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THE UN-DINER

Clyde's Bistro puts comfort and quality ahead of history at long-troubled site

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If dining at Dottie's Diner (and subsequently Chris & Jimmy's) felt like being shoehorned into the back of a European budget rail car, then visiting Clyde's Bistro is like taking a ride on the Orient Express. Clyde Mart's $150,000 makeover of the Lee Road diner cars has served as an upgrade from coach to first class.

Since opening for business in 2002, the diner cars have chewed their way through three operators. While each had their own set of factors that lead to failure, they had one thing in common: They operated diners. Mart, the man behind such popular eateries as Cippi & Mo's and Vito's Italian Grill, is the first to think outside the diner box.

There are some who consider the physical changes Mart made to the two restored diners nothing short of desecration. It's always difficult to lose a piece of history, but the modifications were unavoidable for success. To be happy, diners have to be comfortable — and there was nothing comfortable about those diners. Squat door openings required stooping. The stiff-backed booths were tiny and cramped. Backless stools were anchored too close to the counter, leaving little room for knees. And the building materials — stainless steel, porcelain, tile and glass — were authentic, but did little to warm the spirits of mid-winter Midwesterners.

"Warm" is precisely what the restaurant is now. The odd, underutilized lobby has been reworked into a cozy foyer, where guests can grab a seat on a sofa while waiting for a table or takeout. Instead of having to choose between two separate but near-identical spaces, customers now go left to enter the barroom or right to sit in the dining room. That barroom, with its dark-wood floors, low-slung bar top and flat-panel TVs, is a sharp place to grab a beer and watch the game. With its elegant chandeliers, red-fabric drapes and fanciful zebra-print carpet, the dining room now feels like a luxurious Pullman dining car.

Though the digs are swanky, don't expect haute cuisine. Clyde's specializes in hearty, home-cooked food at value-conscious prices. Portions are generous, and prices are mostly in the $12-$16 range. The most expensive item on the menu, a seven-ounce filet mignon, is $20. What's more, entrées include a delicious bread basket as well as a choice of two side dishes. Lunchtime entrées (similar menu, smaller prices) include one side.

Talk about soup that eats like a meal: The peppery gumbo ($7.50) is loaded with pulled chicken, andouille sausage, tender rice and fat, succulent, tail-on shrimp. A big bowl of Prince Edward Island mussels ($7.90) features a buttery wine and garlic sauce. If only our mussels were bigger, plumper and sweeter. There is nothing wrong with Clyde's chopped salad ($9.90), a bounteous blend of greens, bacon, blue cheese and avocado in a pleasantly sweet honey-mustard dressing. Other large, entrée-size salads include a meat-and-cheese filled chef's salad ($9.90) and a classic niçoise ($11.50) with tuna, boiled potatoes and hard-cooked eggs.

Mart and company have done a great job crafting a comfort-rich menu loaded with appealing options. Too good, in fact, because choosing between slow-braised short ribs, spaghetti bolognese and coq au vin is no easy task. Liver-and-onion fans (guilty!) will enjoy tucking into the version served here ($15.80), with its tender slices of sautéed veal liver bathed in golden- brown onions. We go with the whipped potatoes and still-crisp green beans as our accompaniments. Flavorful Burgundy-braised coq au vin ($15.90) — classic French comfort fare — includes nearly half a bird. While tasty and complex, the dish lacks that fall-off-the-bone tenderness for which it is known and adored. For this dish, we tack on the freshly sautéed spinach and unremarkable risotto milanese.

Perfect for lunch or dinner, Clyde's fish and chips ($8.90) comes with three freshly fried flanks of mild white fish and a mountain of hand-cut fries. Sandwiches and burgers are available all day, but the lunch menu includes a couple of one-offs that aren't on the dinner menu. Chicken pot pie, chicken and waffles, and a bubbling crock of turkey, broccoli and cheddar cheese sauce are three such items.

Value extends to the drinks menu too. While I adore fine wine as much as the next lush, it's nice to have the option to order a very drinkable red table wine for $3.50 ($2.50 at lunch). Popular pours from Avalon, Hess and Mark West are available by the glass for eight bucks and down. The beer list, while anything but extensive, has numerous quality brews.

So will the fourth time be the charm? Judging by what I've seen so far, my money's on "yes."

dining@clevescene.com

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