They say never judge a book by its cover, but to be honest that’s precisely what I did when a copy of “Lost restaurants of downtown Clevelandlanded on my desk. Expecting to find the predictable roundup of Cleveland’s missing restaurants, complete with the same boilerplate descriptions we’ve read over and over again, I was ready to add the book to my ever-growing pile of copies of reviews.
I cracked the spine more to confirm my assumptions than out of genuine interest, but in a few short paragraphs I was engrossed. Author Bette Lou Higgins combines a historian’s talent for research with a sociologist’s eye for human behavior to create a captivating portrayal of early life in Cleveland. She doesn’t just describe the food and the setting, but rather delves into the colorful owners, hosts, and hotel masters who have drawn guests in. These explorations are joined by a broader look at life as it existed outside the front door.
In the 1880s, according to Higgins, steak dungeons were all the rage across the country. There the men donned white butcher’s aprons, sat on barrels of whiskey, and ate grilled steak with their hands. The usual accompaniment was beer and celery stalks. Cleveland’s version was Finley’s Phalansterie and it was located on Huron Road and East 9th Street. Opened in the early 1900s by Richard Finley, the restaurant was located in a basement designed to resemble a dungeon with an imitation of a cave.
Blue Boar, a Depression-era cafeteria chain that sprang up in Louisville, Memphis, and Little Rock, opened locally in 1935. Remarkably, the dining room could seat 600 people, who enjoyed dishes like “Crispy meat pie,” creamed salmon with noodles and roasted eggs and veal thighs, which cost 16 cents. The popular restaurant was located near the Taylor department store, which explains its disappearance. As people migrated from urban centers, they increasingly traded downtown department stores for suburban malls, killing dozens of restaurants that relied on foot traffic.
Even the familiar fare gets a healthy dose of this Higgins spice. What didn’t we learn about Captain Frank’s Seafood House, which opened on East 9th Street Pier in 1954. Apparently the nautical-themed restaurant opened without a liquor license because Mayor Anthony Celebrezze thought that it would foster a “honky-tonk” atmosphere. Oddly enough, the owner finally got a permit after a “mysterious fire” at the old boat depot in 1958.
From modest diners to golden hotel restaurants, the book covers a lot of ground. If you want to learn more about places like Otto Moser’s, Pewter Mug, New York Spaghetti House, Alpine Village, the Golden Pheasant, the Theatrical Grill, and dozens of other notable and obscure joints, order a copy. The author’s descriptions are accompanied by personal memories of guests.
The book, which is published by Arcadia as part of the American Palate series, will be released on September 27.