Is there any better appetizer than a long drive?
Culinary road trips, those unhurried journeys that end at the door of one of our favorite restaurants, are some of life's most memorable occasions. We will gladly drive an hour for a wonderful meal, whether it's built around tacos, fried fish, cheese fondue or fine French cuisine. All of these places are worth the drive.
Rennick Meat Market
1104 Bridge St., Ashtabula, 440-964-6328, rennickmeatmarket.com
There are plenty of great reasons to visit downtown Ashtabula, where a captivating Main Street leads to a historic harbor complete with mesmerizing lift bridge. Charming as they may be, small towns aren't typically known for their progressive food scene. But this little patch boasts a handful of great restaurants, not the least of which is Rennick. Housed in a former butcher shop of the same name, this bistro lives up to its meaty past with chophouse-inspired items like steak tartar, grilled pork chops and approximately eight different cuts of steaks. Those dishes are balanced by lighter, trendier options like burrata, steam buns, shrimp and grits, ramen and a housemade veggie burger. Great cocktails, wine and beer, friendly and attentive service, and that Old World decor provide more than enough reasons to make the drive.
555 Main St., Vermilion, 440-967-0630, chezfrancois.com
For more than 30 years, Chez Francois has demonstrated that diners will overlook ostensible shortcomings such as distance, price and that pesky "jacket required" imperative in return for heartwarming service and exceptional food. Perched on the banks of the Vermilion River, this cozy small-town bistro compresses long drives with the promise of luxurious dishes built around prime ingredients. Intoxicating lobster bisque, cheese-draped French onion soup, seafood in savory sauce veloute, sweetbreads coddled in silky lemon-butter sauce, and filet mignon wrapped in puff pastry and enriched with truffle sauce are just a few of the timeless classics that await. Truly personal touches exemplify the type of fine dining that is on the wane.
137 Court Ave., Canton, 330-453-8424, bendersrestaurant.com
There's more to Canton than the Football Hall of Fame. In fact, rumor has it that Canton wouldn't even have the Hall were it not for Bender's, home to many of the unofficial organizational meetings that predate the decision to build it here. Around since 1902, the turn-of-the-century tavern has ageless charm to burn — and the menu boasts the same changeless appeal. Savor classic dishes like lump crabmeat cocktails, escargot in garlic butter, turtle soup with a sherry sidecar, broiled scrod and thick grilled steaks. The wine list is better than most "fine dining" joints and the evening bar menu is one of the best deals in town.
Chalet in the Valley
5060 St. Rt. 557, Millersburg, 330-893-2550
The drive to and through Amish Country is more than half the fun, even when exciting destinations like Lehman's Hardware await. When hunger strikes, and you've had all you can handle of the crowds, sneak off to Chalet in the Valley, a charming Swiss restaurant that swaps the boisterous hoards for a more genteel experience. Run by the Guggisberg Cheese family, this happy place serves the best fondue you can buy outside of Geneva. Made with Baby Swiss, Gruyere and a hint of sherry, the fondue is nutty, silky and comforting. In addition to those quietly bubbling caquelons, genial dirndl-clad servers deliver plates laden with tender pierogi, crispy pork schnitzel, and bratwurst and sauerkraut platters.
Brennan's Fish House
102 River St., Grand River, 440-354-9785
As lakeside residents, we pride ourselves on our fish fries, which appear weekly at countless bars, taverns, churches and VFW halls. Most of them, if we're being brutally honest, are sub-par, owing to frozen fish, flavorless breading, improper frying and lackluster sides. Drive to Brennan's Fish House in Grand River during the summer months and you'll net a bushel of fresh, never frozen, filets that are barely breaded, flash fried and subtly sweet. Tack on orders of the fried clams, popcorn shrimp, crab cakes and shrimp scampi and enjoy them all in a former saloon that dates back to 1865, now tastefully appointed with maritime decor like marine charts, brass lanterns, wooden ship wheels and antique diving helmets.
484 North State St., Painesville, 440-357-1109
Like a traveling circus, La Casita is here one minute and gone the next. The impermanent taqueria takes shape each spring behind a Latin grocery in Painesville, operating Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through fall. We take zero issue with driving 40 minutes to enjoy quesadillas, tortas and aromatic corn tortillas folded around chorizo, al pastor, steak and tongue. Items include roasted onions and peppers and toppings like diced onion, radishes, fresh cilantro, lime wedges and a variety of salsas. In winter, food is available in takeout form from inside the grocery, which itself is well worth a spin. Sometime in the coming months, La Casita grocery and restaurant will relocate to a new space and offer year-round full service.