The average diner does not leave his or her home in search of adventure. Many hungry folks on the prowl seek not to have their perceptions challenged, their boundaries pushed. What most people crave is a meal that offers few curveballs in terms of food, drink and service, dished up in a generally agreeable space for a reasonable amount of money. If that sounds at all like you, consider penciling in a visit to Char Whiskey Bar and Grille, which opened at the tail end of 2019 in the former Sweet Melissa spot in Rocky River.
With a backwoods cabin full of rustic reclaimed wood, artfully hand-lettered chalkboard menu and near-encyclopedic catalog of brown booze, Char nails with precision the design aesthetic of the "trendy restaurant circa 2012." An American tavern-style menu offers up softballs like beer-hall pretzels, creamy mac and cheese, over-stuffed sandwiches and meat-on-meat burgers — essentially a lunch menu save for the fact that Char is dinner-only most of the week.
That's not to say that Char is without its appeal; the beefy three-sided, 24-seat bar that commands a full third of the dining room is a great place to meet a friend for a cocktail, especially during happy hour when the house cocktails are discounted a couple bucks apiece. Then again, it's difficult to ascertain if that's a good deal or not considering that the drinks menu intentionally omits prices, another outdated "trendy restaurant" quirk.
The woodsy Maplehattan ($11, $9 during HH) is layered with flavors of nuts, spice and heat, and the garnish — a half dollar-size waffle, served warm — could not be cuter. Mescal lovers should give the Mezhattan a twirl as it is complex and well-balanced, with the aggressively smoky notes of the mescal tamed by Cointreau. Craft beer drinkers, too, are well looked after, with a number of top local and regional breweries represented both on tap and in the bottle or can. It's the winos who pull the short straw owing to an anemic by-the-glass list headlined by Dreaming Tree, a label better known for its high-profile owner, Dave Matthews, than its finesse.
Predictable doesn't necessarily mean disagreeable. A trio of fresh-baked pretzels ($10), each the size and shape of a demi-baguette, goes great with a cold beer. The soft brown buns are served with, you guessed it, whole grain mustard and silky cheese sauce. Apart from containing no visible "lump crab meat" as advertised, the crab cakes ($15) served here are better than most of the ones sold at area non-seafood restaurants. We barely managed to make a dent in the goat cheese appetizer ($13), an embarrassingly large log of chalky cheese sprinkled with crushed pistachios and served with wedges of naan. Sure, there's honey and jam on the side, but it doesn't much help.
A selection of mac and cheese dishes includes versions gilded with blue cheese and tomatoes, portabellas and truffle, and short rib and bourbon sauce. Diners can swap out the pasta for roasted cauliflower to fashion a delicious and gluten-free alternative. That mushroom and truffle variety ($15) featured savory sauteed shrooms and well-caramelized, nicely textured cauliflower in a light truffle cream sauce.
Char's sandwiches are safe and solid choices. A BLT ($11) is assembled atop soft, thin naan, making for a lighter meal that still packs in the flavor. Likewise, the Italian ($11) on ciabatta bread is stacked with sliced meats, cheeses, veggies and dressing and pressed until dense and warm. Crispy waffle-cut chips are included.
The balance of the bill of fare offers few surprises, except for those of the unpleasant variety. We expected top-notch burgers given that they claim a sizeable amount of menu real estate, but burgers ordered on two separate visits — including the namesake Char — arrived woefully over-cooked. That Char burger ($15) was saved by a topping of tender shredded short rib and a ladle of cheese sauce, but the spice-dusted Black and Blue ($13) went back for a re-do. It returned a perfect medium-rare, capped with blue cheese and rashers of thick-cut bacon.
A couple nightly features built around seafood and steak round out the offerings, but the kitchen was out of one or both options during each of two visits. There is a fine 10-ounce sirloin ($22) on the regular menu that arrived with the correct internal temperature, but would have benefited from a more substantial char, no pun intended. It's a pretty solid deal considering that the price includes a large salad and a choice of sides.