At roughly 40 years of age, Heck's Café is a graybearded granddaddy on Cleveland's dining scene. The Ohio City chestnut has managed to survive fires, multiple ownership changes, and even a mass employee walkout over the years. Yet against all odds, little ever seems to change inside the doors of the charming Victorian brick building.
That's great news for the fans who've been propping up Heck's since the Nixon administration. But perhaps it's not entirely great news for diners hoping for a dash of culinary ecstasy, the likes of which are sprouting up all over the near West Side these days.
Heck's reputation has always been built around its hamburgers, and those burgers remain very good to this day. Nearly a dozen different takes are offered, ranging from the classic Heck Burger (topped simply with lettuce, tomato, and onion), on up to the Teriyaki, adorned with grilled onions and pineapple slices. Accompanied by house-cut fries and priced from $8.50 to around $11, the burgers hold their own against Heck's neighborhood competition.
One might charitably consider several of Heck's other offerings a sort of retro homage to the eatery's storied past. We're not sure the last time we saw the term "blackened" on a menu, but at Heck's it's used to describe a Cajun-themed salmon entrée. Likewise, Boursin and Alouette — spreadable cheese blends that swept the States back in the 1970s — still hold prominent sway here. Other preparations, like brie topped with fresh fruit or pecan-and-maple-glazed chicken, sound as if they were lifted straight from a Martha Stewart cookbook, circa 1982.
Not that the results don't often hold up. In one starter, canned or frozen artichoke hearts are blended with Alouette, rolled into balls, breaded, and fried. Owing to the tart taste and somewhat slimy texture of the prepared artichokes, these hot and gooey apps make for suitable stand-ins for sauerkraut balls, right down to the mustard-based dipping sauce.
A pair of crab cakes, meanwhile, arrived with tepid centers — likely a consequence of their excessive girth. Large, mushy, and lacking a crisp exterior, the cakes went largely uneaten. We can't say the same for an order of mussels, which vanished faster than a magician's assistant. With no need for fancy preparation, they were simply good-quality bivalves delivered in a buttery, tomato-tinged broth.
Elsewhere, a large dollop of Boursin did more good than harm to the piece of tenderloin on which it rode piggyback. The garlicky cheese spread melted into the tender beef, imparting welcome flavor to an otherwise bland cut. The cheese also perked up the mashed potatoes and underseasoned sautéed spinach.
Heck's version of chicken with pasta in cream sauce suffered the same downfall as almost every chicken pasta dish: dry white meat. And while flavorful, the cream- and cheese-based sauce was excessively rich, making it all but impossible to finish.
Accompanying each entrée, Heck's puts out a fine salad, overflowing with bright and varied greens, plenty of blue cheese, and generous sprinklings of nuts and dried fruit. Dressings are served on the side — a welcome touch.
Heck's also holds an edge in the weekend brunch biz. With decent brunch options around town still relatively thin, this well-worn establishment has become a sort of de facto destination for Denver omelets, eggs Benedict, and cream-cheese-stuffed French toast. And while the fern-filled "Garden Room" looks positively passé at night, it feels perfectly appropriate for a leisurely weekend brunch.
No surprise that the wine list here is less than compelling, but the wine service — now that's something special. We have never seen a waiter open a bottle and offer a taste not just to the person who placed the order, but to all four diners at the table.
If Heck's isn't always pushing the bounds of culinary adventure, its place in Cleveland's crowded dining scene seems secure. And there's even some change on the way: Heck's will be expanding into adjacent space this summer, with additional seating and a much-needed bar on the way.
"Heck's has been here a long, long time, with a solid customer base," says owner Fadi Daoud. "I could change the restaurant. But Heck's is Heck's; it has its own feel, its own way."
We couldn't have said it any better.