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Deed To Lee Road Dining Cars Transferred to Bank

Favor Bistro closed at the end of May, and the owners of the historic dining cars have given up on the property and transferred the deed to Fifth Third Bank.

A handful of restaurant owners have tried their luck on the pair of nostalgic dining cars on Lee Road. And yet another business has failed.

, which opened just a year ago at 1975 Lee Road, closed at the end of May.

Now the future of the stainless steel dining cars, brought to Cleveland Heights from the east coast by owner Steve Presser about a decade ago, lies with Fifth Third Bank.

Father and son Pat and Chris Tsilianidis said they have owned the property for the past eight years and watched as eateries, including their own, met untimely deaths.

Pat Tsilianidis estimates he’s lost more than a million dollars on the property.

“But that’s business. You have to move on,” he said.

Chris Tsilianidis said they recently transferred the deed to the Fifth Third, the bank that housed their mortgage.

“Honestly I have no idea what the bank’s plans are for it, but they seem motivated in getting a deal done,” he said.

Howard Thompson, economic development director for Cleveland Heights, said he’s attempting to work with Fifth Third and that there's interest in the land.

“We want something that’s appropriate there, whether it is a restaurant, which has never done real well there, or we look at some other kind of unique opportunity … it may be commercial office oriented,” Thompson said, noting other businesses nearby like and the new .

Presser 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 failed about a year later.

“The restaurant business is very difficult. It has the highest rate of failure of any new business. It’s sad that no one has been able to make a go there,” Presser said.

Pat Tsilianidis, who also owns Cleats in Mentor, bought the vintage cars from Presser and named the cars 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.

Then Clyde Mart, a well-known local restaurateur, opened . 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,” said Cleveland Heights Mayor Ed Kelley.

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.

“We need a fresh look at how that property can be more user-friendly for (diners),” Kelley said, adding that he'd like an experienced restaurant owner to take over. “(The area) has so much potential … It’s definitely on the comeback, and I want to see something good happen there.”

Pat Tsilianidis wasn’t so optimistic.

“Nobody’s going to make it here,” he said, sitting on a stool, watching as the owners of Favor Bistro piled checkbooks, menus and other items into dark green garbage bags.

Candi Robinson, who opened Favor Bistro with her sisters, shared a similar sentiment.

“It’s a very unique location, but it’s been difficult for everybody who was here,” she said, adding that the family is taking the establishment, which specializes in Creole and southern dishes, to Shaker Heights. She said she couldn’t discuss the new location or other details yet. “We started doing very well, but I think this was bad for anybody who was ever here.

“I’m glad it’s over.”

Tara Pesta June 20, 2012 at 01:12 PM
One idea recently floated around among our friends is a different type of restaurant, perhaps something like Korean or a pho restaurant. The all-American diner/bistro thing hasn't panned out in the past, but no one has tried an ethnic restaurant.
Tara Pesta June 20, 2012 at 01:13 PM
My family lives very close to the site in question, and we have patronized every iteration that went in, except for Favor Bistro. It didn't seem they ever fully committed to the project, especially considering their "temporary" banner that never got replaced by a real sign. That's a bad sign (literally.)
Laura Matt Gagnon June 20, 2012 at 01:29 PM
K, I posted this before, but it didn't post, so I apologize if it shows up twice. I think you need to try something new here - something like a coffee shop, doughnut shop, or cupcake place.. something were people are stopping in, grabbing their stuff and heading out to work, or back home. The space is just off the beaten path enough, that you don't just pass by, you have to seek it out. Try something new here. Just my 2 cents.
Garry Kanter June 20, 2012 at 01:36 PM
I think the article mentions the most important aspect: Location. I used to live around there, on E. Berkshire and on Beechwood Ave. Somehow, they need to give that area an 'identity', and make it another CH destination. Cain Park is right there. It's awful darn close to Cedar-Lee. The Bottlehouse opened up nearby. I may be overly optimistic, but I think with a little bit of $ and effort, over time people could be encouraged to frequent that area to a greater extent. For example, a special where your Cain Park ticket gets you a discount on a meal before the show, or maybe a combined show/dinner special. Or just encourage folks to park there for the shows. I think there is potential for that business district.
Garry Kanter June 20, 2012 at 01:45 PM
I saw at Monday night's city council meeting that there is a Cain Park Neighborhood Association. They would seem to be folks with an interest in seeing the commercial area do well.
C. Minot June 20, 2012 at 01:58 PM
Why not try a Starbuck's. The closest Starbucks is maybe at the Rockefeller Bldg. I would say Phonenix coffee because I like them better but they have one just up the street on Lee.
Richard Hollis June 20, 2012 at 02:12 PM
If one has to rely on Cain Park traffic, that is only seasonal.
Garry Kanter June 20, 2012 at 02:16 PM
Yes, it is seasonal. Always has been, always will be. Still, it could be a very attractive part of any marketing efforts. Amazing name recognition, identifies the location to one and all...
C. Minot June 20, 2012 at 02:33 PM
And with the brewery in the area now, it might work. I never thought the Phoenix on Mayfield and Green would work but it seems to. It cannot depend on the foot traffic from Cain Park. That is why you need a big name like Starbucks. And it would be a unique Starbucks. I know the diners also have a party room below the dinners. Not sure of the wisdom in that and how that could be utilized.
Richard Hollis June 20, 2012 at 03:30 PM
Starbucks already tried Cedar ande Lee. Didn't last long.
C. Minot June 20, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Yeah but Phoenix is right in that block. Not sure why Starbucks didn't work up there except it was a pain to access. The front is always parked up and nobody is going to park in the rear and walk all the way to Cedar. I don't understand how the Starbucks does so well at Cedar and Warrensville but apparently it does.
Jake Crouse June 20, 2012 at 04:58 PM
Every single owner who has operated a restaurant at that site made the same wrong-headed decision: they tried to make the place something it wasn't. Solution: If it looks like a diner and is called a diner -- well, it's probably a diner. Operate it as such: Simple menu consisting of simple diner food. Keep the menu short. And at middling to cheap prices. It's doable, providing the owner doesn't over-think it and try to put lipstick on the pig.
Garry Kanter June 20, 2012 at 05:07 PM
You make a compelling argument. Which, if it's accurate, raises the question of just how low the rent & other expenses have to be in order for someone to succeed there with value priced food. It's possible that the $ just don't add up - for anything there.
Richard Hollis June 20, 2012 at 05:30 PM
It was a diner to begin with. It did not work. It is simply a bad location. That place has to cost a lot to operate. No one that I know of can afford to move it to a better location - Lee and Meadowbrook - so I am afraid that it will always fail. The last time that I ate at Favor, where the food was a bit above marginal, I was the only one in the place. That does not bring in business. I ate there a fair amount last summer, when the service was better and the food was better. It simply declined.
C. Minot June 20, 2012 at 06:16 PM
Richard...exactly. It was a diner and it didn't work. It is a bad, bad location. There is just not enough foot traffic. It would have to depend on car traffic. It is way to costly to move and who is to say it is going to do any better at Meadowbrook and Lee. I would like to see why/how the bank gave any money to Presser to start with. Maybe Presser can buy it back and put Big Fun in there...just being sarcastic. Again, I think the best would be a Starbucks. They have the deep pockets and would study whether it would be worth their money to do. Beyond that...I have no clue.
Garry Kanter June 20, 2012 at 07:05 PM
Great, very pragmatic conversation, fellas! Now, if we could just get both of you to use the "Reply" button properly, in order to "nest" your responses...
Garry Kanter June 20, 2012 at 07:05 PM
^^^^ Oops!
Richard Hollis June 20, 2012 at 07:39 PM
I have a suggestion for you.
Will Goldstein June 20, 2012 at 08:44 PM
I've always thought that what that place needs to be is a high school hangout spot - burgers and malts. Maybe someone could follow Keith Logan's (Sweetie Fry) lead and involve Heights High kids in the process of planning, building it out, staffing it, and driving business there.
Garry Kanter June 20, 2012 at 08:51 PM
This is a family newspaper, Richard. And congratulations on your newfound skill!!
Jeanne Gordon June 20, 2012 at 08:57 PM
It did a brisk business as a diner, but Presser had too much money dumped into it (the move, the hijacking of the cars by the movers, the renovation, and being duped by those who built the kitchen (way too large of a kitchen) and the party space underneath) to make it work, plus he hadn't run a restaurant before and I suspect his cost ratio was off on food and labot. If it was run as a southern diner (ie has a liquor license as opposed to NJ/NY/East PA diner ) it would work. I say get an experienced diner chef from NY/NJ, get a liquor license and an experienced restaurantuer and it would work very well (esp. if you highlight local foods - corned beef, perogies, etc.). Oh, well. Too bad no one has run that place right.
Jeanne Gordon June 20, 2012 at 09:03 PM
Garry, I think there have been various problems over time. I think the cost of the place is what threw off the first owner (Presser). I think the next two places just didn't have the right menus or food quality/service. The next place I think had issues with mgmt (Clyde's - I think grandson was suppose to be the heir but wasn't quite ready) and Favor just didn't work. However, it might just be a $$ thing. Those cars were pretty costly to get out here.
C. Minot June 20, 2012 at 11:01 PM
With all due respect Will, I am not quite sure that the kids of Heights High want to relive the "Happy Days" with the Fonz. And with all due respect, I don't think any business in Cleveland Heights or for that fact, any business wants to have a "high school hangout spot." I see where you are coming from but I think those days are gone.
C. Minot June 20, 2012 at 11:18 PM
Jeanne...Not quite sure if it did a brisk business for anymore than a month or maybe to. Every time I went there confusion reigned. The bank or the City of Cleveland Heights should have been watching over the project a little closer. They lost around 750K of residents money in that project. Plus the City was paying Presser rent on the space when they were storing sewer pipe on the property before the diners were installed. Jeanne...I am not sure bringing a chef in from anywhere and doing whatever will save that as a restaurant spot. I think it is an economic dead spot. I suggested a Starbucks but would not be surprised that after Starbucks studied the spot, they would decide not to go in there either. Somebody with deep pockets and the knowledge of having turned around such a spot in the past might stand a chance. Hopefully, the new brewery down there will help bring in foot traffic but I also hope the brewery will last.
Jeanne Gordon June 21, 2012 at 10:13 AM
Minot - It is not an economic dead zone. If that were the case then Zagara's would not work. If something is good enough and fantastic people will come (at one point Lola's was in an economic dead zone but people came and it had a hand in turning the area). I would agree that confusion reigned when it was Presser's and the food was not that good. People will only put up with a place for so long when service is bad and food is just ok. Clyde's was well received until it was obvious that there were management issues (and the food was good but nothing stellar). I didn't go to the Chris & Jimmy's or the place after that because it was kind of obviously not worth my dollars (as was Favor). I think a funky diner style take over with a concept by the likes of Matt Fish or Chris Hodgeson would do great. The type of place that would get one on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives (and plenty of those places are in economic dead-zones but doing fabulous . . . see Geraci's). Now, to find that person and convince them to take it on. More likely it will become Zagara's catering joint. They have been trying to grab it for that purpose for a while (not sure how feasible that is though).
C. Minot June 21, 2012 at 12:15 PM
Didn't know about Zagara's desire for the place. If so, it is better than sitting vacant. I think the future of the diners has more to do with how the new installed brewery will do. I guess if you can come up with something unique, you might stand a chance. Even then...look how many restaurants have come and gone up on the other end of Lee. There has been a lot of changes at CH City Hall as of late. Let's hope the people coming in have some fresh ideas and are open to change. Sometimes in CH, I feel as though we are in a rut. Not that change is always the answer. However, we are in a tough economic position at present and it is going to take some thinking outside the box/
Ted Dick June 21, 2012 at 01:49 PM
I disagree with Jake's premise. I went there when it was outfitted and operated as a diner. Clyde earned the wrath of diner aficionados when he remuddled the diners but he served better food. I always thought parking and access limited the diner's potential. Both Zagaras and the Bottlehouse Brewery have plenty of parking.and easy access. The questions to ask are, Why did Steve's Presser diners fail? I did not go right after they opened but it was plenty busy when I went. Did Clyde's fail financially? Clyde died a sure sign of poor physical rather than financial health. The diners would do fine a cross the street - I bet.
C. Minot June 21, 2012 at 02:28 PM
I don't want to make accusations because maybe Mr. Presser did all he could to make the diner a go...but he knew nothing about running a restaurant. I know it was busy in the beginning but towards the end, I do believe it was having problems. And again without making accusations I have always found it interesting that Mr. Presser moved to his new location after the fall of the diner and his default on the loans backed by the city. Again...maybe it is all above board but the perception is there that something wasn't right with the whole deal.
Karin Jones June 30, 2012 at 08:13 PM
Except for Favor Bistro and Gali Gali, I went to the other incarnations of the diner cars on many occasions. Every time, there were problems with the service...either not enough servers or very inexperienced/nervous servers. It is a mystery to me why some restaurant owners pour tons of cash into their businesses and then staff so poorly. A long time ago I waitressed at the Green House at University Circle when it was run by the Minillo family. They trained us to high standards (even though it was a casual eatery), and made sure we were a well oiled machine when it came to serving customers, and that is why that restaurant lasted so long (I wish it was still there!). In my opinion, none of the businesses in the diners ever had that "well oiled machine" feel, even after being open for months...if anything, service declined as time went on, which was frustrating.
rich minkowetz July 17, 2012 at 03:25 PM
I recall the place being an ice box in the winter, when you sat near an exterior wall. Parking is not very adequate. Food eateries have come and gone in the Cedar-Lee area. But the bottom line is food quality and service. A great example is Big Al's Diner on Larchmere. The service is attentive. The quantity and quality of the food I have eaten there is exceptional. If you have a good product, people will show up. Jayson's was on the corner of Washington & Lee. Later at the same spot was Lopez & Gonzales. Tremont is out of the way, its patrons don't all live in the neighborhood. And it is doing well.

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