Friday, April 27, 2012


The threat of a late spring snow is hovering as I write this, but it's spring nonetheless. Now's the time my husband Jack and I start looking for interesting daytrips to carry us through till the snow starts to fall again -- daytrips that always include a few good places to eat.

Again this season, we're looking forward to soaking up some history at Zoar Village. Located between Canton and New Philadelphia in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, the village was founded in 1817 by the Society of Separatists of Zoar, a group of German religious dissenters. Eleven buildings have been restored and are open for public tours except in November and December, such as a tinshop, wagon shop, blacksmith and the very interesting Zoar Store. In season, costumed interpreters are on hand, and both guided and self-guided tours can be arranged.

One of my favorite places is the Historic Zoar Garden, a 2 1/2-acre mostly flower garden (we found some veggies in there as well) that's open all year with no admission charge. Go at the right time of the summer and you'll be dazzled by a vast array of hibiscus the size of dinner plates. Special events are held throughout the year including a biennial Civil War reenactment (the next will be Sept. 7 and 8, 2013), the Harvest Festival (Aug. 4 and 5) and Christmas in Zoar (Dec. 1 and 2). 

Other structures are private residences, shops and restaurants. It is the latter, of course, that is sure to get our attention whenever we visit: The Firehouse Grille & Pub, a neat place that reminds me of a German pub (not that I've ever been in a real one, mind you). The decor is mostly weathered wood, from the floor to the walls to the tables and chairs. It's also said to be the "home of the $1 burger," although I admit we've never tried one of those.

Actually, on our most recent visit I did pick a burger, but with fresh cut fries my "Firestarter" burger cost $7.99. It was topped with mozzarella, crushed red peppers, jalapenos, Tabasco sauce shredded lettuce and tomato. I'm never a big fan of fries, but these are especially tasty; once I added some vinegar, I could have sworn they came from the old Idora Park in Youngstown.

The burger was great too - with all those peppers, it definitely had a kick. Truth is I've never met a jalapeno that I considered to be remotely hot, but these bit back a little, and the crushed reds and Tabasco jazzed it up even more. It wasn't so hot that Jack wouldn't have enjoyed a taste, but I guarantee he wouldn't have taken more than one.

Meanwhile, he ordered the Philly cheesesteak sandwich with homemade potato chips, also $7.99. Diners can choose chicken or beef (he picked the latter), chopped and blended with onions and mushrooms and topped with mozzarella cheese and cheddar cheese sauce on a fresh hoagie bun. For the record, he said the sandwich is one of the best he's had anywhere - and he orders Philly steak a lot. In a rare move with such a large sandwich, he ate the whole thing - usually, he takes half of it home, further proof of how delicious this one was.

The fresh chips were excellent, too - much like packaged kettle chips. As for beer, which is mandatory at a pub, it's quite inexpensive here and notably cold. Since both Sam Adams Oktoberfest and Labbatt's were on tap at the time of our visit, we were especially happy campers.

If you go:

Firehouse Grille & Pub
162 Main St.
Zoar, Ohio 44697
(330) 874-2170

Open from noon to 2 p.m., 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. Monday; 11 a.m. to noon, 2 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Thursday; and noon to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday. There's no restaurant website, but information about historic Zoar Village can be found at (Ohio Historical Society) and (Zoar Community Association). 

Friday, April 13, 2012


Over the course of the past 20 years or so, my husband Jack and I have taken restaurant dining seriously. In part, that's because at one time or another, one or both of us have been engaged (for money) in writing reviews of some of the places we chose to visit. Add to that a simple love of eating out (mixed with a spoonful of dislike of doing the cooking ourselves), and we've long since lost count of the number of restaurants we've had the pleasure of visiting.

Or, in some cases, the displeasure. Life in the restaurant world doesn't always come up roses, and we've had our share of miserable experiences along the way. So for this "review," we've compiled a list of likes, dislikes and frustrations that push our dining out buttons. If you agree - or don't - we'd love to hear about it. If you have pet peeves or advice on how to get the most from a dining-out experience, we'd love to hear that, too.

Meantime, for better or worse, here's our 11 cents!

#1: Water, water, everywhere. Except, that is, on restaurant tables. Some years back, a severe drought across the United States resulted in strict conservation measures. One of the casualties of war, so to speak, was that servers no longer would bring water to diners as they sat down as had been the custom. Good move, we said, betting that at least half of that water never got drunk anyway.

Problem is, water long since started flowing again everywhere except in restaurants. Let me emphasize that because much of it is wasted, I agree it shouldn't be delivered automatically. At the same time, I don't think diners should have to beg for it; after a server has taken drink orders shortly after the diners are seated, how much trouble would it be to ask if we'd like some?

And that brings me to my water pet peeve No. 2: I can't count the number of times I've had to remind our server once (and on at least one occasion, thrice) before I get the water I had to ask for to begin with. Do they really think I'll just forget I wanted it and save them the trouble of bringing me a glass? Not in this lifetime, bucko!

That's followed by water pet peeve No. 3: No refills. We've watched it happen so often at various restaurants that it's become a standing joke: Jack ordered soda and I opted for nothing to drink besides water. When both of our glasses are nearly empty, the server physically turns his or her back to me to ask Jack if he wants a refill -- as if I, and my empty glass, don't even exist. I know water is free, and extra trips to our table can translate into more work for less money for the servers. But c'mon, folks - this kind of behavior is just plain rude.

#2: Non-edible munchkins. Don't get me wrong; I like kids. But when I'm in a restaurant other than fast food and paying money to enjoy a meal, I expect them to be in their seats and not shrieking. I know from personal experience what a treat it is for parents to have a meal out, and often, that means with kids in tow. But we never failed to be cognizant of other diners who have a right to not be cognizant of our unruly children. At no time were they allowed to run around in a restaurant, and on the rare occasions they acted up too much, we snatched them up and took them home immediately.

#3: Portion spins. Let's face it: The restaurant industry is hurting. Profit margins are pretty slim on a good day; and as discretionary income takes a hit in today's economy, they're dangerously close to the breaking point. Understandably, owners are looking for ways to stay afloat. One way to do that seems to be cutting back slightly on portion size without cutting prices, a trend we've seen just about everywhere. Where we once counted on having at least one more meal apiece from our "doggie" bags, we now count ourselves lucky to fill up while we're there - never mind leftovers.

We can live with that, although it's one reason we, like many other formerly frequent diners, have cut back fairly substantially on how often we eat out. What we can't quite stomach, though, are the offers of smaller portions and even two-for-one entrees that are touted as "value" meals. In most cases, there's nothing good here. The two-for-one "deals" are noticeably less-than-regular portions, and while those smaller meals are appealing because there's less waste and/or over-stuffing ourselves, the prices are proportionately higher than we'd pay to get the full versions.

#4:Too much of a good thing. Customer service cuts two ways. Give too little, and you risk losing our business. But too much of it can be just as off-putting. Take, for instance, the time we sat in a pub waiting for our drinks to arrive. Granted, it took a wee bit longer than it should have for them to be delivered, but did we really need our server to stop three times to say they'd be "coming right out" and ask if we need anything? Um, yes there is, we wanted to respond -- we need the drinks.

At still another casual restaurant, we stopped counting after our server stopped to ask how we were doing six times before we'd even finished our entrees - and during that time, the restaurant manager also planted himself at our table to ask the same question. Golly, we said as we made a hasty retreat - now we know where not to go if we want to have any kind of ongoing conversation!

So how much is too much? Well, if my glass is more than half full, it's a sure bet I don't even want to think about another beer yet. If we're busy eating, talking and smiling, we'd like to continue doing that without interruption. When most of our food is gone and/or we're starting to stack empty plates, it's a signal that we're probably ready for the check (or a suggestion for dessert). Bottom line? Keep your eyes open and you won't shut diners out.

#5: Squeaky cleaning. Seeing a couple of crumbs on the floor doesn't bother me much - but watching someone pick up dirt in and under my table while I'm in the middle of a meal does. Even worse is the pungent smell of the spray cleaners that are applied to the empty table next to me while I'm eating -- guaranteed to take away my appetite. I do understand - really I do - that it's necessary on occasion to haul out the sweeper to pick up the cracker crumbs, half-chewed hot dog bits and French fry tips that giggling two-year-old threw on the floor. But please, folks, surely you can find a cleaner that doesn't stink to high heaven!

#6: Familiarity breeds contempt. I'm one of the most informal people I know; it's fine if other people's kids call me by my first name and I'm not inclined to answer if somebody calls me "Mrs. Ryan." Still, it bothers me when a restaurant server bounces up to our table with the greeting, "How are you guys doin' today?" followed by "Do you guys need anything?" throughout the meal. Maybe it's because I'm not a "guy," but it's quite off-putting. "How are you two doing today?" is just as friendly and a lot less irritating.

#7: No separate checks. Try as I might, I can't for the life of me figure out why a restaurant would prohibit writing up two separate checks when two couples eat at the same table (and after talking with other folks who've run into the same stone wall, I'm not the only one ticked off about it). The most innovative response I've heard to the question of why not was this: "If I do two checks, the food for all of you may not come out at the same time." Well you guys, I'll bet it will if you tell someone the checks are for the same table. If you can't figure out a way to do that, we're willing to chance it if it means we don't have to figure out who owes what at the end of our meal. And if that doesn't work, well, we'll just take our business elsewhere next time.

#8. Waiting is the hardest part. With apologies to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, having to wait longer than 20 minutes or so to get a table isn't on my want-to-do list. That, however, isn't my big objection; it's when we're told the wait will be "about 10 minutes" and half an hour later we still haven't been seated. Of course, I understand it's impossible to pin down how long a party of five will dawdle over coffee; but all too often, it's pretty clear we're being given an estimate on the very low end simply to keep us from going somewhere else.

#9. No reservations. This one applies only to more upscale restaurants; with a Mickey D's, Wendy's or Burger King on just about every corner, it's not too hard to get to a fast food place where the line isn't out the door and around the building. I know that very popular establishments have such an overflow of business that they really don't need to accept reservations, but even they should know that all good things come to a slowdown, especially in the restaurant industry -- and meeting the needs and expectations of customers is important no matter how popular you are right now.

It's fine with me, BTW, if they require a credit card number to reserve a time (and charge a stated fee if I fail to show up). But when I'm heading out to a fancy place, perhaps to celebrate a special event, the only place I'll choose is one at which I can get some sort of guarantee that I won't have to fight the crowd.

#10. Put it online. Yes, Virginia, this is a good thing. Whether it's making one of the above-mentioned reservations, ordering take-out or buying a gift card, having the option of doing it online is a wonderful convenience. Similarly, I like being able to peruse a restaurant's menu online before I visit, especially if it's one I haven't been to before.

#11. Perks. So-called "loyalty" programs are another good thing -- signing up online or even punch cards that reward me for my business every so often (and if you do it by e-mail, so much the better). Even then, I'll issue a caveat: Make it meaningful. Offering me one free dessert when I buy two expensive entrees and two drinks just doesn't cut it. Buy one entree and get one free, and I'm all yours again (and again). And while you're at it, give me some time; sending me a discount coupon that expires the very next day virtually guarantees I won't be able to use it (and especially if it's a really good deal, I'll be quite upset that I wasn't able to take advantage of the offer).