Spanning a century
Fritz's Saloon and Eatery adds 1890s decor, 1990s menu to Main Street mix

BY POLLY CAMPBELL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Around the turn of the century, bar owners Fritz Meyer and then Fritz Petri served beer and food from a saloon at the corner of Main and 13th streets, Over-the-Rhine. A photograph from 1895 shows men in straw hats and cravats standing outside the Fritz Petri Saloon -- it must have been the middle of the day -- raising full mugs of dark German beer.

Fritz's 1895 Fritz's 1997

Despite years of neglect, the building still stands, and the new burst of energy on Main Street has the beer flowing again.

Fritz's Saloon and Eatery
**
Food: Fair
Service: Fair
Atmosphere: Good
Value: Fair
What: Bar in rehabbed 19th-century building with menu of hearty food to accompany drink.
Where: 1345 Main St., Over-the-Rhine.
When: Kitchen open 4-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 4 p.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday. Bar open until midnight weekdays, until 2:30 a.m. weekends. Will open for lunch at 11:30 a.m. Monday-Saturday in a few weeks.
Recommended dishes: Hot pepper smoked salmon, spinach and artichoke spread, crab cakes, pub burger, Pop's herb pork roast.
Vegetarian choices: Vegetarian grilled cheese, vegetarian pizza, pasta primavera.
Prices: Appetizers $3.95-$7.95; sandwiches $4.95-$6.95; entrees $6.95-$13.95.
Sound level: Fairly loud from music and bar patrons: 78-80 decibels at weekday dinner. (Most restaurants range from 60 decibels, a dignified calm, to 90 decibels, a din).
Reservations: No.
iPaying for it: American Express, MasterCard, VISA, Discover.
Miscellaneous: Party room, catering, everything available for takeout, full bar, high chairs, no smoking in back dining room, live music on weekends. Wheelchair-accessible, except for a basement room.
Phone: 381-1345.
Carl Perin has spent two years rehabbing the 1878 building from top to bottom, and his new saloon and restaurant -- appropriately Fritz's Saloon and Eatery -- welcomes a new class of serious beer drinkers -- young crowds who bring their money to Over-the-Rhine on the weekends.

Fritz's caters to that crowd in a predictable way, with familiar, hearty food, a dozen beers on tap, rock music both taped and live. Both the middle-of-the-road menu and the shortfalls of its preparation mean Fritz's isn't a restaurant you plan an evening around. But if you need simple sustenance in the course of taking in the entertainment of this entertainment district, you'd do well here with some shared appetizers, sandwiches or crab cakes.

Looking its best

On the outside, Fritz's probably looks better than ever. The handsome 19th-century facade is lighted. Inside, ceilings are tin, the windows are skinny and tall and topped with transoms, the floors wooden. The massive bar looks like mahogany, with a moose head and a train whistle hanging above. A wooden Indian guards the corner of the stage. The front room is a bar with tall tables and stools, while the back room is more suited to dinner, with booths and tables. There are soundless televisions turned on in both rooms.

While the decor evokes the 1890s, the menu is strictly 1990s. From bruschetta and jalapeno poppers to crab cakes and jambalaya, it covers all the items most popular in restaurants featuring beer. There's a large appetizer section, pasta, pizzas, comfort food, sandwiches and a number of dishes from Louisiana.

That last section interested me the most. Gumbo, red beans and rice and jambalaya are almost commonplace, but I've less often seen crawfish etouffee and oyster poor-boy sandwiches on local menus. If I were the commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, I'd put oyster poor-boys at the base of the food pyramid. I dived into this one ($7.95). It had all the requisites: a split loaf of toasted French bread holding lots of batter and fried oysters dressed with tomatoes and lettuce. There was the unmistakable salty tang of oyster, but the overall effect was dry -- no dripping oyster juice.

As for the etouffee ($7.95), it was made with a dark roux and well-spiced at a Cincinnati (not a Louisiana) level. But my understanding of an etouffee, gained at places such as Robin's in Henderson, La., is of a darkly rich and stewy sauce holding together a mess of crawfish tails. This was skimpy on crawfish and was the same soupy consistency as the lackluster gumbo ($7.95).

Good starters

I found the best bets in the appetizer section, notably the hot pepper smoked salmon ($8.75). It's a filet of salmon with a poached texture, just firmed up with a light smoking. The pink fish is covered with black cracked pepper, decorated with horseradish cream and served with crisp French bread slices. It's unusual and as appropriate with wine as beer.

Spinach and artichoke spread ($5.95) is another good starter. It's a little light on the vegetables, but the cheese tastes like a good fondue. Stuffed mushrooms ($5.75) are cheesy, too, but the crab underneath is tinny. Bruschetta ($3.95) was thick; too much bread for the few tomato slices and raw garlic on top.

My friend who grew up in Maryland is becoming an invaluable restaurant companion, as every place in town puts crab cakes on the menu. Not that authenticity is the only consideration in judging a crab cake, but it is hard to improve on the original simplicity of crab barely held together with a little mayonnaise and cracker crumbs, then sauteed. She ordered the crab cake platter ($13.95) and declared the dish as close to authentic as she's had here, though they were lukewarm. Crab cakes come with a side of coleslaw, dotted through with celery seed.

From the comfort food section I ordered Pop's Herb Pork Roast, thin slices of just-done pork loin anchored on either end by freshly cooked broccoli and smooth mashed potatoes (whether they were instant or made from scratch was a matter of debate). The gravy was mildly herbed and creamy. The impact doesn't rise above comfortable, but not a bad deal for $8.95.

If the pub burger ($5.95) was representative, sandwiches are a good choice. The half-pound burger was charred but juicy. Fries on the side are crisply beer-battered. Customizing toppers, including sauteed mushrooms and onions, can be ordered not only for the burger, but for the grilled chicken and fried fish sandwiches.

Desserts (all $2.95) include a rather odd white chocolate eclair cheesecake (the eclair is on top of the cheesecake) and a banana split cheesecake. Neither of those thrilled, but I did like the bread pudding with whiskey sauce. Served in a goblet, it was warm and sweetly cinnamony.

Reviews are done anonymously at Enquirer expense. Ratings take into consideration quality of food, service, presentation and atmosphere, balanced against price.

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