The building housing Hunters Pub on Route 21 in Brecksville has lived through almost as many reincarnations as Shirley MacLaine -- The Spanish Tavern and Marco Polo, among others. And though the current avatar is still well short of achieving dining nirvana, it's on the right track under chef Greg Tushar's watch. Appetizers and desserts shine. Entrees, on the other hand, still need some fine-tuning before they'll attain ultimate enlightenment.
A Berea native, Tushar cooked at a number of restaurants in Seattle before returning to the Cleveland area to cook at the Shoreby Club and help launch the Cleveland Chop House downtown. He opened Hunters Pub last August for a team of owners.
"They had already set the theme and the menu when I came onto the scene," Tushar says. "Over my career I've opened a lot of restaurants here in Cleveland and in Seattle, as well."
Now that the place has been up and running for several months, Tushar is working to put his own stamp on the menu. A new one should be in place by the time you read this, though the chef is quick to point out that most items will remain unchanged.
The restaurant's decor blends the look of a hunting lodge in the Black Forest with a contemporary sports bar. The lofty vaulted ceilings display beams of dark wood; a balcony, set off by carved wooden railings, runs around three sides of the dining room. Mounted stags' heads gaze down from the fourth wall. It's a bit like being trapped in a cuckoo clock. Yet amid this Old-World charm, every seat in the main dining room has an unobstructed view of a 21st century big-screen television. (Now if someone could just talk the owners out of those baskets of artificial flowers.) Crepe-paper poppies notwithstanding, Hunters Pub is a comfortable, casual and absolutely family-friendly place. An extraordinarily helpful, patient and pleasant staff, most of whom know just how to handle little ones, helps to reinforce that fact.
"They know how tough it is to find a place that both kids and adults will enjoy and where they'll find enough menu choices to keep them coming back for more," Tushar says of the restaurant's owners, who have a total of nine children between them.
The Pub's family-oriented menu offers all-day availability of sandwiches, salads, pizzas, a fine selection of appetizers and bar snacks and an excellent -- if a bit cutesy -- roster of dishes just for kids. In keeping with the hunting-lodge theme, many menu items are given outdoorsy-sounding names: "Timber Trails Chicken," "Campfire Fondue," and "Wilderness Wings." The conceit carries over to the children's menu ("For Little Campers"), including "Rattlesnake Hill" for a bowl of spaghetti, "Bear Teeth" for chicken tenders with fries, and "Canoe Race" for a brace of mini hot dogs.
For starters, grownups won't go wrong ordering the Pub's "Fishing Net of Mussels." It's a generous bowl full of plump, succulent bivalves, as good as any we have ever tasted, in a steaming broth scented with garlic and a hint of tomato. Two long, graceful slices of crunchy French bread are provided for mopping up the luscious broth. Don't miss this one ($8.95). The Pub's "Ranger's Favorite Pizza Rolls" ($6.95) manage to mingle Nanking with Naples. They look like Chinese egg rolls, but take a bite and É surprise! The chef has taken pizza dough, rolled it around a filling of pepperoni, mozzarella cheese and scallions and then baked the concoction until it's crispy and golden brown. Concerned about the kitchen's ability to turn out a consistent product, Tushar says he may remove these from his menu. We wish he would reconsider.
Pita nachos are another interesting version of an old standard. Rather than the usual tortilla chips, Hunters Pub deep-fries triangles of pita bread until crisp and crunchy (and surprisingly grease-free), then tops them with a generous pour of its house-made artichoke dip -- a blend of artichoke hearts with velvety melted cream cheese -- and finishes the dish with a sprinkle of diced tomatoes, scallions and grated provolone cheese ($7.95, $9.95 if you'd like the kitchen to add some grilled chicken). The artichoke dip is also available without pita chips, but with a selection of breads and fresh vegetables for dipping at $6.95.
Pizzas are among the restaurant's most popular appetizers and the kitchen turns out beautiful pies. A plain cheese (provolone) pizza, cut into six pieces, sells for $5, while an eight-piece pie goes for $7.
If you're having trouble choosing from among Hunters Pub's excellent selection of starters and snacks, try the "Around the Campfire Sampler" ($14.95 and it serves four generously). The sampler includes the pizza rolls and pita nachos, plus crispy potato skins loaded with bacon, cheese and scallions, and a few chicken wings (your choice of Buffalo-style, barbecue or teriyaki).
All salads feature excellent blends of fresh, crisp greens. Most entrŽes are served with a large side salad. EntrŽe salads include a generous chicken Caesar ($8.50) and an oriental salad with grilled chicken, mandarin oranges and crisp noodles with a sesame-flavored dressing ($8.95).
The restaurant is probably best known for its selection of gently priced comfort foods. Some of the favorites: a Paul Bunyan-sized serving of meatloaf with mushroom gravy and mashed potatoes ($10.95), a meltingly tender pot roast with mashed spuds ($12.95) and a chicken potpie topped with pizza dough ($9.95). Other entrees to consider include baby back ribs, fall-off-the-bone tender and lusciously sauced ($16.95 for a full slab, $9.95 for half), and "North Fork Pork Chops." The chops, billed as a single 12-oz. chop, were actually a pair of smaller chops, nicely grilled and covered with an apricot-based fruit chutney -- tasty but perhaps too sweet for some diners ($16.95).
In the "needs work" category, I'd have to include the fried walleye, which was much too thickly breaded ($12.95); the grilled filet, a nice-looking piece of beef with no flavor ($24.95) and the chicken paprikash, served in a gravy that tasted of sour cream and little else ($11.95).
With dessert the kitchen was back on track. Chocolate fondue is the Pub's signature dessert. It's served with chunks of cake and plenty of fresh fruit ($12 for two, $18 for four). The chocolate cheesecake is indeed a chocoholic's dream: rich, creamy and deeply satisfying ($4.95). An outstanding peach and raspberry cobbler is scented with cinnamon and served hot with a dollop of vanilla ice cream ($5.95). For kids, there's ice cream and Klondike bars.
Hunters Pub, 8188 Brecksville Road, Brecksville, (440) 526-3553. Hours: Mon-Thu 11:30 a.m-4 p.m. (lunch) and 4-10 p.m. (dinner), Fri & Sat 4-11 p.m., Sun 10 a.m.-2 p.m. (brunch) and 4-9 p.m. (dinner). An abbreviated late-night menu is available Fri and Sat until midnight.