Saturday, April 10, 2010

Business and Burgers: Two Dads' Diner

DSCN2719 Before moving to Cleveland in 2003, I spent two years in upstate New York, working hard earning my M.B.A. at the Simon School. The winters of Rochacha, as it’s referred to by the natives, are cold, snowy, gray and the city rests just south of one of the five Great Lakes. Sound familiar? To keep the energy going, the school would sometimes host after hour events at the local diners, places where, for $10, you could order a three-course dinner complete with canned chicken soup, a burger and fries and even a piece of chocolate pie. The decor in these diners stayed true to its 70’s blue collar origins and the yellow lighting and solo customers sipping their sole cup of coffee before stepping outside for a smoke reminded you why movies, politicians and diners go hand in hand: there’s a quiet understanding of social distance and simultaneous friendliness, a contrast of decision-making suits enjoying cheap meals next to time-clocked people in uniforms. A good diner will serve you a cup of coffee, a sandwich and a side order of “Enjoy and carry on.”

As a frequenter of this type of dining establishment, I had to go and try Two Dads’ Diner on Detroit in Lakewood. Recruiting a couple of downtown Cleveland residents as my accomplices, we headed to the new restaurant on a casual workday evening. Parking right in front of the doors, we entered and, quickly, one of the waitresses asked us where we wanted to sit. It’s a diner, so, personally, nothing but a booth would do. The three of us chose one, towards the back, away from the draft of the front door. Hungry and cold, we immediately began to investigate the menu, but not until we checked out the space. Fabric-covered booths against the wall, muted green colors accenting the neutral surrounding decor, desserts staged near the register on inexpensive plastic pedestal plates with see-through tall lids and unpretentious and helpful, witty employees. Yep, this is very much a timeless, kitschy diner cafe.

We proceeded to order: chicken paprikash, hamburger with onion rings and, of course, a tuna melt with fries and a chocolate milk shake. Before the food arrived, the owner, John, one of the two dads, who made the rounds with the others guests, stopped by and chatted up with us. A tall man with an edgy sense of humor, he proceeded to give us the story. He and Frank, the other dad who is the chef, have known each other for years and, between the two of them, they have “two wives and eight daughters.” They wanted to go into business together and thought that opening this would be the perfect opportunity to do what they love.

John continued to entertain us until our food arrived, and, as our eyes were hungrier than our stomachs, we pretty much devoured our meals. For the most part, we enjoyed everything. My tuna melt, not a standard menu option, thus custom made, had a very distinct taste. The tuna salad, intended to be eaten sans the toast and hot cheese, surprised me a little with its extra kick. Beyond that, the meals tasted like the food one would expect at such a place, just better. That’s because the two dads do what they can to serve local produce. Even the meat comes from the butcher, directly across the street. Additionally, the portions are generous and the prices are incredibly reasonable. Finally, Frank prepares several of the staples from scratch, including the blue cheese dressing, the salad croutons – crispy on the outside and layered in flavor on the inside – and the home-made onion ring sauce, a combination of horseradish, mayo, Worchester, ketchup and other ingredients, giving it a creamy consistency with a vinegar-based sharpness. Two Dads’ Diner is diner food, plus.

During our conversation with John, I mentioned to him that his new restaurant reminded me of what the Theatrical Grill, (opened by Morris “Mushy” Wexler), may have once been, sans the jazz and the jars of pickles on the tables. John was stunned that I even knew what the Theatrical was and I reassured him that, as a non-native Clevelander, the only reason I knew about it was because it’s frequently mentioned in Crooked River Burning (by Mark Winegardner – the book should be the mandatory welcome manual to anyone moving here. But that’s another topic for another column). And, based on this historical novel set in this city, my impression of the former Vincent street legendary establishment is one of a place where politicians, mobsters and business people made their deals, quietly, and where big decisions that influenced the lives of Clevelanders occurred. Two Dads’ Diner, just down the street from a well-known congressman’s office and blocks away from numerous office buildings, while not a grand entertainment venue, gives off that same kind of vibe. It’s like “Glengarry Glen Ross” meets “Cheers.”

About a week after this outing, my neighbor and I stopped in to have some lunch at Two Dads’. Both dressed in casual sweats, sans makeup and really just there to enjoy a cup of soup and a sandwich before heading back home to work, we observed the incredibly kind service, the very fresh food and, a row down, the uber important looking men, in suits, discussing something, quietly. Mssr. Wexler would be so proud.

Two Dad’s Diner has no website, but does have a thriving and loyal Facebook Page. Info: 14412 Detroit Ave, Lakewood, OH, 44107 Phone: 216-226-3270 Hours: Mon – Sat: 7:00 am – 8:00 pm, Sun: 7:00 am – 2:00 pm

Reprinted with permission and gratitude from

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