Looking for someplace a little different this Halloween weekend? Featured here are three historic restaurants with so much atmosphere it's scary.
In the German Separatist town of Zoar, about 60 miles south of Lake Erie on the Ohio and Erie Canal, a modest inn was erected in 1829 to serve the needs of canal boat passengers. According to legend, it was to this frontier hostelry that a desperately ill traveler was brought one dark and stormy night in 1834. The traveler -- a stranger to the Zoarites -- died and was afforded a proper Christian burial. But his eternal slumber was abruptly interrupted when a woman, claiming to be the dead man's wife, appeared in town demanding the money and jewels she said her husband had kept sewn inside his jacket. The residents reluctantly dug up the body, and -- cache recovered -- the wife left town without so much as a backward glance at the desecrated remains. But the affronted corpse took a devastating revenge: The very next day, cholera broke out, killing 20 percent of Zoar's population in three weeks' time. And the dead man's ghost (most locals call him "George") has been a resident of the inn where he died ever since. Writer and folklorist Betty O'Neil-Roderick leads lantern tours of haunted Zoar (330-874-2002) and relates some of the spooky doings that attest to George's continuing presence at The Inn on the River (8806 Towpath Road, 330-874-3770). "George opens and closes the drapes, takes the salt and pepper shakers from the downstairs to the upstairs, and snitches the occasional soufflé dish," she says. Guests at the inn, which is now a profoundly atmospheric restaurant, report phenomena like the sensation of a cool breeze passing their chairs or the sight of a ghostly face peeking in the windows. The inn's chef, Jim Rhiel, has never actually come face to face with George, but says he's a believer. "Every time I say I don't think George is for real, that's when weird things start to happen again . . ."
Dead Bolt to Lockkeeper's . . . Farther north, legend has it that Lockkeeper's Inn (6190 Canal Road, Valley View, 216-524-9404) hosts a ghost. While owner Frank Sinito is reluctant to confirm the presence of wraiths in his upscale restaurant, the building's history is just what the witch doctor ordered for conjuring up hauntings. Part of the structure dates back to 1830, when it was known as Zimmerman's Tavern. The disreputable spot was a hangout for brawling canal boat crews, who hosted cockfights and engaged in other dubious activities. Later, the building was moved across Canal Road and enlarged; for a while, it was a biker bar, and, it is said, an ill-fated owner was murdered there. Today's guests are a more cultured lot, but -- located as it is on the banks of a building project that produced "one dead Irishman for every mile of canal" -- the restaurant's spooky history speaks for itself.
Marco Poltergeists? . . . The region's most haunted restaurant may well be Marco Polo's (8188 Brecksville Road, Brecksville, 440-526-6130), which began life in the 1820s as a one-room school and saw service as a dance hall, bordello, and speakeasy before becoming an Italian restaurant. Present owner Mike Yeager says psychics have told him several ghosts, including former owner George Stark, haunt the place, and not all of them are as friendly as Casper. Staff members regularly report having their names called, feeling an invisible hand on their face, or hearing the voices of long-dead children. "Mike is the only one who can close up here alone at night," says wife Sue. "The rest of us are too scared."
Tips are encouraged. Contact Elaine T. Cicora at email@example.com.