When many of us think of Burton, images of quaint Amish buggies, log cabins, impossibly high snow drifts and sticky maple syrup immediately come to mind. This small town in Geauga County often is referred to as "Pancake Town, U.S.A," after all.
But what doesn't typically come to mind are trendy amenities. Instead, scattered around the picturesque town square are family friendly restaurants dedicated to hearty, home-style cooking, homespun shops that peddle quilts, nut butters and local jams, and the usual assortment of pizza, sub and burger spots.
"Times are really changing," local resident Craig Bednarek tells me.
Bednarek points to a flush of new businesses in the area that are more reflective of the shifting demographics. Pricey boutiques and salons, fresh-roasted coffee and wine shops, and contemporary furniture and art galleries — all things, he says, that are making Burton an even more desirable place to live. Yet, despite the advances, his community still lacked a progressive place to eat.
"Being from around here, and seeing how busy and hustling and bustling the Burton and Middlefield area is without having an upscale place in town for the residents and travelers, we saw the perfect fit," he says.
After three decades working for other restaurant owners, Bednarek jumped at the opportunity to open a place of his own while simultaneously attempting to plug the dining gap in his backyard. He and his wife spent months converting a shuttered restaurant on the village green, one located a quick one-minute walk from the historic Burton Log Cabin, into Warren's Spirited Kitchen. They did a remarkable job transforming a former ice cream shop into a stylish American pub with an understated hunt club theme. The focal point is the newly constructed bar, a feature that gives this 70-seat restaurant its buoyancy and life. Warren's, indeed, is a spirited place to eat.
Given the wealth of small farms in the region, Bednarek knew that local and seasonal was the direction he wanted to go in the kitchen. Management also knew they needed a chef who was creative enough to pivot with the calendar, concocting contemporary dishes built around an ever-changing shopping bag. He found all of the above, he says, in Vince Thomascik, an enthusiastic, experienced chef who worked alongside pros like Jon Sawyer and Brian Goodman at the Greenhouse Tavern.
Bednarek prints his menus in-house because they change so often, he explains, a point proven by the fact that this week's version is different from the version I held in my hands just a few weeks prior. Lucky for you, the walnut soup ($8) hasn't gone anywhere. Built on a base of vegetable stock and ground walnuts, the creamy bisque-like brew is nutty, earthy and perfect on a cold winter's night. That bowl is one of a handful of eclectic starters that range from silky chicken liver pate ($9), served with seasonal fruit, pickled veggies and thin toasts, to a wide crock of crispy charred Brussels sprouts ($7) lifted by fresh mint and sweetened with, what else, maple syrup.
In stark and pleasant contrast to those rich appetizers is a bowl of thin-sliced hot peppers ($6) in a shallow bath of olive oil, that when spooned onto hunks of the grilled bread offer a grassy, fruity kick.
In truly modern but not altogether welcome fashion, the menu hops from small plate to bigger plate to main course for little objective reason. An entree-size dish of seared salmon scallops ($13), so called for their scallop-size shapes, lands under the "bigger bites" section, while a pitch-perfect beef tartar and frites ($17) — perfect as a table-sharing starter — lands under the main courses. Despite its designation as a "bite," anybody can (and should) make a meal out of the crispy, juicy and crave-worthy fried chicken and funnel cake ($14), a twist on the popular soul food combo that draws inspiration from the annual Geauga County Fair.
Thomascik manages to make a decadent dish, the bechamel-drenched grilled ham and cheese known as a Croque Madame ($15), even more indulgent by tucking buttery pork belly slices into the stack. A pepper relish cuts the richness while a "yolk jam" stands in for the customary fried egg.
Service here is as warm and unrushed as one might expect to find in Smalltown, U.S.A., with the owners making a point of touching every table, perhaps to recommend a great wine or beer. But while the new restaurant is being almost unanimously well received, even adding daily lunch service as of last week, Bednarek understands it's not for everybody.
"We have people who walk in, look at the menu, turn around and walk out," he says. "We don't have kids' menus, high chairs or booster seats. That's fine; there are plenty of places like that around here. But the ones who stay are usually thrilled."