On a recent weekend night, we found ourselves on a sweet little restaurant patio in Fairport Harbor, that burg people zip past on their way to dinner in Cleveland or Geneva or Ashtabula. But the folks around us did not bypass the village. In fact, they drove from their homes in Mentor, Willoughby and Cleveland specifically to eat at the Pompadour, which is precisely what Rusty James Phillips was hoping for when he and his partner Lianne Mantione opened the place a few years back.
"I wasn't even looking to do a restaurant, but then I saw this place right around the corner from our house," Phillips explains. "The plan from the beginning was to do a really cool restaurant in hopes that other people, other chefs would come in. We thought, let's see if we can't change this community a little bit."
The swing didn't happen overnight. After buying the old Harbor Town Bar and Grill, a neighborhood shot-and-beer joint, the couple made incremental improvements. They ditched the Red Bull fridge, swapped out the tables and chairs, and painted most vertical surfaces. They kept the great old bar and stools, but added a new backbar, a 25,000-penny collage that emits a honey-colored glow.
When the owners squirreled away enough cash, they added a small kitchen to the old tavern, it's first. In the beginning, Phillips pulled inspiration from his days behind the wheel of MotorMouth, one of the first food trucks to roll through town. The early menu was far from crazy — just some sandwiches and tacos — but still, it was a seismic shift for the community.
"We knew going in that we were going to lose 80 to 90 percent of the clientele from the original bar," says the chef.
But for every old-timer who decided to drink elsewhere, a new face would settle in. Emboldened by early praise, Phillips would trot out a few small plates, nothing extravagant, just ... different. Over time, the tacos and sandwiches gave way to dishes like calamari, flash-fried prosciutto-wrapped asparagus, and braised short rib on polenta.
"Every three or four months we would take a step back to steadily improve everything," he notes. "The menu would get a little bigger and more interesting. We'd bring in better product. It was encouraging to see the clientele keep growing with us; it inspired me to keep pushing the envelope a little bit knowing that people trust us now."
That calamari ($10) is exceptional. The thick-cut steaks, about the size of a taffy bar, could have gone wrong in any number of ways. But these are lightly breaded and fried to a meaty but yielding texture. A stack of four is paired with a straightforward yet aggressively spiced Sriracha mayo. Likewise, the kitchen had a deft hand when preparing the croquettes ($9), a trio of chestnut-hued spheres with a light, crisp shell that gives way to a fluffy, cheesy mashed potato mixture studded with bits of chorizo and Spanish ham. They're perched in a sunny lemon-garlic aioli.
The right-sized menu has about 20 items that cover all bases in terms of snack, salad, vegetable, meat and fish. At $16, the medallions of beef tenderloin with melted blue cheese sauce is the steepest dish. Most land in the $10 to $13 range. We worked our way through a third of the menu with one regret: that we didn't have room for more. Perfectly grilled slices of flatiron steak ($10) are arranged on toasted bread, garnished with pert greens, and doused in a kicky horseradish cream sauce. Charred and luscious bone-in lamb chops ($13) are set against the sharp tang of an herby chimichurri sauce. Coupled with the spice-rubbed, oven-roasted carrots ($6) with cool yogurt sauce, you've got yourself a square meal.
The creamy coconut-scented broth in the Brazilian seafood stew ($14), a wide bowl brimming with mussels, scallop, and shrimp, was so intoxicating that we asked for some bread to drain it dry. Three grilled rounds arrived in a jiffy, but the $3 surcharge didn't sit as well as the bisque.
The Pompadour, named for the owner's love of rockabilly and the fact that the space long housed a salon, puts forward a rock-solid cocktail and beer list, but the wine list could use a few more glass pours. We plowed through a summer-sipper white from Argentina ($24) before moving onto a bottle of red, a Spanish grenache ($24).
On our visit, every seat inside and out, about 65 in all, was occupied, which seems to herald great things for Phillips' neighborhood. The success of Pompadour notwithstanding, this resident is concerned that Fairport Harbor is stuck in a one-step-forward, two-steps-back limbo.
"There doesn't seem to be any forward thinking as to how to develop this beachfront town," he reports. "We're sitting right on a river and a lake and we're the one community that's still struggling."