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Published: Friday, 3/14/2003

Restaurant review: Webber's Tavern ***

There are few if any settings in the Toledo area for a summer supper comparable with Webber's Tavern, overlooking the estuary of the Ottawa River from an elaborate, multilevel deck or from a dining room surrounded on three sides by what are in effect window walls.

Though the address is Erie, Mich., the restaurant is separated from Erie by the waterways of Lake Erie's western end; it is perched on the state line up on the “Lost Peninsula,” and the only access other than by boat (as guests not uncommonly arrive) or helicopter is through Toledo's Point Place district.

There is a moral to that story: If you're going to drive up to Webber's for a perch or pickerel dinner, find Edgewater Drive on a Toledo map before you go.

An area institution, Webber's has been in business 70 years, quietly but steadily keeping up with growing business and changing tastes. If there are any constants over the years, they would have to be, very simply, deep-fried perch and broiled pickerel, holding their own against tilapia and mahi-mahi, once exotic imports that have become routinely available, thanks to air freight.

Time is what most matters in cooking fish; the flesh is so delicate that minutes, even seconds, count, and a local favorite, deep-fried yellow perch (which Webber's fries in canola oil) is a case in point. Very lightly breaded, not crisp but tender, Webber's are as satisfying as you'll find anywhere. A friend who often catches and fries his own even admits - a touch grudgingly - that Webber's are better than his: high praise, indeed.

Late in the season I've seen rather husky perch - my fisherman guide assures me that they are perch - while pickerel and their half-size cousin, saugers, are rather more durable in the kitchen. My preference is pickerel or whitefish from the upper Great Lakes.

When I'm at home, poaching - another preference - a 12-inch fillet will have it come out white, tender, and flaky in just eight minutes. In the light of that experience, I take it for granted that when Webber's kitchen is poaching one, no more than eight or nine minutes is the formula.

If a member of your dinner group is less than willing to pretend that a fish entree, however tasty, is a substitute for chicken or good red meat, two steaks - a filet mignon and on Friday and Saturday prime rib - as well as a breast of chicken, should tide the diner over what might otherwise be a tense moment.

This is a restaurant that still counts shrimp cocktails, generous ones, among its appetizer offerings. They, along with steamed mussels and oysters on the half-shell, are the classics that remain on the menu alongside such more currently popular appetizers as deep-fried mozzarella sticks, chicken wings, and potato skins.

The steam that cooks the mussels is seasoned with garlic and wine, making them my choice. However, at times it's a toss-up with the New England clam chowder, which like french onion soup is listed among the appetizers. I can testify to the merits of the chowder.

My favorite side of all, though, is a dish of simply delicious, thin-sliced pickled beets. I don't know how this simple but choice delight settled down on the Lost Peninsula and - where I've also had them one time or another - in Point Place. I've often asked but so far in vain.

What might Webber's lack? Innovation: the occasional indulgence that one could never - or perhaps would never - prepare at home. The restaurant that aspires to be the preeminent seafood restaurant in the area must be a notch above the merely good and reliable.

Celebrating its 70 years, Webber's is offering five of its most popular entrees - perch, pickerel, jumbo shrimp (french fried or broiled), frog legs, and tilapia fillets - at reduced prices through Lent; look for the Chef's Specials in the menu.

There is, in a room to itself, a full bar, and, directly across the street more than ample parking.



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