Outside, the sun was shining bright. But inside the windowless Linden Tavern, it might as well have been midnight. What little illumination there was came from a string of Christmas lights, a few brass wall fixtures, and the television set hanging over a corner of the bar. And even that faint light was filtered through an omnipresent purple haze of cigarette smoke.
But then again, the Linden isn't the kind of place you come to see and be seen. It's where you stop to down a few beers (or maybe more than a few Manhattans), fill up on some good, inexpensive food, and then get on with the more pressing demands of life. Besides, even if it's too dark to read the menu, just about any of your fellow diners--in either of the two teensy dining rooms or at the long wooden bar--can probably recite it to you from memory.
That's because the restaurant's selection of tried-and-true tavern fare, supplemented by nightly specials and a few of chef and co-owner Kevin Eglinski's more creative flights of fancy, is the kind of food that occupies a genetically determined place of honor in the minds of Cleveland's hungry masses.
Fresh Lake Erie perch? You betcha.
Walleye? That, too.
Pierogi, kraut, and kielbasa dinners? Sure thing.
Saturday-night prime-rib extravaganza? Yes, yes, yes!
Given that all these favorites are unusually well-prepared and served by a staff of friendly, no-nonsense waitresses, you have to conclude that there really isn't any need for bright lights: Seeing may be believing, but tasting is knowing. After several recent visits to this Rocky River tavern, our tastebuds de-clared that this just may be the best bar food in Northeast Ohio.
Eglinski is the factor that sets the Linden apart. The chef trained in some of the area's better restaurants before buying the former Linden Lounge with his parents, Herb and Julie, in 1989. As a result, he brings unusual skill to both the homey ethnic recipes he inherited from his grandmothers and to the slightly more unusual menu items that allow him to stretch his creative wings.
For starters, skip the humdrum chicken fingers and mozzarella sticks, and order up a plateful of Mrs. E's Potato Pancakes: three tissue-thin, golden-fried patties of freshly shredded potato and onion that are crisp and salty on the outside, but wonderfully moist and tender within. Accompanied by little plastic tubs of sour cream and applesauce, the $3.95 appetizer could easily make a lunch.
A serving of two giant portobello mushroom caps, amply topped with sharp and creamy Gorgonzola cheese, makes another tasty alternative to the usual bar noshes. The meaty, earthy mushrooms are marinated in olive oil and balsamic vinegar before being broiled, stuffed, and baked, and give off more than a hint of garlic.
For those who just can't resist traditional bar food, a platter of Linden Buffalo Wings with celery and homemade blue-cheese dressing should be just the ticket. The crisp, meaty little appendages--more than enough to share--come in a very respectable buttery hot sauce and bring to mind wings we've downed in Buffalo bars while swilling mugs of ice-cold Genny Cream Ale. On tap.
Unfortunately, the Linden doesn't serve Genny Cream, on tap or any other way. About as interesting as it gets at the bar, beer-wise, is Great Lakes Brewing Company's Dortmunder Gold, Anheuser-Busch's Tequiza (beer blended with blue agave nectar and the flavors of tequila and lime), and imported Harp Lager, all in bottles. Wine and mixed drinks are also popular with the customers--who, incidentally, include a lot of retirees who know a bargain when they see one.
Lunchtime sandwich selections include decent half-pound burgers topped with various combinations of cheese, bacon, mushrooms, and onions; BLTs; kielbasa and kraut; hot dogs; peanut butter and jelly; and that other childhood favorite, fried bologna. A few salads, some pastas, and soup round out the lunch menu.
More interesting are the dinner entrees, which generally come with a choice of a mundane tossed salad with bottled dressing or tasty homemade soup. A recently sampled chunky beef-and-vegetable with broad, eggy noodles was a champ.
An eight-ounce slab of Saturday-night-only prime rib was a good dinner choice on a recent visit. Cooked as ordered to a juicy medium-rare, the meat was tender and full of flavor. It came with a passable medium-sized baked potato with sour cream and margarine, and a nice blend of stir-fried fresh red and yellow pepper, broccoli, carrot, and onion. The price tag? A modest $10.95.
A dinner of breaded Lake Erie perch was also an excellent bar meal. (Friday nights are fish-fry nights at the Linden, but perch and walleye dinners are on the menu every evening.) Seven deep-fried, boneless fillets of the mild white fish came stacked on top of a pile of delicious battered french fries, sided with a big Styrofoam tub of mayonnaise-and-sour-cream-dressed cole slaw.
The menu's "Pasta Corner" includes four meals, ranging from a $6.95 platter of spaghetti and meat sauce to the $11.95 Seafood Linguine Del Mar (available only on Fridays), with clams, mussels, garlic, and herbs. A large serving of shrimp-and-broccoli Fettuccine Alfredo, with a slab of garlic toast, was less tasty than we had hoped for: Although the pasta was nicely done, the bland Alfredo sauce was nothing special, and the small shrimp were dry and chewy.
Much better at satisfying our carbo-craving was Eglinski's handmade pierogi dinner, which was just about perfect. Five overstuffed cheese-and-potato pierogi had been pan-fried until their fat little bottoms were speckled with golden-brown patches of crispness, and then were tucked beneath plenty of limp rings of tender sauteed onion. The whole buttery business was then sprinkled with sweet paprika, dusted with parsley, and served up with sour cream and a smile. The dense pierogi themselves--made, Eglinski assures me, by "a genuine Polish person"--were tiny works of art: almost as thick as they were wide, yet remarkably tender and, yes, almost delicate. (A smaller quantity of the same delicious pierogi is also available as a side dish, to go with a burger, sandwich, or salad.)
Not that we had room for it, but the Linden does have a single nightly dessert offering imported from a neighborhood bakery. Millionaire's Pie, which our server described as a sort of chocolate cheesecake, was the selection on the night of our visit. Sunday brunch guests with a sweet tooth can enjoy desserts--like baked Granny Smith apples with ice cream and fresh strawberry shortcake--that are made in-house.
Does Eglinski ever regret being stuck in a suburban tavern, cooking up old ethnic standbys instead of plowing new culinary soil in a trendy downtown restaurant? In a word, no.
"This is what I always wanted to do," he says, incredulous that anyone would even ask such a question. "In terms of a career, this is what I wanted from the start."
After all, chi-chi restaurants are a dime a dozen. But great bar food? Now that's something special.
The Linden Tavern. 19865 Detroit Road, Rocky River. 440-333-1609. Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Dinner, daily 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.; Friday until 11 p.m. Sunday brunch, 9 a.m. to 1:30 p.m.
Linden Buffalo Wings $5.25
Gorgonzola-Stuffed Portobellos $4.50
Mrs. E's Potato Pancakes $3.95
Saturday-Night Prime Rib Dinner (8 oz.) $10.95
Shrimp-Broccoli Fettuccine Alfredo $9.95
Fresh Lake Erie Perch Dinner $10.95
Pierogi Dinner $5.95
Bacon Cheeseburger $5.95
Millionaire's Pie $2.