Wednesday, May 20, 2015


What's better than finding a great place to enjoy the great outdoors and get interesting photographs? For me, it's finding a great new restaurant. That's an especially happy occasion now that my husband Jack and I don't go traveling the country (or even the state) as often as we once did - for the most part trying to keep the aging 2004 Pontiac Vibe that we love in good working condition and avoid having to buy a replacement.

This find happened after we visited Noah's Lost Ark near Berlin Center, Ohio - a wonderful sanctuary that provides shelter and care for exotic animals (think lions and tigers and bears, oh my!) that have been neglected and abused to the point that no one else wants them.

On the way to the sanctuary, we drove past a large building and noticed the sign - Ben's Restaurant & Bar. Ah, we said almost in unison, that looks like a really nice place. So when we left the sanctuary, it was time for a late lunch - and we made it a point to drive past the place again to see if it was open. It was (it's open for lunch on weekdays and breakfast on weekends), so of course we went in.

We were greeted in the lobby by one of the most beautiful (and large) floral wreaths I've ever seen. And as soon as we got inside the door, we were reminded of our many visits to the North Carolina Outer Banks; the two-level dining area is decorated in light teal with creamy white furniture, and wall art is similar to what is found in beach restaurants. There's a separate bar area with limited seating, but even though that's our usual choice, the dining room looked so inviting that we wandered in and found a table.

For the record, Ben's may be new to us, but it's certainly not new to the area; according to the menu, it was started in 1978 by Tom Bendetta and his wife Flo, who purchased an existing building. Ensuing years brought renovations and expansions, and today the restaurant seems to be thriving (offering catering and banquet menus as well as on-site dining and a full bar). 

Once we'd placed our drinks order (on-tap beers for both of us), we looked over the menu, starting, of course, with appetizers. Honestly, we weren't hungry enough at lunch to try one, but the sauteed mushrooms (prepared in a "special" homemade sauce for $6.99) and jumbo quesadillas were tempting - as was Tom's "famous" hot pepper salad.

As for the dinner options, we zeroed in on seafood (mostly because that's usually our choice for entrees and partly because of the dining room atmosphere), and we certainly weren't disappointed. Jack's eyes never left the deep sea scallops, sauteed and served on a bed of bow-tie pasta for $16.99. I was torn between the Cajun cod ($16.99) and orange roughy ($16.99), so when we go back for dinner - as we plan to do - I'm not sure which I'll choose. Oh yes, I also spotted prime rib - another special favorite of mine. Ah, what to do, what to do?

But we were here for lunch, and these days, we're simply not able to wolf down large quantities of food like we used to. Jack didn't take much time to make his choice - a batter-dipped scrod sandwich. He chose the larger version at $7.99, asking them to hold the bun. All lunches, BTW, come with fries and cole slaw.

Truth is, the scrod sounded wonderful to me as well, but I wanted to try something other than what Jack got (besides, I knew he'd offer me a bite of his). After waffling between the grilled Cajun chicken breast sandwich ($8.99) and a grilled Reuben ($9.99), I finally settled on the bleu cheeseburger on a Kaiser roll ($7.99). Since Jack got fries with his, I paid $1 more to get onion rings. 

Needless to say, we were happy with our choices. The scrod was plentiful (Jack even brought a piece home, where he gave me another bite), and the slaw was quite tasty. Usually, I'm not a big fan of slaw I didn't make myself, but I polished off almost all of my dish rather than giving it to Jack as I usually do. The fries and onion rings are good - I'm partial to the o-rings -  and my burger was yummy (at the server's prompting, I added tomato and onion, which complemented the bleu cheese perfectly). 

All that said, you can bet we'll be heading back to this place again, the sooner the better - this time for dinner. That Cajun cod has my name on it (well, okay, so does the prime rib, so we'll just have to go back at least two more times)!

If you go:

Ben's Restaurant & Bar
17729 W. Akron-Canfield Road
Berlin Center, Ohio 44401
(330) 547-7633

Open 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 11 a.m. to 1 a.m. Friday; 8 a.m. to 1 a.m. Saturday; 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.


Sunday, February 22, 2015


Ever since my official retirement a good 10 years ago, going out for lunch with my husband Jack has been a favorite way to spend time away from home. Now that we’re older and neither travel as far or as often after dark, these outings have become even more special - but these days, we tend to stay closer to home. We’re always up for a new place, of course, but over the years we’ve always had one or two spots where, to borrow from Cheers, everybody knows our name, the cost of the food doesn’t require the selling of our firstborn son and the beer is cold (and better still, served in a frosty mug).

Generally speaking, chain restaurants like Applebee’s and Buffalo Wild Wings - while we do enjoy them - just don’t qualify on all those counts (mostly, they're just too expensive for a quick in-and-out lunch). In the many years we lived in Niles, Ohio, we were happy to be regulars at places like the Olde Main Ale & Chowder House and Silver Nugget (neither of which is still in operation) and, in more recent years, Gasoline Alley, which has just about the best wings and burgers anywhere. Now that we’re residents of Mineral Ridge, our closest-to-home haunt is Mousie’s Ice House Inn just up the road in Austintown. 

And now, thanks to a tip from our Niles friends Jerry and Barb, we’ve been hitting this place with some degree of regularity. Initially, we stopped because we enjoy an occasional hot dog (love the Jib Jab in Girard and Hot Dog Shoppe in Warren) and wanted to see how this place compares. What we found is a neat little eatery to which we’ve returned many times simply because we’ve been made to feel welcome (and the icy cold beer on tap sure doesn’t hurt).

The decor is mostly red and black, and Ohio State Buckeyes’ fans will love all the “stuff” hanging on the walls. There’s a counter for ordering and a section of booths; it’s not a large place, so no doubt it can get a bit crowded here at peak mealtimes. Based on what we’ve seen, take-out is a big part of business as well.

What we really love, though, is the small full-service bar section off the dining area. There, we can pull up a stool, order a brewski (by now, one of the friendly bartenders knows us so well that she starts pouring our Bud Lights the minute she looks out the window and sees our car pull up). I’m not sure whether or not she knows our names, but when she starts pouring two cold ones the minute she sees our car pull in the lot, it's close enough for horseshoes. And if other folks are here, or come in while we are, it’s almost guaranteed that we’ll be included in the conversation. It’s just that kind of place.

I’ll be honest; I’m not at all fond of the chili on the dogs here (it’s different from the “usual” red chili), but judging from the number of chili dogs and chili-topped fries I see on other plates, I’m in the minority so feel free to give it a try. That said, I’m more likely to order my dogs topped with sauerkraut and onions, a touch of mustard and, when I can get them, hot peppers. And yes, the peppers here shine, so there’s no waffling by me over what goes on top of mine. Diners have a choice of the more upscale Nathan’s all-beef hot dogs or the “regular” kind; Jack usually opts for the former and I the latter (which run somewhere around $1.50 each). As one would expect, the Nathan’s dogs are more costly, but not by much.

The options on hot dog toppings are way too numerous to mention, and the specials on food and drinks vary according to the day. I’ll also point out that despite the name, this place isn’t just about canines in buns. There are fries, fish, cheeseburger, Italian sausage, meatball splash and gyro sandwiches plus a number of other goodies as well - all at quite reasonable prices. I’m especially fond of the gyro, although I caution that it’s huge and nearly impossible to pick up even with two hands. Sometimes you can get them on a buy one, get one for 99 cents deal, but it’s hard for me to imagine one person polishing off two of these puppies. I also recommend that Italian sausage, and I’m planning to try the all-you-can-eat fish dinner one of these Fridays.

If you sit at the bar, you can place your food order there; or if you prefer, place it at the counter and then pick a seat wherever you want and wait till it’s ready - never very long, in our experience. Most of the food can be eaten with fingers and is served in plastic baskets lined with paper; nothing fancy-schmancy here. So hey - any time you want to take a break from all your worries, come on in - they’ll always be glad you came!

If you go:

Coney Island Hot Dogs Bar and Grill
31 N. Canfield-Niles Road
Austintown, Ohio 44515
(330) 799-2099

Open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday (till 9 p.m. at the drive-through); 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday.

Friday, January 30, 2015


Girard may not be the biggest town in Trumbull County, Ohio, but never let it be said there’s no place to eat. From the popular Jib Jab Hot Dog Shoppe at one end of State Street to Margherita’s on the other (not to mention several places on the side streets), this town’s got you covered breakfast, lunch and dinner.

A favorite haunt was Mikeee’s, somewhere around the middle of State Street; my husband Jack and I spent many a lazy summer afternoon on the upstairs outdoor deck and many more in the lower-level bar trying out everything we could on the extensive sandwich menu. When that ended, we were frequent visitors to the Big Family Restaurant; when that one closed, we almost cried.

But then, we got word that a new place was coming. And in early May 2014, the Fire Grill opened. Not too long afterward, we were there - hoping to find another great place – and we did. The inside is quite a change, although it remains fairly informal. It’s been redone in tones of gray, black and red with spacious booths, a fire grill at the back (hence the name) complete with a display case in front filled with tempting desserts and lots of really cool hanging lamps. It looks totally different, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The full bar now includes a ton of specialty beers, and anyone interested in sampling can get flights on all the draughts. That’s really not our style, though, so we stuck with more traditional Yuengling at our first visit at lunchtime. Picking what we wanted to eat, though, took a bit of time. We weren’t looking for a huge meal, but we did want to sample a few things. The specialty here is barbecue - ribs, chicken, pork and beef - and on each table are bottles of special add-on sauces, mostly Carolina-style like East Carolina Vinegar, North Carolina Mustard and South Carolina Spicy Red (they’re sold by the bottle as well). As long-time vacationers at the North Carolina Outer Banks, we were happy to see those options - well, maybe not the vinegar sauce, definitely not a favorite of ours.

It took a while to decide what we wanted, even for lunch; I did consider the kielbasa-style Texas hot link sausage topped with sauteed red peppers, onions and tomato sauce on a toasted hoagie roll (plain or with jalapeno-cheddar sauce, $7.99). Finally - now on my second Yuengling - I settled on one of the daily specials, a half-order of Better-Than Maw-Maw’s Fried Green Tomatoes with soup or salad ($4.99 at the time of our visit). I chose chili as my soup, and then just for fun, I ordered an appetizer of smoked chipotle wings ($5.99). 

Jack, meanwhile, opted to try the Portabella Non-Burger, a fire-grilled whole portabella mushroom marinated in homemade balsamic vinegar and topped with charred romaine, grilled tomato and Asiago cheese ($6.99). With it he chose cole slaw, and got a surprise: our server asked whether he wanted mayonnaise or vinegar style (he picked the latter and said it was delicious).

The wings, the menu said, are put in the smoker first and then fried and tossed in Chipotle butter sauce. The flavor was excellent, and I enjoyed them despite not being a fan of getting thick red goo all over me. The chili, too, was outstanding and a bit different, with smoked beef brisket, ground beef, red kidney beans, plum tomatoes, onions and peppers. 

The tomatoes were coated with panko bread crumbs, topped with creamy bleu cheese sauce, sprinkled with scallions and finished with balsamic glaze reduction - definitely not like mother used to make. They were wonderful, although they were fried a bit too crispy for my liking - we old folks are always worried about breaking teeth. For the record, they’re also available as an appetizer.

Within a couple of weeks, we returned - this time with friends Jerry and Barb from Niles in tow. We arrived about 5:30 p.m. on a Friday and were seated immediately, but by the time we left, there had to be at least 20 people waiting for a table. We made a mental note to get here before 5 p.m. for dinner (though our usual plan when eating out is to have a late lunch somewhere between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., typically a slower time for most restaurants).

But once we were seated, it seemed we sat there forever until one of us caught a server’s eye and she came fairly quickly. Because of the long wait, we’d had plenty of time to peruse the menu and make our choices, so we placed our drink and food orders at the same time. Shortly thereafter, we got a visit from the owner, who was checking up on us (I know at least one of our group had a scowl on her face at that point - me - which probably signaled that the natives at our table were a bit restless. He was very nice, and among other things told us that the outdoor balcony upstairs should be open soon. At this point, it’s winter, so we’ll check back when the weather improves.

Jack’s choice for dinner was the Caprese flatbread ($6.99) with a side of macaroni and cheese ($3.99). Jerry picked the Southern Pulled Pork sandwich, which comes with fries, for $7.99. Barb and I both went for the Braggin’ Rights Brisket sandwich -mine with fries and hers with the vinegar-based coleslaw (both $9.99).

Jack was delighted with the flatbread - six rather large squares topped with Roma tomatoes, red onions and roasted garlic topped with fresh basil, melted mozzarella cheese and drizzled with a sweet balsamic reduction. The mac and cheese is a bit different, with a crumb coating, and he deemed it outstanding.

Jerry was happy with his pulled pork sandwich, and Barb and I absolutely loved the brisket, which is shredded to make the sandwich. It comes with some kind of mayonnaise-based sauce, but there wasn’t much of it and the flavor isn’t the least bit overwhelming. I opted to add a bit more flavor from the bottles of sauces on the table - this time choosing the delicious Kansas City Sweet.

My only beef? Nowhere - not on the website, the Facebook page, the menu or even the restaurant’s front door - have I been able to find when the place is open for the entire week. Finally, the hours I’ve added below turned up on an obscure restaurant review site, but I advise anyone wanting to make advance plans to visit to call to be sure they’re accurate.

If you go:

Fire Grill
30 N. State St.
Girard, Ohio 44420
(330) 545-4755

Open from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Wednesday; 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday; closed Sunday.

Friday, January 9, 2015


Every time I read negative reviews of anything - from movies to music CDs to restaurants - I take them with a grain of salt. I know that, in general, far more people who had a bad experience will speak up than those who enjoyed themselves. For better or worse, that’s just the nature of the human beasts.

My husband Jack and I have driven past Davidson’s Restaurant/Tavern in Cornersburg, Ohio, countless times - almost every time saying we really should stop one of these days. When we mentioned it not too long ago to our friend Barb from Niles, she told us she’s a fairly frequent visitor and enjoys the food. But when I went online to see what other people think, it was a bit disheartening. Lousy service, one said. Long wait for mediocre food, said another.

So chalking it up to the fact that the squeaky wheel usually gets the most publicity, we said what the heck - let's go. Granted, we also needed to use up a couple of about-to-expire coupons from the 2014 Entertainment Book (basically BOGOs for lunch and/or dinner), so we knew if we didn’t like it the first time around, we could call it quits without much of a loss and no one would be the wiser. And if we did, we'd go back; it’s rare for me to visit any restaurant just once before writing a review - a single visit just isn't enough to provide a fair appraisal, IMHO.

But after one very favorable lunchtime visit, we promised ourselves we’d be using that second coupon for dinner - and we did, with equally happy results. And that means yes, we’ll be back for thirds, fourths and more, coupon or not.

For openers, the place is huge; there are at least three dining areas, and the bar isn’t exactly small and has its own entrance. We picked the bar when we made our first visit, in part because one reviewer said that’s the best place and in the other part because it’s our usual preference no matter where we go. We picked a high table at one wall; there are several TV sets and sports memorabilia on the walls, making us feel right at home.

So did our server, who was very friendly and helpful and managed to find us quickly even though we’d bypassed any kind of check-in process as we made our way to the bar. We ordered a couple of draughts while we perused the very extensive menu (and we both noticed that the beer here is colder than just about anywhere else we’ve been - a real plus for me in particular). I’d read that the chicken breast sandwich with Italian greens is a winner here, so I gave that some serious consideration right off the bat. But then there are several wraps and at least 25 “regular” sandwich possibilities, from a Black & Bleu Burger (yum!) to a Reuben to Pepper ‘n’ Egg - mostly in the $8 to $9 range, so choosing isn’t a walk in the park.

The dinner menu is even more extensive (I eyeballed it even though we were there for lunch). I made a mental note to check out the Linguine Diablo, in fact, if and when we came at dinnertime ($16.95).

Ultimately, though, I decided on a hot sausage sandwich (always a favorite of mine) topped with peppers and melted provolone, at $8.95. There’s a choice of peppers, so I happily went for the hot sport peppers and onions on top. As a side, I picked another favorite - wedding soup.

Meanwhile, Jack decided on the portabella sandwich, marinated and chargrilled with roasted red peppers and melted provolone cheese on a toasted garlic Kaiser roll for $8.25. All sandwiches come with “Fair” fries or a cup of soup. Other options are possible if you want to ante up $1.50 more, which we did not.

The wedding soup wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was quite tasty and filled with several larger-than-usual meatballs, some chicken chunks and greens. It was also hot, which seems to be a rarity these days. Most of what I’ve been getting ranges from very warm to tepid - and one of these days, I swear I’m going to make them take it back and heat it up. No problem with that here, though.

My sandwich turned out to be two sausage patties rather than the link variety, and it was very tasty. There’s no marinara or other red sauce, but that’s the way I prefer it. The peppers weren’t what I’d call plentiful, but they sure were hot - just my style. Jack’s portabella sandwich was delicious as well, and he said those roasted red peppers really “put it over the top.”

As it turned out, we came back around 4 p.m. a week or so later, this time opting for a booth in one of the dining rooms instead of the bar. Once again, we ordered draughts while we looked over the menu (dinner items can be ordered just about any time, but the daily specials begin at 4 p.m., our server told us). We were using an about-to-expire coupon from the 2014 Entertainment Book, which doesn’t include the specials, but with so many items from which to choose that wasn’t an issue in the slightest. Our server brought a basket of warm, crusty rolls and butter - absolutely delicious, and yes, we took her up on the offer of a second basket. Although I’d had my eye on that Linguine Diablo - shrimp, scallops, clams and hot peppers sauteed in spicy marinara sauce - I wasn’t quite willing to ante up 17 bucks until I’d made sure I like the red sauce here. I actually considered liver and onions at $9.95 - an old favorite I rarely make at home any more. But truth is, only once in my life have I had it at a restaurant, mostly because (she says with no modesty whatsoever), I make the best darned liver and onions in the world and don’t want to chance getting something that doesn’t measure up.

Always a fish lover, I ended up picking the baked whitefish filet, and after discussing it with our server I went with the butter crust instead of lemon-pepper ($13.95). For a second I considered adding a buck to get it blackened, but then I backed down. It didn’t take Jack long to pick the beef tenderloin tips over noodles ($11.95); the beef is sauteed in olive oil and garlic and tossed with mushrooms, roasted peppers and onions.

Both of our entrees came with a salad, and Jack got his usual Thousand Island (a double dose) and I stuck with plain old ranch. The salads were rather nondescript, with “okay” greens and shredded carrots that tasted a little stale. Only I, Jack was quick to point out, was lucky enough to get a cherry tomato (but he did get two containers of dressing as he’d requested - something that doesn’t always happen).

The bowl of beef tips, which were over bowtie pasta, was on the large side and the taste was satisfactory but nothing particularly special, Jack said. On the other hand, my fish was outstanding - two fairly large filets - and the butter crumb topping the server recommended was not only tasty, but very light and full of flavor; I usually avoid breaded fish because it can be crunchy enough to break a tooth, but this was wonderful. Better still, the fish was flaky and tender, and the filets were large enough that I brought one home. The rice pilaf was so-so, but although it was on the dry side, it had more flavor than I’ve had in many restaurants (one reason I don’t order it very often). Despite the large bowl, Jack wasted no time cleaning out - nothing left but a couple of bow ties.

Bottom line is we’ve found a great place - easy to stop on the way home from one of our frequent forays to Mill Creek Park. After all, I’ve still got my heart set on that Linguine Diablo!

If you go:

Davidson’s Restaurant/Tavern
3636 Canfield Road
Canfield (Cornersburg), Ohio 44406
(330) 793-0033

Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week.