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Published: Thursday, 8/16/2007

Restaurant review: Doc Watsons****

It took me awhile, but I finally figured out why Doc Watson's, a south Toledo saloon, reminded me so much of New York City.

I didn't notice any physical references to the Big Apple on the premises, and nothing on the brawny menu suggested a connection. Then it hit me: The combination of high ceilings, low-hanging lamps, and magnificent dark wood, from the huge, hand-carved oak bar to the wooden tables, chairs, and floors, gives a New York feel to Doc Watson's. Not to mention the conviviality among the staff and longtime customers.

The bar and grill is awash in the kind of unvarnished charm that pervades two of my favorite New York watering holes: the legendary White Horse Tavern, Welsh poet Dylan Thomas' favorite Greenwich Village hangout in the '50s, and the Peter McManus Caf in Chelsea, a great little place that famously booted out the swashbuckling actor Errol Flynn one night for being too drunk.

I'm pretty sure Errol Flynn never staggered into or out of Doc Watson's, but the ambiance is the same, along with the inordinate range and diversity of food.

Categories on the trifold menu include appetizers, salads, sandwiches, subs, steaks, pastas, burgers, unique pita pizzas, vegetarian specialties, and a full page of breakfast options from 7 to 11 a.m. every weekday but Monday and 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sundays.

The full name of the 12-year-old tavern is Doc Watson's Flavorful Foods & Spirits, named in honor of the owners' father and grandfather, the late C.W. Watson, M.D., whose nameplate is on the front door and whose portrait occupies a place of honor.

The dcor is as delightfully noisy as the conversational buzz, with walls filled with customers' snapshots, plaques, neon signs, TV screens, and a pool table with purple felt. The oblong main dining room is where most of the action is, while the other side of the bar offers somewhat quieter repasts, enlivened by more wall hangings and a handsome black and white tile floor,

Our visits yielded several good-to-excellent meals. After getting past two ordinary appetizers, spinach and artichoke dip ($6.95) and a half-pound of so-called "huge" sauted garlic shrimp ($10.95) that turned out to be medium-sized, we tucked into a super dinner of Greek chicken (10.95) served with a rather-too-thin but still tasty feta cheese sauce. A perfect pairing would be the Greek spaghetti ($9.95), loaded with chicken, roasted peppers, feta, sun-dried tomatoes, and kalamata olives.

Two fish dinners were exceptional as well - tender tilapia ($9.95) in a lemon parmesan sauce and a mess of delicately breaded lake perch ($10.95), equally tender and served with scrumptious hand-cut French fries. Most dinners come with a small salad, rice or potato, vegetable, and garlic breadstick.

At this setting, the only disappointment was a helping of beef stroganoff ($9.95); it suffered from sour cream that gave the meat, sauce, and noodles an unpleasant vinegary taste. Another time, however, we ordered the unusually named cardinal red steak ($15.95), a delightfully juicy six-ounce filet wrapped in bacon and stacked on a portobello mushroom with roasted red peppers and boursin cheese.

Among the sandwiches, you can't go wrong with Doc's Italian sub ($7.95) loaded with meats, mozzarella, and pepperoncini, or the Jon Boy ($8.95), one of several burgers on the menu. This sinfully good eight-ouncer piles bacon, cheddar, and mozzarella into a triple-decker with garlic toast occupying the center shelf.

People with cast-iron stomachs may want to take their chances on the rasta Philly ($7.95), a fire-breathing sandwich of spicy Jamaican jerk chicken thighs, Monterey Jack cheese, sauted peppers, and onions on a hoagie roll. Bring your own Pepto-Bismol.

Contact Bill of Fare at: fare@theblade.com

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