The food, whether for fingers or forks, is good, sometimes great, but the focus here is beer. The impressive list features more than 200 brews in bottles or on tap.
John Lane, dubbed the “beer geek” by co-owners Fred Kobzowicz and Jim Callam, travels the globe, seeking craft beers for the annual World Challenge Beer Tour, which invites customers to sample 100 beers in a year. He just returned from visiting a brewery in Kentucky.
“We tasted a bourbon-barrel aged beer.” Lane said. “It will definitely be on next year’s tour.”
“It’s flavored with hibiscus flowers, so it has a wonderful aroma and taste,” Lane said. “It’s pink when you pour it, just a beautiful beer, and such a thirst-quencher.”
Of the beers I sampled, my favorite was the Hobgoblin, a sweet brown ale from England. I also enjoyed the Black and Gold, which is half Great Lakes Dortmunder and half Guinness. I gave a thumbs down to the Reissdorf Kolsch from Germany, which I thought had an unpleasant smell and a grassy taste — and incidentally was the most expensive beer I tried.
The beers complement the menu — or perhaps it’s the other way around. Many dishes are highly seasoned or spicy. A tip of the chef ’s toque to the Harvest Vegetable Pizza with Alfredo Sauce topped with roasted tomatoes, red peppers, squash and red onions.
What beer goes with the don’t-miss juicy, meaty wings? Depends on which of the 15 sauces you order. My favorite was Spicy Sesame, a slightly sticky Asian chili sauce with hints of garlic and honey. The best-seller used to be the hickory barbecue, but patrons now opt for spicier slathers, including the cinnamon and clove-scented Caribbean and the molasses-laced Cajun.
“To level out the fire of the Caribbean, I’d go with an American stout with more hop character, or an American style pale ale,” Lane advised. “For the Cajun, an Imperial stout would work, or an American-style India Pale Ale.”
The 25th annual World Tour of Beers will start in January. Fred Kobzowicz advises signing up early — the last two years, they had to cut off registrations at 6,000 for the 14 restaurants.
“Canton has 400 members this year,” Kobzowicz said. “Canton has one of the higher finish rates — they average 60 to 65 percent of those who sign up actually finish. People take this very seriously. It’s just amazing how the popularity of craft beers is growing.”
WINKING LIZARD TAVERN
5710 Fulton Dr. NW, Jackson Township
History: The first Winking Lizard opened 25 years ago. The Jackson Township location opened in 1993, then moved to its current custom-built building in 2002. The chain, owned by Jim Callam, John Lane and Fred Kobzowicz, has 14 restaurants in Northeast and Central Ohio. Each location has a mascot — a live lizard.
The World Tour of Beers: An annual challenge to customers to try 100 beers from a list of 200 from around the world. Those who sample 50 win a 12-pack wheeled cooler, and those who finish win the coveted World Tour jacket and an invitation to the finishers party.
On the menu: Specialties of the house: wings, pizza, burgers and sliders.