A three-day culinary visit to Cleveland quickly taught me one thing: I needed more time! Often overlooked and labeled as a “fly-over zone,” Cleveland is rapidly becoming a major player throughout the top Midwestern cities. To be perfectly clear, I am not referring to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or their recent rise in the public eye thanks to its exuberant sports teams. I am actually talking about its food and drink scene as well as its dedication to art and culture.
Let’s look at some of the top dining spots first. Cleveland is the home of many notable chefs. With seven restaurants, three consulting projects, and his freshly launched retail brand, Zack Bruell is the leader throughout the city’s culinary scene. This restauranteur is dedicated to his kitchens, the quality of the product, and the happiness of his staff. Restaurant burn-out and staff turnover are issues Bruell faces on a daily basis, and his track record of long-standing venues across the city is a testament to his efforts. Alley Cat Oyster Bar for one is a great riverfront spot for seafood, and his fine dining French restaurant, L’Abatros, is renowned for its wine and cheese program. His partnership with executive chef Maxime Kien at the newly opened The Burnham at the Hilton Cleveland Downtown’s showcases his dedication to Cleveland’s culinary diversity. Must-eats at The Burnham include the savory French toast with spicy pulled chicken; the braised oxtail; and their ode to the South: shrimp and grits.
Any visit to Cleveland would be incomplete without a stop at one of Michael Symon’s restaurants. Lola Bistro is a solid bet. The interior is the perfect size, not so small that reservations are impossible to get but not so large that you feel you are just another number on their table-turner count. The bar emits a warm and welcoming glow, and the impressive wine cellar looms large right behind it. The beef cheek pierogi is a classic order, along with pretty much anything else that comes out of the kitchen.
Tutored by these two chefs is a strong stream of culinary talent dispersed throughout Cleveland. Over in Ohio City, an authentic hipster vibe brings diners to TownHall for sweet potato hotcakes and a design-your-own crêpe station. Michael Nowak at The Black Pig presents a rustic, head-to-tail expression of local Cleveland dining; your dish will likely have a locally foraged component and definitely a strong affiliation with local food purveyors like On The Rise Bakery. Jonathan Sawyer, formerly of Bar Cento and now of Trentina, holds shop in University Circle, where you can also find the highest concentration of art museums… oh, and Coquette Patisserie.
Should you feel like something mind-blowing yet understated, head to The Plum Café and Kitchen where the team churns out exquisite dishes ranging from caviar and pumpkin purée atop a lightly fried roselle leaf to the tastiest chicken feet you will ever eat. Platform Beer Co. is conveniently located right beside Plum. Sample any one of brewmaster and Platform owner’s fantastic and fleeting brews. Apart from a few classics, each brew is seasonal and on draft only.
Other notable spots include authentic (and that’s coming from a Canadian!) Quebec-style poutine at Banter, a restaurant and wine/beer store. Graffiti: A Social Kitchen, owned by two brothers-in-law, elevates bar food with a great cocktail program, while Mason’s Creamery ice cream churns out locally made batches of just about any flavor imaginable.
One of the best times to visit Cleveland is on the first weekend of any month because their alternative arts neighborhood in Waterloo has all of its local artists open and out late. Peruse the galleries, challenge your perceptions, and, of course, reward yourself with a pie from Citizen Pie and an espresso from ceramics studio/coffee house Six Shooter Coffee at the end of the street.
Whether you are in Cleveland for a weekend or a week, the sense of enthusiasm resonates throughout each individual and is contagious. From the food scene to the dedication of supporting local goods and local artists, Cleveland has the recipes for continued growth and success. And the best part? This is only the beginning.