Thursday, January 27, 2011


It's not all that hard to be a "sports bar" these days; just install a working tap with half a dozen beers, hang a few NFL and NHL posters on the walls, tune the TV sets to ESPN and add those words to the restaurant's name. Voila -- a home run!

Except not so fast; a name and a few half-hearted end runs at making the
place look or smell like a gym do not a sports bar make. But if you started out as a place dedicated to [ahem] athletic supporters -- and your chicken parts have been designated as the "official chicken wing of the Cleveland Indians" -- I think it's safe to say you qualify.

Such is the case with Cleats Club Seat Grille on
Elm Road in Warren, which moved into the building once occupied by another favorite of mine -- the Ground Round. The latter, much to my disappointment, not only left the building but the entire state (well, almost; the restaurant in Toledo was still operating at press time).

My husband Jack and I don't get over to the Cortland side of Warren very often, but when we do, it's most often nowhere lunch time -- and even when we were hungry, we always passed by Cleats to head for Enzo's on up the road or over to Up A Creek Tavern on "old" Route 82 in Howland Township. But we always said we'd have to try the sports bar sometime.

Then, we ran into an old friend at one of the events at the Eastwoo
d Expo Center in Niles, and he -- like many other folks -- asked about our days as "official" restaurant reviewers at The Business Journal. No, we said, that's long gone, but now I'm writing a blog and always looking for good places to go. Turns out he and his wife are "regulars" at Cleats, where she insists the burgers are the best anywhere.

It doesn't take much to motivate us -- and besides, we both love burgers and a sports atmosp
here -- so within a couple of weeks we decided to give it a try. First, though, we checked to see if the restaurant has a Web site -- and we got a surprise: Far from a single location, Cleats was founded in 1996 in North Royalton, Ohio, and at last check has 12 locations, all in Ohio and most in the northeast part of the Buckeye State.

Cleats is, the Web site spells out, a "full-service sports-bar/restaurant featuring a comprehen
sive menu complete with salads, wraps, burgers, sandwiches, ribs, quesadillas" -- and of course those wings (and, I hasten to add, 22 "signature" wing sauces). Inside, there's a fairly large bar section with those high tables; besides that, we spotted something like three other rooms with tables and booths, so this place can accommodate a fairly large crowd. The walls are decorated with sports-related photos and memorabilia, and of course, the requisite big-screen TVs hung in strategic spots.

Perhaps more important, signs told us we could get 23-ounce
domestic draft beers for just $2, which we consider a real bargain. There are other beer specials during afternoon pro and college games, but that didn't include now -- those $2 puppies will do just fine almost anytime.

As we perused the menu, I spotted zucchini planks as an appetizer for $4.99 with marinara sauce for dipping. One of my favorites -- probably be
cause they make me think I'm eating healthy even though they're deep fried -- I just had to sample them here. For my main course, I had to try that other special -- wings. For $8.99, I got 12 that we could share, choosing garlic parmesan sauce (which our server confirmed is butter-based -- I don't like buffalo or "red" sauces of any kind).

Ever the burger lover, Jack went for the Varsity Burger, choosing it with Swiss cheese, onion and mushrooms and well done. With it came a side of fries, and the whole wonderful mess cost $8.99.

The zucchini arrived first as it should have -- about six lightly breaded and fairly thick slabs cut lengthwise to make about slices perhaps 8 inches long and 2 inches thick. They weren't kept in the deep fryer long,
and the dusting of parmesan cheese was a nice addition. I'd have preferred a different kind of sauce for dipping, perhaps horseradish based, but the marinara was quite tasty.

The wings weren't large as wings can go, but they were tender and that sauce is absolutely delicious. After fully expecting to take some home, we polished off the entire dozen in nothing flat.

Jack's burger was very large and good, although he said it was overcooked almost to the point of
being burned. Unfortunately, I reminded him, that's a relatively common reality for those who prefer their meat well done (still, it shouldn't happen). The fries were quite good as well, but the order was huge and we couldn't eat all of them given everything else we'd consumed.

Quite satisfied with the results of our first visit, we ventured back in early afternoon
on the Thursday before New Year's Eve day. There was no crowd, although we did see a few parents with young children and the bar side was packed. As soon as I sat down, I noticed the $7.99 Firecracker Burger, with pepper jack cheese, jalapenos and what's called "sweet heat" -- definitely a possibility, I thought, since the burgers are quite good here.

Once again, we decided to splurge on an appetizer, waffling back a
nd forth to find one we'd both like. Finally, we settled on White Cheddar Pints -- deep-fried bite-size Wisconsin white cheddar cheese for $5.99. As we browsed, we noticed that several appetizer items are just $3 on Mondays, a factoid we filed away for later reference (and passing on to the readers of this blog).

Just as I'd almost decided on that spicy burger, I saw that Thursday is rib day; a full slab with cole slaw is just $10.99 (the rest of the time, a full slab goes for $16.99, so this is a really good deal. And for the record, it's available as dine-in or carryout). Perfect, I said -- I've been wanting to try the ribs here, and I'd be sure to have leftovers for another meal.

Not much of a rib lover, Jack chose a Hot Sicilian sandwich -- grilled ham, pepperoni, bacon, provolone, lettuce and tomato on a hoagie bun for $6.99 with one side (he picked fries once again).

I loved the cheese bites, which with the white cheddar taste a bit different than the usual mozzarella sticks. Even Jack, who isn't a
big fan of melted cheese inside breading, ate several of them. The basket contained quite a few, and I discovered that they warm up better than back at home than do the mozzarella sticks.

The portions at Cleats are quite large, and Jack's sandwich came in two substantial halves, one of which came home with us (as did more than half that mountain of fries). It was delicious, he said, and proved it by polishing off the other half not too long after we got back home. I tasted the slaw that came with my ribs, which is mayonnaise-based and similar to what I make. It's very good, but since Jack is the real slaw-lover in our family, I gave him most of it, snitching a few of his fries in return.

As for the ribs, they aren't as meaty as some I've had, but they definitely rank among the most delicious -- and that Thursday price deal just can't be beat. The totally fork tender meat is smothered in a rich barbecue sauce that's literally finger lickin' good. We packed up more than half for later, and adding a few breaded deep-fried fantail shrimp gave us a fantastic New Year's Eve dinner for our own personal version of "surf and turf."

Our verdict? Yep, this is a sports bar. And yep, the burgers, ribs and inexpensive beer are almost guaranteed to turn us into regulars as well. Hey, maybe we'll see you there on Super Bowl Sunday!

If you go:

Cleats Club Seat Grille
3701 Elm Road
Warren, Ohio 44483
(330) 372-WNGS

Open seven days a week 11 a.m. to 2 a.m.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


If you read my recent blog on the StoneBridge Grille and Tavern in Boardman Township, Ohio, you'll know that I discovered a fabulous sandwich that immediately landed near the top of my 10 all-time-favorite sandwich list (if you haven't, scroll down the blog to that entry and check it out). Color me amazed, then, to find another sandwich to add to the list just a few weeks thereafter!

Even m
ore interesting is that I found it at the Big Family Restaurant in Girard, Ohio, where my husband Jack and I have had lunches and dinners countless times. But until our latest stop, I'd never given this sandwich a second look, much less a taste. That oversight, I assure you, has come to a screeching halt.

I'll skip over everything else and get right to the good stuff: Partly because we've eaten here so many times (and I wasn't particularly hungry at the time), I decided to try something new and different -- surprising myself by choosing a chicken and greens sandwich consisting of a chicken breast with roasted red peppers, Italian greens and provolone on a roasted ciabatta roll ($7.95). The biggest surpri
se, though, came when I sank my teeth into it.

At first bite, I rolled my eyes and savored a real "Aha!" moment of pure delight. A second bite followed quickly -- surely, I reasoned, it couldn't be that good -- and after that a third just to be positive before I declared it to be among the best sandwiches I've ever had the pleasure of eating.

With the cia
batta roll cut in half it's fairly substantial in size, I should add -- and especially at lunch time when I'm not ravenous, it's quite unusual for me not to take the second half home. Fat chance here; except for the small bite I allowed Jack to try (after which he agreed it's delicious), I ate every smidge.

I wish I could explain the appeal, but nothing in particular stands out. The grilled flavor is outstanding and the chicken is tender and juicy, but I think it's the melding of the red peppers, greens and cheese flavors that seals the deal here.

That out of the way, let me tell you a bit about the restaurant. It's located where Mikeee's used to be across from St. Rose Catholic Church (Mikeee's, which we used to frequent, now operates a restaurant within the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport). For a time, Big Family had a second location in the Eastwood Mall complex in Niles, but that's gone now (a server explained that the rent there was "too high" to make a go of the place).

I must also note that parking can be a bit of a problem. In past years, parking was available in the St. Rose lot across State Street, but that option has come to an end.
There are a few spots at the side of the Big Family restaurant, but otherwise you'll need to try the lot behind the restaurant or a place along one of the streets and walk a block or two.

Not much has changed as for the layout in Girard since Big Family took over; one side has tables and chairs and is the main restaurant, while the other, also spacious, side has several
booths and a bar that runs almost the length of the room (we usually prefer to eat here). The rows of booths are separated from the bar by a partition, and each of the bar-side booths that are on the exterior wall has its own small flat-screen TV set. Several other much larger TVs hang above the bar.

The interior color palette ranges from gray to black, but front
windows let the sun in and keep it from being overly dark. There's an upstairs outdoor patio-style deck, which we've been told opens at 5 p.m. weather permitting (we fully intend to get up there as soon as the temperatures get warm again).

But back to the food: One of the reasons we've come here many times is that I love pierogies; early on, this place had numerous varieties on the menu, and we never met one we didn't like. More recently, the choices have been pared down to just four -- "regular" potato, potato and cheddar, crab and cream cheese and potato/jalapeno. The latter is a favorite of mine, and they're not so spicy hot that Jack can't eat one or two if I let him. They're priced at $8.95 for a dozen and $4.95 for six (which makes a great appetizer, by the way).

Sandwiches also are a specialty here, and we used to enjoy the lunch combos -- half a sandwich paired with your choice of one side like fries, soup, steamed broccoli and rice pilaf. My preferred side is the wedding soup, which is especially good -- a very tasty broth, plenty of greens, tiny meatballs and other "stuff." Jack, meanwhile, loves the clam chowder -- heavy on the clams and just a few potatoes, just the way he prefers it.

On a recent visit, we both picked a Philly steak half, and Jack had cole slaw as his side. With a vinegar base, celery seed and very finely chopped cabbage it's quite tasty -- Jack was happy -- but I prefer my slaw mayo-based like I make it at home.

As for the sandwich, we'd hate to see a whole one! The thinly sliced beef, melted cheese, mushrooms and onions were piled on a whole hamburger-sized round bun. I added some of the shredded lettuce that came on the side, but not so Jack -- lettuce is for rabbits, he insists!

Alas, like a lunch buffet that included several gourmet pizzas, the lunch combos seem to have vanished from the menu (although you can still get the pizzas, which are outstanding). That's too bad, because not only were they a good bargain, they were quite delicious. Since then, though, we've sampled a couple of specialties from the "Pittsburgh-style" sandwich section, all of which are priced at $6.99 (you can add an egg for 75 cents). My favorite from this list is the hot sausage with cheese (sweet sausage or corned beef are other choices). Everything on the list comes with cole slaw, fries, lettuce and tomato piled on top -- no other sides are necessary.

They really are huge -- two sandwich halves on thick white Italian-style bread. If you're one of those folks who like to keep all the foods on your plate separate (as I tend to be), these sandwiches probably aren't for you; we also noticed that the amount of meat, although delicious, seems way less in proportion to the other add-ins (in some cases, by a country mile). Had we pulled the meat out to eat separately, we wouldn't have had more than three or four bites.

Other excellent sandwiches we've enjoyed include the Buffalo chicken wrap, which has several options. Jack usually chooses grilled, garlic sauce for basting, a white (rather than wheat) wrap and bleu cheese for dipping instead of ranch. At $7.95, it's quite tasty. The grilled chicken club at $7.95 is great as well, with two chicken breasts topped with bacon and provolone on a toasted ciabatta roll with tomato and onion on the side.

One of my favorites is the pepper and egg sandwich, which I can get with hot peppers instead of sweet at no extra charge. It's full of scrambled eggs and peppers all mixed up together and served between two large slices of buttered, grilled Italian bread.

Big Family also offers build-your-own pasta and burgers; the pasta starts at $6.95, and you go from there. Similarly, Jack's burger started at $6.95, and he added cheddar cheese, grilled mushrooms and onions. For his side, he picked linguine marinara.

Several salads are on the menu, as are wings. The latter are excellent ($7.95 for 10), and you can choose from some rather unusual flavors like white ranch, Crazy Creamin' Cajun and Hot Tai. I'm a garlic fan, but not so much Buffalo sauce. Since some restaurants combine the two, I always ask. Here, even the "regular" garlic wings are slightly red, but not so much that I consider them to be "Buffalo" garlic. They also have lots of minced garlic and a bit of a zing, so they pass muster with me.

There are a few entrees that sound wonderful -- Sesame Tuna Steak with one side for $13.95 and Chicken Monterrey for $10.95, for instance. Add in that Ahi tuna wrap with red onions, mandarin oranges and oriental sesame dressing for $8.95, and it looks as if we'll be stopping here a few more times. Hope to see you there!

If you go:

Big Family Restaurant
30 N. State St.
Girard, Ohio 44420
(330) 545-4040

Open 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily.