The quirky Merion Village restaurant has trimmed down the menu, offers more approachable dishes.
The Explorers Club is going back to basics.
Owner Tracey Studer said the quirky, Bohemian-style restaurant was getting too avant-garde and expensive – turning away its core group of customers who made it an instant hit, at least initially.
"I heard a couple of customers ask, 'Why is it so expensive?' 'Why don't you have this anymore?' Why don't you have that anymore?' " Studer said.
So, with great consternation, he had to trim staff, including highly regarded chef Dan Varga, who's now a partner in a startup restaurant in the Short North.
"We're just going to regroup and go back to the core menu," he said.
Studer and partner Orlando Martinez opened the restaurant just shy of three years ago at 1586 S. High St. on the south end of Merion Village.
Upon opening, Studer enlisted the help of an old business partner, Ricky Barnes, with whom he ran Galaxy Cafe in Grandview Heights and Lost Planet Pizza in the Short North. Barnes helped develop the Explorers Club's menu and once again is a menu consultant.
The restaurant's name was intended to invite customers to explore the wide-ranging styles on the menu – Cuban, Southwestern, classic American, and a twist on others.
But some things just didn't click, such as the charcuterie plate.
The Cubano sandwich remains on the menu, as does the mofongo burger and half-roasted jerk chicken, plus a number of vegetarian dishes. Prices range from $6.50 to $16.
The restaurant will keep its theme nights, such as Hungarian night the first Wednesday of each month, and Mexican night, the fourth Wednesday of each month.
Studer chalks up some of the miscues to natural growing pains and others to location.
The restaurant discontinued lunch services about a year ago.
"It's harder to draw people south past Greenlawn (Avenue)," he said. "It's like this imaginary line."
He also plans to stop Monday hours in the near future.
"We never should have opened seven days a week," he said. "In three years, we've learned a lot."
One of the successes was buying a food truck last year, which Studer said is in high demand. Brunch on Saturday and Sunday has been a rousing success, with dishes such as shrimp with tasso grits, chorizo sausage gravy served over two jalapeno biscuits, and mango beignets with salty caramel and whipped cream.
Inspiration struck in June when Studer was on an advisory committee for FoodStart Ohio, which held the first Big Pitch at Franklin University, where food-based entrepreneurs competed for prizes. Studer said he recognized a lot of talent, which he hopes to introduce at his restaurant.
His plan is to invite guest chefs to write and cook menus at Explorers Club. He sees it as a good marketing tool: They promote his restaurant while he promotes budding food-industry professionals.
Studer said he hasn't given up on the storefront, which takes over 1,200 feet on the first floor of a two-story house at the corner of Morrill Avenue and High Street. It was once the long-time home of Craters, followed for a short time by the Eagle Tavern and Coyote Jane's.
The neighborhood, while in transition, has some bright spots, such as the opening of the TY Fine Furniture showroom on East Moler Street, a farmers market each Saturday across from the furniture showroom and some new housing in the area.
Yet, the area is far from a bustling district, so making the restaurant a destination will be a welcome challenge, Studer said. Part of that is making it affordable for everyone.
"The neighborhood needs this restaurant," he said. "The neighborhood needs an anchor.
"My first goal is to be part of the neighborhood for the next 15 years."
Explorers Club is open for dinner only weekdays, brunch and dinner Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 614-725-0155.