ROCKY RIVER, Ohio – Gunselman’s Tavern has been a staple of everyday life for families in Fairview Park since 1936. It started out as a shot-and-a-beer bar without a kitchen. Since 2014, when Joe McDonough and David Grace took over, it’s been transformed into a family gathering place known for its homecooked meals and especially its burgers.
The popularity of the burgers recently prompted Gunselman’s to take a step into neighboring Rocky River with a new concept — Gunselman’s ToGo — where customers and delivery services can pick up orders there and be quickly on their way. The new location at 21800 Center Ridge Rd. is currently open 11 am- 8 pm Monday – Saturday.
Cleveland.com’s Best of Cleveland team couldn’t resist a visit to the new location to celebrate National Hamburger Month. Gunselman’s Tavern was chosen by Cleveland.com readers as Northeast Ohio’s Best Hamburger in 2018.
McDonough and Grace – friends since growing up together in Fairview Park — are the seventh owners of the neighborhood tavern. The space need updating but the duo knew from the start that it had potential as a neighborhood gathering place.
“The goal was to bring back the tavern as it was in the 1940s, and to make it a true public house, keeping the nostalgic speakeasy feel by refurbishing the 1930s paneling, the bar, even the original barstools, but upgraded with new bathrooms, new floors and ceilings, and high-speed internet, but keeping the same vibe,” explained Grace.
The concept quickly took off.
Regulars still stop in for a drink and conversation, but the tavern has also gained a reputation as a family-friendly dinner spot. It regularly sponsors local football, basketball and softball teams — and is the start and finish points for the annual Gunselman’s Epilepsy 5K.
But Grace says it is the burgers that bring in new clientele. “When we ask someone new why they came in, they say they have heard about our burgers.”
The pair credits the quality of their fare to the quality of the ingredients — and their cooking method — for keeping burger fans coming back.
The short-rib blend is ground fresh to Grace’s specifications and delivered four times each week from Foster’s Meats at the West Side Market. It is seasoned with a blend of spices and herbs – “the Gunny mix” — created by Grace and McDonough.
Gunselman’s has an extensive specialty burger menu, but the Mushroom Swiss Burger is a perennial bestseller. For first-time visitors, McDonough recommends going basic and ordering The Plain Jane.
“We have a lot of great burgers, but my favorite is really just a plain burger with lettuce tomato and onion,” he said. “A burger should stand alone. We can put on all the toppings you want, but consider just getting a burger or a cheeseburger. You don’t have to doctor it up, it’s that good.”
If your tastes tend to lean more toward the exotic or trendy, Gunselman’s can answer that craving as well, with the Beast Burger. It’s named after baseball legend Jimmy Foxx, known as “The Beast” for his three MVP awards and his 500 career home runs. The burger is a trendier blend of Durham Ranch Bison, Waygu Beef, New Zealand Elk and Wild Boar.
All of the burgers are cooked the Gunelman’s way. McDonough and Grace disdain the griddle, opting instead for one of Gunselman’s five cast-iron skillets, passed down through McDonough’s brother.
Why an iron skillet? Grace says because it is of the sear it creates on the outside of the meat.
“The sear gives a crispness to the outside of the burger, while at the same time seals in the juices even though it cooks at very high temperatures,” he said. “Add to it, the seasoning of the iron makes it the perfect way to cook the burger.”
Grace and McDonough buy local for most of their ingredients.
“Local equals fresh. And because they are local, they are just as concerned about the quality of their products as we are about ours,” said Grace. “We use pierogi from the Pierogi Lady, Czuchraj Meats — also at the West Side Market — for our kielbasa, Cleveland Ketchup, Cleveland Pickle, Cleveland Kraut, you name it. If it is local, we try to work with them.”
Of course, Grace and McDonough believe their best ingredient is their staff, 90 percent of whome returned to work following the 2020 COVID shut-down. “Without them, we wouldn’t be anywhere,” McDonough said.