New: Fire Food & Drink Owner Plans to Bring Back 1950s Charm to Lee Road Diner Cars
Updated at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday
When Fifth Third Bank took ownership of the nostalgic pair of diner cars on Lee Road in Cleveland Heights, the future of the property seemed uncertain.
A handful of restaurant owners had tried their luck on the stainless steel cars, and businesses met untimely deaths.
But Mayor Ed Kelley believes the new owner can turn things around.
Kelley announced at the Cleveland Heights-University Heights School Board meeting Monday that Douglas Katz, owner of Fire Food & Drink in Shaker Square, is going to purchase the property with help from the city.
"I think it fits in perfectly (in the area.) We as the city and the Cedar Lee Business District have been waiting for someone who has an excellent restaurant background and a clear vision for what the diners could be and should be," Kelley said, noting the success of other new establishments in the area — BottleHouse Brewery, SweetieFry, The Wine Spot and New Heights Grill.
"Cedar Lee is red hot for development ... Cedar Lee is exploding," Kelley said.
Katz, a Cleveland Heights resident, plans to open a 1940s-stye diner and expand his catering business by March, Katz told council at its regular meeting Wednesday night said.
Cleveland Heights City Council members approved a $200,000 loan to assist Katz in buying the land.
The cost of the cars is about $225,000, Kelley said.
"I’m very pleased with the bank. They went through a process, and they did have other options, but in the end they came around to Doug Katz and his idea. And we're going to help out and get involved," Kelley said.
Kelley said Katz also plans to organize events around the Cain Park summer season.
Kelley says Katz's business won't take business away from other Cedar Lee establishments — it will complement them, and he can join others in the Cedar Lee Special Improvement District to help with marketing the area.
"Anything he needs, we’ll be there for him," Kelley said. "It's still a great concept, the diners, and they are in great shape."
Before the property was transferred to the bank, father and son Pat and Chris Tsilianidis had owned the diner cars for the past eight years.
Favor Bistro was the most recent restaurant to occupy the historic cars, and failed in about a year.
Big Fun owner Steve Presser first brought the cars from Atlantic City and Pennsylvania, and called the restaurant project his “baby.” He opened Dottie’s Diner and Sweet City Diner in the early 2000s on the former used car lot, and it closed about a year later.
Tsilianidis, who also owns Cleats in Mentor, bought the vintage cars from Presser and named them after his two sons — Chris’ Diner and Jimmy’s Diner. When that closed, Tsilianidis leased the building to a woman who opened Gali Gali, a kosher restaurant that “died a quick and miserable death,” Presser said in an interview in June.
Then Clyde Mart, a well-known local restaurateur, opened Clyde’s Bistro and Barroom. According to an article in The Plain Dealer published in May 2010, Mart renovated the interior to rid it of its traditional diner car look and hoped to also change its unlucky history.
"He had a great following and did a great job,” Kelley said in an interview in June.
But after about a year and a half, Clyde’s closed and Favor Bistro quickly took the reins. Many said Mart’s health was a big factor in why the family chose to shut down the business. Mart's daughter, Vivian Gatta, who ran the restaurant alongside her father, told The Plain Dealer they closed shop because she was considering moving to Arizona.
“Nobody’s going to make it here,” Pat Tsilianidis had said in June, sitting on a stool, watching as the owners of Favor Bistro piled checkbooks, menus and other items into dark green garbage bags.
But Kelley is more optimistic.
"Almost everything that’s opened (in Cedar Lee) in the past six months or two years has been successful," he said. "These diners have been crying out for someone with an excellent restaurant background ... He's fixing it up inside. It will be first class. People will come in there 'oohing' and 'aahing.'"
The full council agenda is included with this article in the PDFs section. Look for highlights from the Nov. 7 meeting soon.