I find myself wanting to dine casually much more often these days. I'm happiest eating at the bar with paper napkins, and if I don't have to dress up I'm pretty close to bliss. That's why I felt pretty good racing out of the house last Sunday in shorts and a T-shirt to go to The Rusty Bucket Corner Tavern with a friend. The Bucket is an Ohio-based chain that opened in Rookwood Pavilion (where Fudrucker's used to be) in February. I've been meaning to get there ever since, but you know how it is.
A lazy, hot Sunday evening turned out to be the perfect time. Pubs and taverns that serve food make me a little phobic. Usually there are dozen or so TV screens ablaze with the sport du jour (I counted nine at the Bucket) and rambunctious patrons hammering beers. Our visit coincided with a small, diverse crowd of families and couples who seemed to ignore the TVs as much as we did.
The servers were all fresh-faced young women, and ours was pretty well versed with the menu. I asked a lot of questions about what she would recommend (I hope she isn't offended that we didn't order a single one of them!)
and was instantly glad I did because of the additional information she gave that I didn't see on the menu. For example, we could get onion rings instead of French fries or sides of of mac and cheese, skillet beans (green beans with red peppers and bacon) or broccoli.
The menu itself has everything from pub food like Fish 'n Chips ($11.95) to American comfort food like Meatloaf ($9.95) and burgers (including the Elvis Velveeta burger, $8.95) to salads and a pretty extensive kid's menu. It seems to try to cover every ethnic cuisine from its Pork Potstickers ($7.95) to the Double Stacked Quesadilla ($8.95), as well as every age group.
The restaurant's Web site claims this "melting pot" approach of "big, bold" flavors is like America itself.
Personally, I find this kind of menu annoying -- it seems like they're hedging their bets. Rather than trying to be really good at one thing they try to be everything to everyone, and in my experience this never works out -- whether on a restaurant menu or in life in general.
As we hemmed and hawed over the appetizer section, my friend, who (like me) is married to a northern-Ohio transplant, mentioned Tony Packo's pickles when she noticed the Bucket's deep-fried version ($6.25). That made the decision easy for me, and minutes later a basket of gigantic dill pickle spears was placed in front of us, coated with beer batter and accompanied by ranch dressing. While they were pretty darn greasy, my Smithwicks ($4.25) beer helped soak it up.
We continued in our indecisive frame of mind, and even though it took five fly-bys from our server she never lost her temper. Even more importantly, she never stopped checking to see if we were ready to order.
Usually if a server checks back twice and you don't order, they mysteriously disappear entirely. I have a sneaky suspicion there's a rulebook somewhere because this is one they all seem to know!
When we finally did make up our minds, service was fast and we were soon digging into our various items. My friend had a yen for French Onion soup ($4.75), so she started there. She said, "No, it's good," so many times that I think she was trying to convince herself. On her initial bite she discovered a flavor she couldn't discern, which I described as tinny. She was much happier with her entrée, a Corner Tavern Wrap ($8.50) that came filled with grilled chicken, lettuce, tomato, feta cheese, pepperoncinis and a house-made Greek dressing. The feta really woke up what could have been a fairly tame sandwich.
I went with the BBQ Chopped Chicken Salad ($9.95) and didn't fare as well. The salad comes with mixed greens, tomato, corn, red onion, pepperjack cheese and a cilantro ranch dressing. I was expecting something colorful and full of flavor from the red onion and cilantro. Unfortunately the dish was rather anemic looking, and I couldn't find a trace of cilantro's distinctive flavor.
We also ordered a side of Macaroni 'n Cheese ($2.95) and the skillet beans ($2.95). The mac is made with Swiss and American cheese and topped with golden panko breadcrumbs. I liked the crunchy topping, but the flavor was buttery rather than cheesy -- while you can't really argue with butter, I want my mac and cheese to taste like cheese.
We skipped dessert and grabbed a coffee from the Starbucks next door before heading into the fading light as the shops of Rookwood closed.
If America is indeed a melting pot, the shopping mall must be one of the best places to witness a cross section, and my guess is the Bucket does just fine on its corner. It might not be for me, but like I say, it's hard to be everything to everyone.
RUSTY BUCKET CORNER TAVERN
Go: 2692 Madison Road, Norwood
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-1 a.m. Friday-Saturday; 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday
Entrée Prices: $7.95-$17.95
Payment: All major credit cards
Red Meat Alternatives: Many
Accessibility: Fully accessible