I honestly don’t know why I hadn’t been to the restaurant, Cork ‘N Cleaver in Ft. Wayne before. I remember passing it many times as we headed to the north side of the city to whatever other restaurant or store was calling our name at the time and hopped on Washington Center to head home. When my wife’s root canal required a visit to Ft. Wayne, however, we found ourselves at Hobby Lobby afterwards (it’s a married couples hot spot) with the wife proclaiming amid the towering arts and crafts and decorations – “I need a cocktail like right now. And I’m famished.” Apparently, the only medicine that was going to dull the aching in her mouth was of the liquor variety. A quick search on Google told me that Cork ‘N Cleaver was a mere .3 miles away so off we went to try out their not-really-$7 cocktails with maybe a bite or two thrown in. You know, to test that root canal.
Imagine you had a friend who lived in Spain or Mexico and they had a pretty nice casa, a well above average one. Imagine they invited you over for dinner one evening. That’s how I would describe the setting at Cork ‘N Cleaver. The restaurant feels like you’re in someone’s house having dinner in one of their many rooms. Most likely due to their origination in Phoenix, the Southwest influence is everywhere, reflected on the walls, in the courtyard, the furniture and the dimly lit brick and mortar scattered throughout. It’s a comfortable homey atmosphere, one that I wish more modern day restaurants would replicate.
The service from the hostess and waitress were excellent. One of the tenets Cork ‘N Cleaver highlights on their website is “Eat Well ~ Laugh Often ~ Live Long” while going on to claim “a commitment to quality and excellence in service, people and food … operating with the idea of treating others as we would like to be treated.” The staff that we interacted with reflected that and even though we were part of the less busy post-lunch crowd, I had no reason to believe that they would have treated us differently under more hectic circumstances.
I don’t know why I always assumed Cork ‘N Cleaver was primarily a seafood joint. Lo and behold it’s not, at least that’s not the only thing they can serve up. Maybe that’s what it was known for back in the day when there were a few dozen of these restaurants scattered around the country. The steak and seafood mix is about even with our lunch menu offering plenty of non-seafood alternatives including their popular salad bar. We chose to bypass the salad bar, in search of more sustenance to quell our pangs of hunger and aid in the absorption of the copious amounts of liquor we were about to imbibe. OK, copious might be stretching it a little when describing two drinks but I love using that word. Besides, married couples can day drink. Ain’t no shame in our game.
For starters, we chose the artichoke hearts for the simple fact that they contained two of my favorite words used in unison – “bacon wrapped.” My advice? Order it. We split the dish but one person could easily plow through this app pretty quickly. The combination of artichoke hearts, bacon and tarragon aioli set my taste buds aflutter and were a portent of things to come.
Even though the entrée options sounded tantalizing, we decided to go with a couple sandwiches, a choice based more on prudence due to our bank account being sucked dry by all of our holiday shopping. Therefore, I can’t tell you how any of their main dishes taste but if they’re anything like the sandwiches we had, you’re in for a treat.
We opted for the Tuscan Chicken Sandwich and the Baked Ham and Dijon Sandwich with Scalloped Potatoes as a side on both dishes. Neither of these contained any ingredients that were extraordinary and certainly nothing that would be considered groundbreaking in the culinary world. The bread was amazing, an oft-underestimated component of a sandwich that I find myself griping about too much and the ingredients were delicious. What they did excel at, however, was what I’ve come to discover is a common theme with Cork ‘N Cleaver – great taste without the pretentiousness. You won’t find overtly fancy presentations, cutting-edge culinary methods or unnecessary garnishes. What you will unearth is a destination that, simply put, knows what they’re doing and does it better than most anyone else.
My wife is a sucker for anything that includes the word “pomegranate” so she ordered the Pomajito. Unsurprisingly, she enjoyed it. I went with the Gold Rush and while being able to taste the Makers Mark 46 was nice, I probably wouldn’t order it again. I’m not sure how to describe it but I prefer my cocktails with a little more “heft” to them, especially in the colder months. This ended up being a little too light for me but that was my fault for not paying attention to the ingredients. We both went with the Ultimate Margarita for our second round and it more than made up for mf not discovering gold with the Gold Rush.
If you enjoy whisk(e)y, Cork ‘N Cleaver has a nice selection of small batch bourbons and single malt scotches. While I enjoy both, the thought of paying $15-$20 for a 2.25 oz neat pour didn’t sit well with my wallet. They also offer a nice selection of beers and wines and if someone in your party is a martini drinker, they’ll have plenty to choose from.
My only gripe with our whole experience was the pricing on the cocktails. On their website, the specialty cocktails were listed as $7, a bargain in today’s world. When we arrived at the restaurant, however, the pricing was $8 and the menu choices did not match the website. When we received our bill, the Ultimate Margarita was $8.50, supposedly an $8 specialty cocktail, $7 if you were perusing their website. Charging $8-$8.50 for those same drinks makes that a 15-20% overcharge. If you list your cocktails as $8, charge $8. Choose a price and stick with it and everyone will be happy.
Note: Cork ‘N Cleaver does have a separate bar area for those of you over 21. It is separated from the rest of the dining areas and located just steps from the front entrance.
Writing this article, I’m even more befuddled by how long it finally took me to give this place a try. Maybe it’s a testament to the number of outstanding eateries in the Fort, a list they most definitely occupy a spot on. Whatever it is, you should try Cork ‘N Cleaver pronto and if you’ve already been there, you should get back there soon. Tell them I sent you and make sure they charge you $8 for that Ultimate Margarita. It’s the principle, folks.
And yeah, artichoke hearts wrapped in bacon. Never forego those.