- Walter Novak
- Diners dive in from all over for Barnacle Bill's crab legs.
In his later years, Bill traded in the cold Eastern waters for the balmy Caribbean. There, south of the border, he honed his taste for Margaritas, Dos Equis, and frou-frou ice cream drinks with names like Fuzzy Navel and Cocaine Lady. But Bill, hardy and hale until the day he drew his last breath, never did give a hoot for what anyone thought of him. He knew his legacy would live on, and so it has, in a restaurant as big and boisterous as Bill himself, in that seafarin' city of Lakewood, Ohio.
Okay, so I made all that up. But there's something about Barnacle Bill's Crab House, with its big menu, substantial portions, quirky decor, and folksy service that inspires flights of fancy. All-you-can-eat dinners -- crab legs, Gulf shrimp, Lake Erie walleye, and roasted beef strip loin among them -- are the house specialties, and they are served (and served, and served) in a space as basic as a New England church basement, but as festively decorated as a Mexican dance hall. Wonder at the giant lobster exoskeleton grasping an American flag in a football-sized claw, for instance. Marvel at the faux diver lounging on a bench by the front door, decked out in full deep-sea regalia, but inexplicably swaddled in a serape. And scratch your head, if you will, over the sight of a larger-than-life-sized monkey straddling a painted banana as big as a dinghy and quaffing a mug of good cheer. Throw in a slew of colorful ships' lanterns, a small sea's worth of stuffed and mounted fish, strings of red chile-pepper lights, some aquariums, and the always-amusing "little boy peeing into a puddle" style of fountain, and it's hard not to start spinning fish tales.
The truth of the matter is that Barnacle Bill's has become something of a Lakewood landmark since its opening in January 1990. Crowds stand five or six deep in the restaurant's lobby on weekend evenings, and it's not unusual to find a wait of more than an hour on a Saturday night. Once patrons make their way into one of the four narrow dining rooms, they find bare wooden tables topped with sturdy white china and paper napkins, and a crew of bustling young servers dashing up and down the aisles with heaping trays hoisted high above their heads.
Although fish and seafood are Barnacle Bill's main draw, Chef Tim Coleman and his maties serve up plenty of savory choices for landlubbers, too, including pasta, chicken, ribs, and steak. A half-pound ground sirloin Galley Burger, for instance, buried beneath a cargo of bacon, saut´ed onion and mushrooms, and melted Swiss, on buttery slabs of toasted French bread, was as good as any chop-house version. And a plank of juicy beef strip loin, cooked to a succulent medium-rare, was as rich and meaty as prime rib.
However, a quick peek at the menu is all it takes to see that crab is king at Barnacle Bill's. Lanky Alaskan snow crab legs are a favorite and come in one- or two-pound portions, as well as in endless buckets for an all-you-can-eat extravaganza. Unlike the steam-table versions offered on many Asian buffets, Bill's legs are sweet and moist, and since a one-pound portion contains "only" about a dozen legs and three claws, ravenous -- and energetic -- diners wisely embrace the all-you-can-eat option. Sometimes, our cheerful waitress marveled, motivated eaters polish off three or four buckets in a night, just cracking, picking, and grinning for several hours at a stretch. Bigger, meatier Alaskan king crab legs are also available, although not in all-you-can-eat portions and at a substantially higher price.
If, however, you aren't of a mind to perform extensive legwork, never fear. There is always crab chowder: a fine blend of crab meat, scrod, clams, scallops, corn, celery, and sherry in a creamy broth as fresh and bracing as an ocean breeze. And there are excellent baked crab cakes, too: tender, tasty, and without an excess of binder or crumbs. On the other hand, next time we will steer clear of the seafood-stuffed mushroom appetizer: four husky caps mounded with an aromatic stuffing and slathered with melted provolone. Although it wasn't bad, the dish was way too light on the promised crab and shrimp flavors to earn it mention in our captain's log.
But don't hesitate to set course for a classic shrimp cocktail, with a slew of medium-sized shrimp clinging to the rim of a martini glass filled with chopped celery and seafood sauce; an entr´e of twin lobster tails -- sweet, nutty, and attentively broiled, with a whisper of sherry and garlic butter; or the abundant Seafood Sampler platter, loaded down with crisp, light, beer-battered walleye, scrod, and scallops, and the crustier breaded shrimp and breaded stuffed shrimp. While they presumably wouldn't win points with the nutritionally conscientious crowd, the breaded and fried items were much more moist and flavorful than the overcooked entries on the Seafood Broiler platter. Here, a thick swordfish filet had been ruthlessly grilled to a fare-thee-well, and thinner filets of walleye and scrod, with an unusual garnish of sunflower seeds, were dry and tasteless. Even a creamy dill sauce and a flashy bit of fresh-tasting tomato salsa, served on the side, weren't enough to breathe life into these flounders.
Besides the main events, passengers on Bill's dinnertime barge get to choose from among several side dishes. A large portion of coarsely grated cole slaw with a thick, slightly sweet mayonnaise-based dressing, was standard stuff; an alternative tossed salad with a choice of homemade raspberry vinaigrette or one of an assortment of bottled dressings was more interesting, with its combo of iceberg and romaine lettuces, as well as bits of radish, carrot, broccoli, squash, and cauliflower. Veggie-spiked rice pilaf was well-seasoned and firm, baked potatoes were average, and nontraditional home fries featured tender chunks of potato tossed with paprika, onion powder, butter, au jus, and parsley, for a deliciously guilty pleasure. And no review of Barnacle Bill's would be complete without mention of the Barnacle Buns: addictive, fresh-out-of-the-fryer, free-form dough balls, all steaming hot, crisp-crusted, and chewy, served with sweet honey-cinnamon butter that made us think of warm doughnuts on a frosty autumn morning. Good stuff, those, and more than delicious enough to merit a cross-town voyage.
As for sweet endings here, simple is best. In this case, that means eschewing the pretty but tired commercial tortes and cakes, and sticking to ice cream creations like hot-fudge-and-whipped-cream-smothered crêpes, tall liqueur-laced parfaits, and passable strawberry shortcakes, as well as any one of a host of alcoholic or non-alcoholic ice cream drinks. Wash them down with mugs of fragrant cinnamon-hazelnut coffee, or splurge on one of the boozy international coffee drinks, zapped with spirits like rum, Galliano, Tia Maria, Frangelico, Drambuie, Kahlua, or vodka. The bar also stocks more than 100 brands of beer from 30 different countries and has a serviceable selection of mostly inexpensive wines by the bottle and the glass.
So raise 'em up and drink 'em down. Barnacle Bill was a big, big man, you know. And now it's up to us to keep his legend alive.