Corner Joint Promises Good Cooking, Less Value

There’s something just shy of presumptuousness in naming a brand new restaurant The Corner Joint — call it confidence, or maybe even swagger. “The corner joint” is a nickname that, at least in my mind, is reserved for the mom-and-pop shops, restaurants that have existed and persisted through good times and bad, bending but never breaking under pressure. The designation is earned through a combination of good food, good service, and a friendly, personable atmosphere over years of memories shared by a customer base that keeps coming back, the kind of reputation that causes locals to tell folks passing through town to stop by the corner joint.

It’s probably fair to say that such a future is what many new restauranteurs aspire to, and in choosing to name their new spot The Corner Joint, the owners of Oberlin’s newest eatery are being thoroughly transparent in the future they envision. It seems, at the least, that they’re bold enough to get there.

The Corner Joint’s boldness comes in forms both big and small that you may encounter while eating there, but the first is by virtue of its very existence. All three of the joint’s owners — Dana Juliano, Brad Pickens, and Allen Wilson — worked together at Black River Cafe prior to its change in ownership. In chatting with students and community members, it would seem the phrase “the new Black River” is often on the brain if not openly in the air, and Juliano herself has said it.

There’s an undeniable hint of a showdown between the two institutions afoot, one that appears throughout the dining experience that I share there with a friend. There is our waitress’ subtle note that she, too, had worked at Black River once upon a time — a little bad blood noticeable. Then, there’s the menu. In fact, the menu stares down not just Black River, but several other town institutions that serve American and even non-American fare, including 1833 and Aladdin’s Eatery.

The Corner Joint’s menu includes several dishes that you could just as easily get at other places in town, like the hummus and falafel plate appetizer that we share to start. It seems a bit lost amidst the limited selection of other, more traditional American appetizers and sides, and also lost culturally. The golden brown medallions are tasty, sure, but lack the signature zing and proper texture that you’d find in most good falafel. The accompanying hummus, too, was underwhelming and under-seasoned — not bad by any stretch, but enough to remind me that if I want a hummus and falafel plate, I’ll go to Aladdin’s instead.

Our main courses make a much better showing. There’s the “Erie and Idaho,” a fairly straightforward fried fish and chips (well, fries) dish that’s certainly tasty but surprising at $20. The fish, though fried beautifully and clearly fresh, verges on too salty, but this can be mediated with the accompanying tartar sauce. The fries, however, are the real star of the dish, and I crave them instead of the unbrowned fingerling potatoes smothered in onions that accompany my steak.

The steak itself, however, is a marvel. Despite being overdone — it’s medium when I asked for medium rare — the meat is so tender that it doesn’t even matter, and its cherry reduction adds a perfect bit of sweetness. The accompanying Brussels sprouts seasoned with truffle are also delicious. For dessert, there are selections from Blue Rooster Bakehouse available, and the blueberry cake is, unsurprisingly, a hit.

Still, I can’t help but think that all of this food could have been had either as good or better for less money elsewhere in town. For example, those with a hankering for steak could simply pop by 1833 and order their flat iron for a full five dollars less than the $22 I paid at The Corner Joint; Black River, too, serves a ribeye at a lower price than the Joint’s sirloin, which is a better value, at least on face. The same goes for 1833’s Lake Erie Walleye dish, which costs a dollar less than The Corner Joint’s “Erie and Idaho” and is the better of the two according to my friend, who has tried both dishes. The Corner Joint’s burger, at $12, competes directly with that of 1833 at the same price point. While I didn’t try The Corner Joint’s burger offering, 1833’s is hard to beat at its price, and there’s always The Feve for something even less expensive.

One thing that can’t be denied is that Pickens and Wilson, the Joint’s chefs, know how to cook. The proof is in the steak, which truly was the best I’ve had in a long time. However, it doesn’t seem that they’ve figured out where The Corner Joint fits into Oberlin’s food landscape yet. The prices are a little high for Oberlin’s market — if we’d had drinks, our bill could easily have broken $80 with only one shared appetizer — and there are multiple town institutions offering similar dishes, often done a bit better. Brunch service will be even more cutthroat, with direct competition from The Feve and Oberlin Kitchen in addition to 1833 and Black River.

That said, if The Corner Joint can figure out its currently very limited menu and better situate itself in Oberlin’s dinner and brunch markets, they’re poised for success, as every other key piece is in place. In contrast to their main competitor, Black River, the Joint easily wins out on service and ambiance. The staff were tremendously friendly, knowledgeable, and attentive, even with a fairly crowded house early on a Tuesday. This serves in stark contrast to the last time I ate at Black River, when my order of pancakes took over an hour and came with a side of spite from the waitstaff.

The windows surrounding The Corner Joint on two sides and its outdoor patio are also without compare in most of town, features that none of the aforementioned competition can claim to have. The space is bright, welcoming, and very clean, and the Joint clearly takes the little things seriously, as evidenced by, among many examples, a stellar tea selection and a beer variety that will please both craft aficionados and casual drinkers alike. The partnership with Blue Rooster, too, is a smart one, showing a collaborative spirit that is sometimes lacking between various town businesses. In speaking with the Review about her restaurant last week, Juliano emphasized that The Corner Joint “[has] the community in mind.” Eating there, it’s clear that she means it.

As I’ve spoken to friends about this article, a lot of them have lamented that The Corner Joint’s location is cursed. I don’t believe that. The space is a beautiful one that, with the right establishment, could be one of the best in town. Instead, Magpie Pizza and India Garden, the two restaurants that previously occupied the spot, simply couldn’t manage to fit in with Oberlin’s food ecosystem in price and offerings. It remains to be seen if The Corner Joint will be able to succeed in doing so, but if they do, I have little doubt that the new restaurant can earn its namesake and provide students with the good food and welcoming atmosphere of a town’s corner joint. I, for one, am hoping they can.

The Corner Joint, located next to Infinite Monkey Comics & Games at 65 East College Street, is open for lunch and dinner Tuesday through Sunday, and opens early on weekends for brunch.