Cleveland, the city you think that you know, but you don’t, flourishes as a vibrant hub defying expectations. Using its rock ‘n’ roll roots, ethnic soul, and true-blue heritage, "The Cleve" is blossoming into a destination for those seeking a dollop of culture, a dash of business, a splash of gambling, and a lot of the finest dining between Chicago and New York City. Here are five bites for a visit to Cleveland.
There is a superfluous sign hovering over the doorframe of Presti’s Bakery on Mayfield Road in the heart of Cleveland’s Little Italy, as the toasty aromas of fresh baked goods cut through the crisp of the early morning air to proclaim their presence from blocks away. The bakery has family roots that go back to 1903 and features a wide range of breads, donuts, and cookies including Italian delicacies like buccalati cookies, sfogiatelle and cassatini There are also breakfast sandwiches that are various mélanges of overstuffed egg, breakfast meats, and cheese on croissants that are delicately prepared, unlike the usual butter-soaked sponges offered up at fast-food joints. Nearby are two worthwhile dramatic architectural displays — the Frank Gehry-designed Peter B. Lewis Business School at Case Western Reserve with its undulating, soaring, and glimmering walls that seem to bend with the sunbeams, and the recently unveiled Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland (MOCA), a startling iridescent black building, rising 60 feet from a hexagonal base to a square top almost like a conglomeration of monoliths from 2001: A Space Odyssey on steroids.
If you are visiting the waterfront shores of Lake Erie to get your groove on at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or are in downtown Cleveland for a business meeting in Tower Square or even trying your luck at the Horseshoe Casino, a five-minute drive away is the artsy and historic Tremont District. Home to stunning views of the Cleveland skyline, many art galleries, and restaurants including Lolita from Iron Chef Michael Symon. Tremont is also home to historic food at Sokolowski’s University Inn on University Road.
Established in 1923, and serving hearty Polish-style food at weekdays lunches (also dinners on Friday and Saturday), Sokolowski’s is the real deal. First, you shuffle through the cafeteria-style line as you grab a Labatt’s Blue or Okocim Lager (Polish beer) from an iced bucket while "My Melody of Love" plays on the sound system (Bobby Vinton, of course). At Sokolowski’s, the main feature is Polish cuisine like kielbasas, pierogies, and galumpkis (stuffed cabbage). Stuffed cabbage varies widely by family recipe and culture, and their recipe has a dense red tomato sauce and surprisingly light meat and rice patties rounded into bocce ball sizes inserted into fall-apart-at-the-the-touch-of-a-fork cabbage casings at the cut of a fork (sorry, mom). Huge portions are accompanied by side dishes like red cabbage, extra-juicy sauerkraut, and dumplings with sauce. To cap it off there is Vernors pop available on tap, a regional favorite.
A Sweet Snack
To satisfy that sweet tooth, best to head to B.A. Sweetie on Brookpark Road, near Brooklyn, Ohio, about a 10-minute drive from the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. "We are the largest candy store in the nation," says general manager Judy Proboski. Anyone’s confection needs, from retro-candy to regional favorites to bulk purchases, can be satisfied in their climate-controlled warehouse-like atmosphere. "We have well-known names like Chunky and Hershey products as well as smaller ones like Lucky Lights Candy Cigarettes to imported British chocolate bars," says Proboski.
In the heart of the historic Ohio City neighborhood is the celebrated Crop Bistro and Bar led by chef-owner Steve Schimoler. The restaurant is housed in the former United Bank Building, built in 1925 replete with a 5,000-square-foot vault that now serves as a private dining room ideal for special occasions.
The kitchen features modern American cuisine with a focus on local and seasonal ingredients (the century-old West Side Market is across the street) and innovation. Schimoler’s original intention was to build a food laboratory and test kitchen (CROP is an acronym for Customized Restaurant Operations Platform). Consistently considered one of Cleveland’s best restaurants, it is also a 2012 winner of a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence.
Late-Night Food and Drinks
Also, in the Ohio City area is Ohio’s first microbrewery and brewpub, the Great Lakes Brewing Company. Amid the sprawling Victorian-era complex of buildings is a former tavern where Eliot Ness once imbibed after tangling with Al Capone. Seasonal beers have included Christmas and Halloween themes and the freshly made small-batch, pub-only brews include such offerings as an organic German Altbier, a chocolaty winter porter called Alberta Clipper, and their award-winning Holy Moses White Ale spiced with coriander and orange zest. For the indecisive there is a full-flight sampler, or a six-flight sampler, or feel free to try full pints — just save some room for breakfast the next day.