I didn't bother making a reservation at Square Bistro because, well, Chardon. I've been covering this beat long enough to know that chef-driven bistros in far-flung burgs don't tend to pack them in on weekdays. Heck, they don't tend to pack them in on weekends either, thanks to hectic family schedules and competition from quicker, cheaper chains.
But Square does pack them in. On a regular ol' Tuesday night, every seat at the bar and in the main dining room was claimed. After a brief wait we were seated in the upper-level dining room, which offered views of the bustling action below. By the time we finished our meal, paid our tab and walked out to our car for the lengthy drive home, it was clear that chef-owner Jaret Havanchak had managed to pull off the improbable: namely, being the Swiss army knife of restaurants.
Places that attempt to please everybody often please nobody, as the saying goes. But Square is the rare restaurant that manages to buck the odds by being family friendly, budget friendly and foodie friendly. The extensive New American menu is broad enough for even the most finicky of diners; every item on that menu comes in under $20; and it's all dished up in a sparkling storefront space on the picturesque town square of a county seat.
For the past seven years, Havanchak has owned and operated the popular seafood restaurant Lure Bistro in Willoughby. He purchased the business from his boss, Nick Kustala, who opened it back in 2000. It had been a recent goal of the chef to open a second place in Chardon, his wife's hometown. That opportunity finally presented itself when a local brewpub relocated to a larger home.
"I've always wanted to do something in Chardon," the chef explains. "When BrewWorks was on their way out I scooped up the space, redid it from the ground up, and we've been busy ever since."
Square might be one of the few remaining "bistros" where a guest can still order a glass of wine for $6 or $7. Most charge twice that. Granted, they aren't all Napa cabs, but they do the job just fine. Beer fans are treated to a dozen quality craft drafts at equally munificent prices, like a pint (not snifter) of Ommegang Abbey Ale for just $6.50.
One of the perks of being located "way out" in Chardon is the proximity to family farms like New Creation. The source of all of Square's meat and poultry, New Creation pastures all of its hormone and antibiotic free chicken, lamb, beef and pork, which dine on grass, grain and other non-GMO foods.
Nearly half of one of those heritage-breed pigs is transformed into Square's most popular entree: osso buco ($18). The Fred Flintstone-size bone-in pork shank looks more like a weapon than a meal for one. Slow-braised for hours, the fall-apart meat is nestled into a bed of roasted root vegetables and garnished with a red wine reduction sauce.
For the smoky steak Florentine ($19), Square starts with a grilled 10-ounce flatiron cut from the same nearby farm and pairs it with oven-roasted tomatoes, chopped spinach, broccolini and risotto. As if that's not enough, the whole affair is doused with a creamy cheddar sauce. We would have preferred a lighter hand when it came to the sauce, but the steak could not have been better.
As owner of Lure Bistro, Havanchak has learned a few things about seafood. His grouper fish and chips ($14) is a cross between a beer batter and a tempura, and the shatteringly crisp shell gives way to creamy white fish. Seasoned, fresh-cut fries, slaw and roasted pepper remoulade flush out the tasty platter.
If you married shrimp and hush puppies you'd likely end up with something akin to Square's crispy shrimp fritters ($8), an appetizer that would pair well with a cold beer at the bar. Chopped poached shrimp is tossed in a corn batter, deep fried and served with basil aioli. Though it's listed as a starter, the exceptionally rich and satisfying crab cake Benedict ($9) could pass for brunch. A toasted English muffin is buried beneath a lump meat crab cake, Canadian bacon, runny poached egg and cheese sauce.
We've barely scratched the surface of Square's menu, which boasts everything from pierogis to pasta, potstickers to pecan-crusted salmon. There are salads, sandwiches, steaks and scallops. Heck, there's even a kids' menu with New Creation sliders and homemade fish sticks.
Things are going so well for Havanchak and Square that he intends to transform a lower-level space into a sushi restaurant. Look for an opening this fall.