Waiting for 1836 Euclid Avenue to open was like staring into an oven and wondering when good times would return to my stomach. In September I made sure to take my family to the old place at Euclid and 21st so we could say goodbye before demolition crews razed it. In early December big machines pulverized our favorite hangout. Anticipation of the new Rascal House crept over us like ominous clouds in time lapse photography.
Then it happened. Rascal House opened the doors of its new home, on the ground floor of the historic Union Building on the campus of Cleveland State University.
We entered the new Rascal House and I looked around. I was enamored with the exposed duct work that looks industrial but makes one feel welcome. I also liked the freshly painted, easy-to-read menu on the wall behind the counter. And of course two walls painted red and brown at opposite ends of the dining room that feature words to live by from the likes of Twain, Berra and Gandhi. Adding to this are the track lighting and softly lit pendants which hang above the dining tables. With pizzas baking in a 100 year old building, I was experiencing the flavor of this restaurant and the rich history of downtown Cleveland at the same time.
We were pleased to discover that the more Rascal House had changed, the more it had stayed the same. With busted bellies and a score of crumpled napkins in front of us, we agreed that our next visit to this new Rascal House will not come soon enough.
Still, my mind floated back to the old days where it all began, a few blocks up the street where a now empty field awaits transformation of a different kind…
It was the fall of 1986. The aroma of pizza wafted through the foyer and smacked me in the face as I entered the establishment on Euclid and East 21st, across the street from “The Cage” at Cleveland State. I had a good feeling about this place.
In those days there were only four places to grab a bite at CSU: The Shire, Fat Glenn’s, the cafeteria, and Rascal House. The Shire was in the basement of “The Cage” and seemed like a nice place to eat. Fat Glenn’s was near Mather Mansion and looked like a speakeasy, at least from the outside. The cafeteria was on the third floor of “The Cage” overlooking a deep vertical drop to a wide open floor below. Not an ideal situation for someone who has a fear of heights. Rascal House seemed innocent enough. I’ll just grab a quick slice and be on my way.
I had heard good things about Rascal House long before my first visit. “Pizzavores” migrated there from the suburbs during Cleveland State’s NCAA Sweet 16 run a few months before. It was a place where you could hang out up front with friends and eat pizza. Or head back to the bar to drink and dance to INXS, Echo & The Bunnymen, and more.
Rascal House opened its doors for business in 1980. The recipe, student atmosphere, and reasonable prices caught on quickly. The Plain Dealer dubbed Rascal House “Cleveland’s Best Pizza” by the mid-eighties.
For many years if you wanted Rascal House pizza you had two choices. Go downtown or go hungry. By popular demand in 1994 Rascal House opened a second store, in Euclid, then added another one near John Carroll University. Soon, Rascal House Pizzas were popping up like dough in 600-degree ovens. Franchise owners brought the great taste once reserved for CSU to friendly neighborhoods near you. There are now restaurants in University Circle and Maple Heights.
Even though Rascal House grew and grew, making the world a better place, I still eat Rascal House Pizza the way it was meant to be – downtown at CSU. Now grown and married, I bring my wife and daughters to Rascal House whenever we visit campus for special events. We ask for the “Belly Buster” with pepperoni and three cups of fries. I order small fountain drinks but end up with cups the size of 10-gallon hats. Not wanting to offend, I indulge in unlimited refills like a child who has just swallowed an entire bag of pretzels. More pizza means more pop and more pop means more pizza. It’s an endless cycle.
I pass the time waiting for our food by sharing with my family an appetizing collection of Rascal House stories. Like the time I bumped into Hall of Fame football player Larry Csonka (literally) as I exited the men’s room on the morning of the 1987 Cleveland Revco 10K. I told him I was sorry. He said no problem and gave me a stiff pat on the back that nearly sent me through the wall and into the kitchen.
Rascal House was my destination for lunch practically every day of college. It felt good being a regular ordering my usual. Then off to a booth where I read the latest issue of The Cauldron and gulped down my food before heading back to class. Later that evening there was a good chance I’d be back in that booth with friends, or perhaps alone to rewrite my notes from history class. I had a stockpile of legal pads coated with pizza stains and greasy fingerprints, courtesy of Rascal House and my compulsive need to brush up on the teachings of professors Campbell, Cary and Drimmer while eating a late meal.
Soon graduation came, and with my departure from downtown Cleveland came a brief hiatus from Rascal House. Every now and then I would go back and see some of the changes taking place at my favorite hangout. Like sand volleyball in the alley next door. And pick-up basketball on a makeshift court in the bar. I think I even saw a Rolling Stones concert, previously taped, at Rascal House. But that was it for a while. From what I heard changes took place often at Rascal House, not so much at the restaurant, but inside the bar. Then Peabody’s moved into the bar in 2001, doing away with Rascal House’s run as a multipurpose venue.
Then I started watching college basketball a few years ago with my brother who was bed-ridden at the time. I wondered how Cleveland State was doing. I woke up one weekend and told my wife I wanted to go downtown at CSU to see what was new. We could take the girls and grab lunch at Rascal House.
When we got downtown the Euclid Corridor project was reinventing Euclid Avenue before our very eyes. Cleveland State was in the early stages of its campus expansion. Lucky for us Rascal House was right where I last saw it. What would it be like after all these years? Would I recognize anyone? And would I still like the food?
They had me at “can I help the next person in line.” We placed our order and I found a familiar booth nearby. On the radio a song by A Flock of Seagulls took me back to the 1980s, the formative years of this place. We gobbled our pizza in no time flat.
I can’t remember what song was playing when we sat down at 1836 Euclid Avenue last week. But I do know that we’ll be back!