chef doug katz doubles down on lee road's luckless diners

Dottie's Diner.
Chris & Jimmy's Diner.
Gali Gali.
Clyde's Bistro.
Favor Bistro.
Since 2002, the twin diner cars on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights have suffered through a string of doomed ventures that ranged from delightful to downright disastrous. The graying property has been fallow since last spring, when Favor Bistro closed after less than a year in business.
When it opens this spring, The Katz Club Diner will become the sixth enterprise to hazard a bet on the art deco money pits. But this time around -- finally -- the odds are not stacked against its success.
For starters, chef-owner Doug Katz is no newbie. He's been operating the consistently excellent Fire Food and Drink at Shaker Square for a year longer than all the failed diner businesses combined. Second, the rambling and awkward property will be partitioned into distinct and workable sections, reducing customer confusion while maximizing efficiency. But most importantly, the financials finally have gotten to the point where the operator isn't starting out behind the eight-ball.
"Buying this building today versus what it cost 10 years ago is completely different," explains Katz, who paid just $225,000 for the bank-owned property. "Nobody could have made it work with the financials of 10 years ago."
Certainly not first-time restaurateur Steve Presser, the wide-eyed owner of Big Fun, who imported the historic diners from far-flung locales before zealously restoring them. But that was just the start of the check writing: Presser was then somehow persuaded to build on a kitchen better suited for a 100-room hotel than a 100-seat diner. No amount of open-faced hot turkey sandwiches in the world could have surmounted those onerous start-up costs.
That outsized kitchen -- more than a third of the property's total footprint -- was the feature that first attracted Katz. For years the chef has been shopping for a second location, preferably one that could accommodate his restaurant's growing catering business. He found that and more on Lee Road.
"This kitchen is ridiculous for this property," Katz says as we wander through the space. "I don't have half this space at Fire."
Unlike every business that preceded him, Katz will not be operating two parallel eateries on opposite ends of the property. The Katz Club Diner will take up residence in the northern diner car only, a tactic the chef believes is the key to lasting success.
"One of the biggest problems, I think, is that the space was too big," he says. "You had two separate diners. To me, limiting the size and doing it right is the best way to make it work. I want this place to be packed full and feel busy."
When renovations are complete, the 45-seat eatery will serve classic diner food made the "Doug Katz way." That means utilizing as much local product as possible, making almost everything from scratch in-house, and providing a level of service that customers expect and deserve. Meats like turkey, roast beef and corned beef will be prepared on-site, as will most of the breads, pies, cakes, jams and ice cream. Dairy, eggs, produce, beef, maple syrup and many other ingredients will all come from within 100 miles or so.
While Katz is still tweaking his final bill of fare, diners can expect a breakfast menu and a separate lunch-and-dinner menu with breakfast-all-day items. Lox and eggs, eggs Benedict, home fries, hash browns, club sandwiches, hamburgers, and nightly specials like fish fries and Mom's spaghetti and meatballs will join soda fountain items like shakes and sundaes.
"It's not going to be fancy," Katz promises. "It's more about my passion for great food. I want to elevate the diner experience."
In the space between the two diner cars -- an awkward no-man's land that has never been used to much success -- Katz will open a walk-in-style coffee shop. Open all day, the café will offer made-to-order coffee drinks, grab-and-go pastries, and a small selection of retail items.
The biggest changes, perhaps, are reserved for the southernmost diner. That's where Katz will open his namesake cocktail lounge, the Katz Club. Dim, discreet and posh, the lounge will be the East Side's answer to the Velvet Tango Room. The totally reworked space will feature an endless banquette that envelops the room, with low-slung cocktail tables and candlelight. Drapery will obscure the outside world, providing a cocoon-like environment for guests.
To get in the "Club," patrons will have to buzz the bartender via a special Bat Phone-like device, envisions Katz. When the bar isn't open -- likely Sunday through Thursday -- it will be used as a private dining room for large parties.
Few people are more thrilled about Katz' impending plans than Brian Benchek, owner of the BottleHouse Brewery. Since opening last spring, the popular neighborhood bar and brewery has been sitting across the street from the unoccupied diner cars. Having a viable and complementary business in the immediate area will only help to call attention to what is considered the less-active end of Lee Road.
"It's the whole 'rising tide raises all boats thing,'" says Benchek. "Having Doug here will be real good for all of us. This end of the street will begin to have a different feel because of Doug's place."
In addition to the restaurant bringing potential new customers into the area, the cocktail lounge will help cultivate a fledgling entertainment district north of Cedar.
"This is my neighborhood," says Katz, whose home and workplaces -- including Provenance at the Cleveland Museum of Art -- all reside within a few minutes' drive. "I picture my daughter sitting at the counter doing her homework and eating a hot-fudge sundae."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas Trattner.

Douglas Trattner is a fulltime freelance writer, editor and author. In addition to acting as Managing Editor of Fresh Water, he is the Dining Editor of Cleveland Scene, author of “Moon Handbooks: Cleveland,” and co-author with Michael Symon on two New York Times best-selling cookbooks. His work has appeared in Food Network magazine, Miami Herald, Globe and Mail, Wine & Spirits, Cleveland Magazine and others. He lives in Cleveland Hts. with his wife, two dogs, five chickens and 20,000 honeybees.
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