Where to Eat in Cleveland
Photo By: Arpad Benedek ©Arpad Benedek 2014, All rights reserved.
©Nathan P. Destro
Photo By: BurkleHagen Photography
Photo By: BurkleHagen Photography ©burklehagen2014
Welcome to Cleveland
As more and more curious outsiders are taking a good, hard look at Cleveland, a city currently in the midst of a Rust Belt revival, they are seeing a chef-driven food scene a good 20 years in the making. These days, you can’t toss a bagel without hitting a big city bistro, craft brewery and taproom, or small-batch ice cream shop, all of which thrive alongside decades-old Cleveland classics.
Iconic Dish: Pierogi at Sokolowski’s University Inn
Michael Symon might have given the humble pierogi a makeover at Lola Bistro, where it is filled with slow-simmered beef cheeks and topped with a dollop of horseradish creme fraiche. But for many locals, there is only one true version, and it is served up without fanfare at this 90-year-old Polish cafeteria. The fact that citizens of every stripe grab trays and shuffle down the lunch line is proof that pierogi are a birthright for many a Midwesterner. All day long, these potato- and cheddar-cheese-filled dumplings languish in a warm bath of melted butter with sauteed onions creating a soul-satisfying dish of pure comfort food.
Photo courtesy of Ben Pettey.
Cheap Eats: Superior Pho
Superior Pho, around since 2002, was Cleveland’s first shop dedicated to that blissful Vietnamese beef noodle soup. And in a climate like this one, where winter outlasts one’s patience, soup is a mental health requirement. But when it comes to grabbing a quick and affordable snack on the go, we tend to bypass the broth and head straight for the banh mi. At just $5 a pop, they’re bought by the sack, with each bundle of joy tidily wrapped in wax paper. Inside, crisped little baguettes are slathered with mayo and filled with roast pork, homemade pâté, crispy cukes, jalapenos and a fistful of fresh herbs, resulting in a near-perfect arrangement of texture and flavor.
Meal with a Mission: Edwins Leadership & Restaurant Institute
Founder Brandon Chrostowski got his start in top-tier restaurants here and abroad, but when he set out to open a Cleveland bistro of his own, he charted a very different course. In place of seasoned pros like himself, Chrostowski brought in formerly incarcerated folks who needed a second chance. During the six-month program, student-employees work every station, from prep cook to server, learning how restaurants actually work and picking up a trade that can serve them well for years to come. It would be reasonable to look at Edwins as a charity case, deserving of our money for reasons other than food, service and setting. But that’s not the case at this stellar French bistro, where quality trumps cause on a daily basis.
Hottest New Restaurant: Butcher and the Brewer
Few restaurant openings — and there have been plenty — have caused as much of a stir as Butcher and the Brewer. Located in the heart of downtown’s Restaurant Row, on East Fourth Street, this boisterous beer hall is one part brewery, one part restaurant and 100 percent Cleveland. Here, fresh-brewed suds and hearty meats keep guests fat and happy. Groups large and small gather at roomy communal tables to snack on housemade charcuterie, crisp corn dogs made with house-smoked weenies, and mashed-potato-and-pierogi pizzas. The menu is stocked with meaty mains like pork belly and eggs, smoked lamb ribs, and the house cut of the day. Craft beer fans can savor a wide range of proprietary ales, brewed in plain sight in the gorgeous brewhouse.
Adult Hangout: Mahall’s 20 Lanes
Dating back to the 1920s, Mahall’s 20 Lanes was long a family-friendly bowling alley, where dads taught their boys how to roll on rainy weekends. But as the neighborhood around the bowling alley grew younger and hipper, the lane rentals began to dry up. Cue Mahall’s 2.0. New ownership revamped, repurposed and resurrected this Cleveland classic into a multilevel playland with homemade cooking, craft beer and cocktails, and live music. Neighbors come for the burgers, tacos and fried chicken, and they stick around for the lineup of great acts. The lanes are still here, too, with all 20 of them seeing more life than they have in ages.
Worth a Drive: Flour
We normally wouldn’t send folks clear out to Moreland Hills, a posh bedroom community 30 minutes east of the city center. But you do what you have to for killer Italian food. Helmed by two unlikely chefs with a good 30 years separating them, the contemporary restaurant benefits from the yin and yang of spirited youth tempered by eons of experience. What comes out the other end is a roster of farm-to-table versions of traditional (and not-so-traditional) Italian dishes. Housemade pastas and wood-fired pizzas share menu space with fresh takes on classic starters like stuffed peppers, veal meatballs and crispy calamari. Flour’s porchetta is a master class in butchery and roasting, while the plush ricotta-filled agnolotti with mint and truffle is a study in balance and composure. For wine fans, the Italian-heavy list is reason enough to make the drive.
Late-Night Spot: Bar Cento
“Open every day until 2 a.m.” is music to the ears of many of the barflies who flock to Ohio City’s main drag for the three (soon four) craft breweries that reside there. In addition to serving some of the best thin-crust pizzas in town — think prosciutto, soft-cooked local eggs, provolone and black pepper — this dimly lit enoteca offers beer- and wine-friendly snacks, like mussels frites, ricotta-topped lamb meatballs and indulgent meat boards loaded with charcuterie made from locally raised pork. A chef’s counter gives a few lucky diners a great behind-the-line view.
Burgers: B Spot
Sure, Michael is known to most Food Network fans as a television star, but he’s also the chef at popular Cleveland restaurants like Lola Downtown and Lolita in Tremont. On top of it all, he’s selling some of the best hamburgers in the Midwest at this homegrown and growing chain of casual burger bars. Michael is the king of “meat on meat,” a lily-gilding technique that tops already delicious Pat LaFrieda meat patties with ingredients like salami or pastrami or pulled pork. If you can pry your mitts away from the killer burgers, head straight for the amazing bologna sandwiches, which are sliced thick, griddled and topped with dill pickles, mustard and cheese.
Farm-to-Table Bistro: Spice Kitchen + Bar
Diners in Cleveland are fortunate to have their pick of farm-to-table bistros, each run by skilled chefs who are sustained by a thriving and mature farmers market system. Many even have small kitchen gardens that produce a near-limitless supply of fresh herbs, greens and tomatoes. But only one chef operates his very own 13-acre farm in the heart of a national park. As part of a pioneering program to reintroduce small-scale agriculture to the nearby Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Spice owner and Chef Ben Bebenroth has bought the farm. Situated 20 miles south of his “big city” bistro, the farm provides pasture-raised pork, beef, chickens and eggs, as well as dozens of varieties of herbs, vegetables and edible flowers, ensuring that a meal here is a true reflection of the seasons.
Iconic Spot: Slyman’s Deli
Somewhere along the way, Cleveland became synonymous with corned beef. While the local cuisine has matured beyond cured and sliced meats, we still can’t seem to let go of our favorite comfort food, with seemingly every other deli in town claiming rights to the city’s “best corned beef.” Stop searching, because it’s served up right here — and has been for about 50 years. When it comes to iconic places, Slyman’s ranks right up there with the Rock Hall. At lunchtime, the line literally extends out the front door and around the corner, with each and every customer eager to wrap his or her hands around the biggest, cushiest, tastiest corned beef sandwich in town.
Cocktail Bar: The Spotted Owl
Sure, Cleveland loves its booming craft-beer scene, but there’s always room for a well-made cocktail, especially when it’s served in a pretty room without pretention. That’s the formula at The Spotted Owl, a new lounge in a very old space. Owner Will Hollingsworth was the first person in 165 years to transform this dirt-floored hovel into something other than a horse stable. These days, it’s a rustic but elegant lower-level bar, where classic and modern-day punches, highballs and cocktails are made with care and served with consideration. Check out the old-meets-new list of boilermakers — shot-and-beer pairings — like the Granddad & the Grenade, a shot of Old Grand-Dad 100-proof bourbon and an ice-cold Coors chaser.
Ice Cream: Mason’s Creamery
This new sweets shop is a delicious example of the grassroots Cleveland maker economy in action. In a little more than a year’s time, owners Jesse Mason and Helen Qin went from riding the farmers market and flea circuit to a bona fide brick-and-mortar shop, buoyed by a loyal and enthusiastic clientele. That space, fittingly enough, was a seasonal neighborhood ice cream shop with 60 years under its belt before it closed. On warm summer nights, folks line up for servings of creamy sea salt caramel or fruity paw, made with native fruit. But Mason’s offers more than just ice cream, like a heaping scoop of community, hosting outdoor summer movie nights for neighbors and friends.
Tasting Menu: Trentina
The best tasting menus take diners on a journey, where pleasure rides shotgun to surprise. Few chefs are as experimental and willing to take chances as Jonathon Sawyer, and that all but guarantees a wild ride at this 32-seat sparkler of a bistro. Round up a few friends, set aside a few hours, and prepare to be blown away by the “menu bianco,” a 12-plus-course feast of epic proportions. While the dishes and preparations shift by the day, diners can always look forward to elaborate antipasti, mind-blowingly good pastas, and fire-roasted seafood, meat and game — all enhanced by a cornucopia of local ingredients hand-plucked by the full-time forager. Toss in the alcohol pairings and enjoy course-complementing cocktails, bubbles, beer and wine.
Beer Garden: Hofbräuhaus Cleveland
Cleveland has more than a dozen of wonderful craft breweries, many with charming alfresco beer gardens. But when it comes to having a garden party with 1,000 of your closest friends, Hofbräuhaus is impossible to beat. One of only a handful of sanctioned Munich spinoffs, the Cleveland branch is big, loud and fun as heck. It also incorporates a heaping dose of Cleveland history, as it was built as an extension to the Hermit Club, a 1920s-era club devoted to amateur performing arts. Hoist a stein of genuine Bavarian beer, brewed onsite in the gleaming copper brewhouse, snack on giant pretzels, and be thankful that every day is Oktoberfest at Hofbräuhaus.
Date Spot: Coquette Patisserie
If you want to impress your date, head for this adorable little French pastry shop in the heart of Cleveland’s cultural epicenter, University Circle. Cap off a visit to the museum or an evening at the symphony with cheese, oysters on the half shell or a rainbow of perfect macarons. Coquette might be small, but it packs one of the longest lists of grower champagne in the region, along with craft cocktails and hard-to-find draft beers. Order some coffee and you’ll receive a French press for two that comes with a three-in-one sand timer with measurements for light, medium and strong.
Rock Star Chef: Karen Small, The Flying Fig
When Karen Small opened The Flying Fig in Ohio City in 1999, one couldn’t just back up his or her Subaru wagon at the market to load up on local ingredients. It took years for our multispoked farmers market system to develop to where it is today, and we have Small to thank for forging many of those relationships early on. Following the path of her mentor and local foods pioneer Parker Bosley, Small sought out local producers throughout the region and gave them credit for their labors on her spotless seasonal bistro menu. These days, farm-to-table is more rule than exception, thanks in no small part to Small and folks like her. That she was doing it all in a profession dominated by men makes her that much more of a rock star.
Public Market: West Side Market
Clevelanders are pretty proud of their 100-plus-year-old West Side Market, which anchors the neighborhood of Ohio City while serving as the polestar for an entire network of families, chefs and restaurants. Step inside and it’s easy to see why. Above, the graceful Guastavino tile ceiling — the same design found at New York’s Oyster Bar in Grand Central — forms a breathtaking expanse of terra cotta. Below, nearly 100 independent vendors, many of whom are third- and fourth-generation operators, sell everything from fresh-baked pastries and local cheeses to slow-smoked meats and fresh seafood. An adjacent annex is lined on both sides with fruit and vegetable peddlers. There are just enough prepared foods on hand to cobble together a nice lunch, like Cambodian sticky rice in a banana leaf or made-to-order Montreal-style crepes filled with ham and Gruyère. Whether you’re in the market for food or not, it’s more than worth it to explore such a significant piece of Cleveland’s past, present and future food scene.