Dinner with a fun view to end the summer at River Merchant in Kent


My husband, daughter and I captured one of the last lazy days of summer in mid-September on the lovely riverside terrace at River Merchant restaurant in Kent.

It was a warm, sunny, perfect evening and we came to this cozy restaurant with an appetite. It’s a popular place that only accepts reservations for groups of five or more.

About 20 minutes after we arrived – once we had browsed the restaurant’s well-stocked wine store and thought about what drinks we wanted at the bar – we were seated on the deck overlooking the Cuyahoga River and the train tracks on the opposite bank.

The River Merchant offers an extensive list of cocktails, wines and beers.

The River Merchant, which owner Cameron Thomas opened in March 2020, offers a mostly casual menu with flatbreads, sandwiches, soups and salads and a variety of appetizers called merchant bites. More upscale dishes include surf and turf (reserve angus sirloin fillet with two grilled shrimp), scampi with shrimp, oven-roasted salmon, chicken Florentine and orzo with roasted vegetables.

To start our al fresco dinner, we shared fried shrimp wrapped in rice, an appetizer that included five long shrimp with a nice crunch from its rice wrappers. The prawns paired well with a sweet and spicy Thai chili sauce for dipping and a zesty Asian coleslaw.

Rice-wrapped fried prawns are a quick bite at the River Merchant in Kent.

The River Merchant of course has an extensive wine list by the glass and bottle, with even more selections available to order in the retail area. The restaurant also offers 16 draft beers and an extensive list of signature cocktails and spirits.

I opted for a full-bodied Shoofly Shiraz from Australia, which is $10 for a 6-ounce serving. The restaurant serves this wine and 17 others in 6 or 9 ounce portions and by the bottle.

My husband, Steve, opted for The Trade cocktail ($10), made with Old Forester rye, Domaine De Canton liqueur, bitter cherries, maraschino cherries and fire-roasted orange peel. My daughter Elise enjoyed a delicious bourbon berry smash ($11), made with bourbon, blackberry and strawberry syrups, pineapple juice and mint.

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Eat Seafood at Kent’s River Merchant Restaurant

Oven-roasted salmon is served with garlic mashed potatoes and sautéed green beans at the River Merchant in Kent.

Steve and I both wanted to keep our seafood mood, so he opted for the salmon ($18) and I opted for the Cajun Crab Sandwich ($17) – a pan-fried crab cake with arugula, tomato, red onion and remoulade on a toasted wheat bun. My sandwich was a moist comfort food with a good kick of remoulade sauce, accompanied by seasoned french fries.

Steve reported that his salmon, one of his favorites, was cooked to perfection. And his garlic mashed potatoes, which included skins, were rich and creamy.

Elise opted for the Thai flatbread, which included hummus, Thai chili, mixed broccoli salad, wasabi ginger dressing and crushed peanuts ($9), adding chicken for $3. The full effect created a subtle Thai flavor.

The flatbread crust is imported from Italy, where the dough is made and frozen before shipping.

Thai flatbread at the River Merchant in Kent.

The River Merchant’s six varieties of flatbreads are baked on a seasoned stone that is part of the restaurant’s custom Woodstone Fire Deck Oven. The gas oven, with added wood-fired elements, cooks at around 500 degrees with a real flame for heat.

The custom oven is a “keystone” to the restaurant’s kitchen, said Thomas, 32.

“You can see the fire, and the fire is part of the cooking process,” the owner said, which gives the restaurant’s fire-roasted food a unique flavor.

Bestsellers

A pergola shades the rear terrace of the River Merchant in Kent.

Bestsellers menu items include the restaurant’s fire-roasted feta dip ($12), made with feta, roasted tomatoes, cream cheese and basil, served with toasted pita bread. The dip is roasted and the pita is toasted in the Fire Deck oven.

The top-selling entrée is the Roasted Vegetable Orzo ($14), which Thomas says is versatile as a summer dish with added chicken or shrimp or as a winter dish with added steak.

The restaurant’s black and white cool river merchant logo can be seen on menus and throughout the establishment, depicting an old-world merchant with a pack of wine on his back, smoking a pipe. The name of the restaurant was inspired by the merchant canal and railroad history of the place.

The River Merchant in Kent has a wine retail area with many choices from California and Europe, as well as beer.

No visit would be complete without a visit to the River Merchant wine retail market, which also sells craft beers. The wines, which have a good variety of prices, are well presented by grape variety and country or region.

Thomas, who buys most of the wines, said California wines are the largest geographic area represented at the store. He also recently got into Oregon and Washington wines and sells a few Ohio wines.

Generations of restaurateurs

A Caesar salad at the River Merchant in Kent.

The restaurant is owned by the Thomas family. His father, Charlie Thomas, owned At Ray’s in Kent since 1977. Cameron Thomas grew up helping in this family business before leaving to study business entrepreneurship at Eastern Michigan University and earning a master’s degree in hospitality from Michigan State University in 2018.

He and his father bought the former Riverside Wine and Imports, which sold specialty wine and beer and offered light fare, from Robert Morson in late 2018.

“The deal ended up being too good to pass up,” Cameron Thomas said.

The River Merchant in Kent has an attractive interior with a wraparound bar.

They spent a year and a half gutting and renovating the place, which hadn’t been used since a fire closed it in 2016. This included knocking down a wall and adding a adding 1,000 square feet to the south side of the building, adding large windows and garage doors to create a feeling of openness. They also reused the building’s original deck material to extend the deck around the new addition.

The restaurant can accommodate 90 people inside and 60 outside. It’s a great place to relax, both outside and in the annex, which has lovely river views and a large wrap-around bar.

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The River Merchant offers food and drink happy hour specials from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. from Tuesday to Friday.

For our visit, the three of us were happy to eat, drink, and bask in the beautiful river views, including watching the kayakers. And I have to admit, sitting on the sloping bank of the river, covered in foliage, I wondered if people ever lost a menu on the railing.

The Cajun Crab Sandwich like the Tavern Merchant is pan-fried crab cake on a toasted wheat bun with arugula, tomato, red onion, and remoulade.

Thomas laughed when I asked, saying it happened more than once. And, in fact, a woman once lost her wedding ring on the railing of the bridge when it was dark outside. He quickly found it for her on the steep bank the next morning, using a metal detector.

Art and restoration writer Kerry Clawson can be reached at 330-996-3527 or [email protected]

The River Merchant property in Kent includes the neighboring house, which has additional parking and provides storage and office space for the restaurant.

Details

Restaurant: The river merchant

Address: 911 N. Mantua Street, Kent

Call: 330-968-6376

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 11:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. (brunch) and 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday

Reservations: For groups of five or more

Website: therivermerchantkent.com/

Social media: The River Merchant on Facebook and Instagram

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