Thursday, August 19, 2010

Fun Playing with Comfort Food in Solon, Ohio

Bob and I recently sampled and compared two of the most similar comfort-food-serving establishments in the city of Solon. What makes these two places similar is that they are small, locally owned, serve lunch and dinner, have full alcohol service and lively bar (with a TV emphasis on sports programming), and offer Italian and comfort food. I speak of Station 43 Tavern and Benny's Sports Bar & Grille - both located at different ends of Rt. 43/Aurora Road in Solon. Benny's is rather new, and though Station 43 has been around a while, we hadn't dined there since they doubled and modernized their space some two years ago. Honestly, our first visit to Station 43 in 2007 hadn't wowed us enough to return, but we were just back from a roadtrip to Columbus and wanted quick, casual, tasty eats. Station 43 had recently gotten a nice write up in Mimi Vanderhaven's paper, and so was on the brain.

A caveat - while I try to keep this blog focused on the positive, I also have to be honest if I want to have any credibility. So, below is my honest take on both  of these places.

Station 43: We arrived shortly before 4pm on a Sunday. The three dining areas each had a few patrons, and a few more dotted the bar and high tops. We were seated in a small seating area across from the bar on one side and across from the service window on another, next to another couple that was finishing up. As we talked to one another, we noticed it getting darker and darker in the room. We had a lot of time to talk because the service was very slow. Once we we each had a beer in front of us, we considered the menu, which is kind of all over the place in different comfort food zones - Italian, burgers, ribs, chicken, salads. It all looked good, so we ordered. The couple next to us finished and left. And still we waited. I flagged down another server and asked if the lights might be turned on, so that Bob and I could see one another (and so the camera could also see). I was accommodated, after she said "I'll check." Ok. Honestly, it was too dark and I was too tired to fuss with taking photos of the decor, but it was very original, with Solon-related photos and artifacts, with a heavy firefighter-service person emphasis.

Bob's Firehouse Half Rack did not come with salad, but my Veal Parmesan entree did. 

The salad was adequate, though the food service tomato was a little disappointing given the time of year. The house-made zinfandel dressing was fantastic, however.

Then we waited for our dinners. And waited. and waited. I looked into the kitchen and noticed through the  service window that the cook wasn't Chef Bennie Crosby (unless he's gained weight and turned female). I also noticed said cook eating a sandwich while working on the line and while we were waiting for our dinners. Our server was no where to be seen, although he had few other tables. So we waited.

Nearly an hour after we'd arrived, our dinners finally did (no bread was ever served - I don't know if that's restaurant policy in these wheat-expensive times or an oversight).

Firehouse Rack Half

Described on the menu as: "Succulent St. Louis ribs basted with “Big Daddy’s” perfect sauce served with a hearty portion of french fries, and coleslaw," these ribs tasted of food service food; my one bite was more than enough.

The fries were a nice from-the-package product, prepared well, and the cole slaw was actually very good. 

Veal Parmesan

Again, per the menu: "Lightly breaded veal topped with mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce served with a side of spaghetti or penne, and dinner salad." One look and smell of this plate and I knew the veal had been overdone twice - first in the fryer, then under the broiler. The edges of the meat were just off-black in color, and you can see how overdone the cheese was. It looks nothing like the chicken parm pictured on the restaurant website. Despite the long wait and great hunger, I didn't burn the roof of my mouth on this, probably because it took so long to get a server's attention to ask for grated cheese. I admit, as my eyes searched the room for a sign of service, I was really tempted to send this back. But I didn't. 

The pasta and sauce were pleasant enough - finished with dried parsley, as you can see. And amazingly, given how over-cooked the veal was, the pasta was perfectly toothy. Go figure.

Paying the check turned into another wait, again, we had to flag someone other than our server to get us out of there. We did finally extricate ourselves, nearly two hours after we'd arrived.

Benny's Sports Bar & Grille is located in the Solon Square shopping center, a couple of doors down from Officemax. That general location in the center has previously been home to a couple of restaurants, even though it seems like a very unlikely spot for a bar of any kind, let alone a sports bar. The interior is kind of cold and hard; I suspect it gets rather noisy when a Cleveland team is winning or weekend bands are playing.

Our first visit in June was a bit of an emergency - our dishwasher had died, just as we'd finished preparing for a catering project. So - out to eat we went. I think that in our two visits, we observed both ends of the service spectrum described in some of the Urban Spoon reviews of this place. Our first server was definitely dressed to extract maximum tippage from the male population, and wasn't knowledgable about some things. My cocktail - ordered as a Bacardi and Amaretto Disaronno with lime - was watered down and did NOT contain Disaronno, even though she insisted that the bartender said that she poured Disaronno. But the beer comes in high quality, low price and fair quantity, so we'll call that a draw. The Sambuca Romana I had on the second visit was the real deal, and a very fair pour for a reasonable price.

Like Station 43, Benny's menu is all over the comfort food spectrum, with an emphasis on red-sauce Italian comfort food. Gosh darn, we needed some comfort that first night!

The "Benny Burger"

Bob's choice came with pepperjack cheese, jalapeno, and cajun mayo on a non-descript bun, and house-made fries.

The cajun mayo was irresistable - I kept dipping my own fries in it!

The burger was . . . ok (and cooked well beyond the "medium" ordered). If I wanted a burger in Solon (and if it was Tuesday, Thursday, Friday or Saturday), I'd go to The Annex over Benny's  - there is a huge quality and taste differential. The fries at both places are similar - a little limp, because while freshly cut - they are only fried once. But they burst with real potato flavor.

"Veal Parmesan Style"

I really loved this dish, which was far too mammoth to eat as a sandwich (and the bread was kind of meh). Unlike Station 43, which massacred the veal, this kitchen cooked the veal to perfection. I savored every bite. And, at $8.25, this was a very affordable treat. (N.B.- to compare fairly, the Veal Parm dinner at Benny's, which includes pasta, but offers salad at a $1.99 upcharge, is $11.99; Station 43's version, which includes the salad,  is $13.99).

I also ordered a side of the house-made coleslaw:

I thought the portion, a very small ramekin, was a bit skimpy for, I believe, $2.75 (neither the item nor the price is on the online menu). While not the best value on the menu, it is claimed to be homemade and the delicious taste certainly backed that claim up.

Most important, we learned that the owner hails from New York, and we were assured that the pizza and calzone (stuffed with ricotta cheese!!) was "New York Style." Despite a few service glitches and the lackluster burger, we resolved to return.

We returned a few weeks later to sample the pizza. The first difference in the Benny's experience was immediate - our server was a bit older and, um, more dressed than our first server had been. But more than that - she really busted it for us, despite being slammed with tables, and we greatly appreciated the good service that she provided. We decided to split one pizza and one calzone, and we each ordered a salad.

The "Big Salad"

Well, I don't know about big - especially for $3.99. They are excused for the lackluster tomato, as this was before the local supply had ripened.

House Made Italian Dressing

House Made Peppercorn Ranch Dressing

But the house-made dressings elevated the mundane lettuce to a fabulous starter. Especially the ranch, which perfectly paired creamy ranch against fresh cracked pepper; I couldn't stop nibbling on it throughout our meal.

Large Pizza with Housemade Sausage

The moment the pizza hit the table - I felt a ping of disappointment. This was not a New York style pizza at all, but Cleveland style - clunky, un-foldable sized slices (or "cuts"), too thick crust certainly cooked in a pan, big chunks of sausage instead of finer slices that could be nibbled easily - not what I craved. But the sausage lived up to its "home-made" description with amazing flavor, and was worth the price of admission all by itself.

As you can see, the crust was undercooked. It got worse as a re-heated leftover (no "Cold Pizza For Breakfast" with this specimen), and really did not impress at all.

Spinach and Cheese Calzone

The calzone is essentially a ricotta and mozzerella stuffed dough pocket, which the diner may customize with numerous pizza toppings that can be stuffed inside, with the first one included in the base price.  It is folded closed, crimped, scored, and then baked in the pizza oven. We opted for spinach for our included filling.

Marinara is served on the side - this version zipped nicely.

I loved this calzone. Which is incongruous because the dough is the same dough that seemed so lame under the pizza. I'm guessing that it's all in how it was handled and cooked. You can see the nice colors on the calzone dough; the texture was crunchy and chewy at the same time. But when it comes to it - I'm a sucker for calzone stuffed with ricotta, which none of the pizza places in Cleveland (other than Dewey's and Vincenza's) seem to serve. And this version  offered an additional tasty surprise - caramelized sweet red pepper was mixed in with the spinach filling. My only complaint was that there could have been more filling; there was a lot of empty real estate inside the pocket. But this is a minor quibble; this product is New York calzone lover approved!

My conclusion after we consumed the leftovers during the next few days: leave the pizza, take the calzone (with spinach AND sausage)!

If I was seeking this type of food, price point and environment the next time a kitchen appliance dies or a long trip is over - Benny's would get my patronage faster than Station 43. But we only visited Station 43 once, on a Sunday, when the Chef was not in the house, so perhaps they deserve another chance.We did visit Benny's twice. The fun thing is that Solon now offers a couple of pleasant options for playing with comfort food seven days a week, with full bar and sports TV, though your mileage may vary on the quality of the service and even some of the food.


  1. My parents eat at Station 43 every Wednesday, and I have joined them on occasion. The coleslaw is outstanding. Mom gets the burger and ignores the bun or the SOM Center Salad. Dad gets the wings or the shrimp dinner. I like the perch dinner or the Chicken Melt. I never order pasta here for some reason. It seems more like a "bar food" kind of place.

  2. @ Jill - agree about the coleslaw. Perch dinner may be my next try! But do try the veal - its the best in the city (well, maybe not - but it's really good!).

  3. BEAUTIFUL PHOTOS! I am just starting a blog and it seems like similar content (but your photos are better. :)) I would love some advice!

    Thanks for sharing your culinary adventures! I enjoyed reading!

  4. Hey I noticed your blog and it caught my attention. Do you have any good recipes that are healthy? If you do, you should enter them into this cooking contest that's coming to Cleveland on September's the Aetna Healthy Food Fight. You can go to for more details, but the deadline for Cleveland is September 8th. Oh, and throughout the contest, celebrity cooks will be judging (Bobby Flay, Sunny Anderson, Sara Moulton, or Cat Cora). Good luck if you decide to enter and if not, please post more recipes! :)