in Funky Winkerbean to the rare but well-documented sightings of local-girl-made-good Chrissie Hynde. It all adds up to a patina of authentic atmosphere so thick, you could probably spread it on Italian bread. Even better, though, is the taste of Luigi's thick-crusted pizzas -- not fancy "gourmet" numbers, but reliably, predictably, and deliciously straightforward -- or a platter of spaghetti, heaped with meat sauce and mushrooms. On the side, the iceberg lettuce salads buried beneath mountains of shredded mozzarella are legendary, and late-night hours mean that, although the lines can sometimes be long, nobody goes home hungry.
105 North Main Street, Akron; 330-253-2999
Locally owned and operated, Aladdin's is one of those rare and wonderful restaurants that all the members of the family can agree upon, from carnivores to vegans to perpetual dieters of all persuasions. Soups, salad dressings, and specialties like hummus, kibbeh, and kafta are crafted fresh on the premises; ingredients are free of artificial flavorings or preservatives; and juices and smoothies are made from fresh fruits and veggies. (It doesn't hurt that there's a beer-and-wine list too.) If there's anything more wholesome and sensible -- yet strangely compelling -- than a meal of freshly squeezed carrot juice, garlic-studded loubie, and a bowl of hearty vegetarian chili, it would probably have to come out of your very own kitchen. And what are the odds of that happening?
Various locations, including Lakewood, Independence, Mayfield Village, and Cleveland Heights
Johnny Mango World Café & Bar
Mmm, Caribbean fried plantains. Ooh, Jamaican jerk chicken. Ahh, icy caipirinhas . . . We'd be the last to lay claim to so much as a half-note of musical talent, but when we chow down at this casually hip "world café," even our tone-deaf taste buds begin to sing. High-octane flavors aside, though, there's something so basic and homey about JM's earthy foods -- juicy "happy beans," sturdy whole-grain breads, and fresh, unfussy veggies included -- that we feel more grounded and vibrant just for walking through the doors. (The same props go to Mango's original location, at 3120 Bridge Avenue in Ohio City; but the Willoughby installation's larger size and proportionately smaller crowds give it the overall edge.)
4113 Erie Street, Willoughby; 440-975-8811
Like Aladdin's, this vegetarian-friendly restaurant offers more than enough choices to engage meat-eaters and lettuceheads alike. The health-conscious owners have not only turned this surprisingly pleasant basement dining room into one of the better Chinese restaurants in town; they've also made it into one of the best choices for adventurous vegetarians. There's the usual kung pao chicken and walnut shrimp, but the real action is on the separate menu of "Zen Vegetarian Cuisine," a sort of Asian-New Age hybrid that relies on exotic combos of veggies, nuts, and sauces for style, and tofu, textured soy protein, and seitan for body and substance. The result is sophisticated, satisfying, poetically named dishes like the Mushroom Forest, the Red Mist, and the Buddhist Feast, all so savory and delicious that you'll never miss the meat.
13955 Cedar Road, University Heights; 216-397-9939
Zachary's Restaurant & Deli
Okay, so the grub at this small-town, breakfast-and-lunch joint isn't exactly health food; but if you have an unclogged artery or two to spare, you might relinquish it in exchange for a platter of Zachary's most excellent corned-beef hash, sided with crisp home-fries, a couple of sunny eggs, and two slices of toasted rye. In fact, considering Zachary's very basic decor and appointments, the wonderful food -- including towering pastrami sandwiches and dribble-down-your-chin burgers -- consistently surprises with its quality and pure, direct flavors. And while the tiny space itself may look a bit scruffy, rest assured that it's also clean, comfy, and entirely smoke-free.
759 East Aurora Road, Macedonia; 330-467-3927
The Original Pancake House
Blame hours of Three Stooges reruns for our lingering fear of recalcitrant wallpaper, oyster-cracker-devouring clam chowder, and powder puffs passed off as pancakes. But c'mon: Maybe you've never been attacked by your wallcoverings or had soup spit in your eye, but not one of us hasn't nearly gagged on a stack of dusty, chalky flapjacks at least a time or two. Those nasty little numbers didn't come from the Original Pancake House, where the kitchen turns out griddled goods that nearly float off the plate, even when they're carrying loads of pecans, bananas, or chocolate chips as ballast. Our longstanding goal has been to try every type of pancake, crêpe, waffle, and French toast on the menu, but so far we've had trouble getting past the ginormous Dutch Baby, an oven-baked zeppelin served with whipped butter, powdered sugar, and lemon wedges; or the apple pancake lined with freshly sliced Granny Smiths, sparkling beneath a glittering, gooey cinnamon glaze.
28700 Chagrin Boulevard, Woodmere; 216-292-7777
Corks Wine Bar
It's still early in the season, but it's safe to assume that a recent evening spent at this snug, dim, and thoroughly down-to-earth wine bar will hold a place of honor in the 2005 edition of our Summer Memory Book. Starring a chilled bottle of Caymus Conundrum (a bargain at $36), a platter of prosciutto-draped melon, an ample round of sleek, buttery baked brie, and a collection of smart, agreeable companions, the story may have a familiar plot, but it's one we're never tired of retelling.
4084 Erie Street, Willoughby; 440-918-WINE
Nestled inside a Chinatown mini-mall of offices and eateries, Pho Hoa is hard to spot from the street; and once you actually find your way inside, it's hard to believe that this rather austere but friendly one-room eatery serves anything worth remembering. Ah, but then you discover the pho -- a sort of interactive Vietnamese noodle soup, served with a host of fragrant herbs and condiments that you can add, or not, as your palate prefers. We like ours with a bouquet of bean sprouts, a fistful of cilantro, a bit of Asian basil, a couple squirts of lime, and a few enthusiastic shakes from the bottle of fish sauce that sits on the table, but that's just us. A true one-bowl meal, the soup can be as basic or as fancy as you please. The kitchen also cooks up things that aren't pho; so far, though, we've been too content to sip and slurp this healthful-tasting soup to wander much further.
3030 Superior Avenue, inside the Golden Plaza; 216-781-7462
Lelolai Bakery & Café
Sisters, businesswomen, and Puerto Rican natives Maria Sapia and Alma Alfonzo launched this crisp, airy little bakery and café more than four years ago, yet each visit will feel like your first. Will today's feast focus on those oversized Cubano-style pressed sandwiches, stuffed with meats and cheeses? Or will we succumb instead to the lure of lush flans or creamy cheesecakes, in exotic flavors like almond, coconut, and mango, washed down with mugs of robust coffee? We really never know until we get there, though we've been known to want it all -- a sandwich for sharing with a friend, in the daylight-flooded dining area or on the handsome outdoor patio, and one of Maria's whole cheesecakes, perhaps, or an entire flan to take home for later.
1889 West 25th Street; 216-771-9956