To read about it, Cleveland appears ready for its close-up for the Republican National Convention this month. Downtown’s Public Square – 10 acres of green park – just reopened, following an investment of 15 months and $50 million. Nearby, a new Hilton added 600 rooms to the city’s inventory. Local pride was only burnished with the recent NBA championship of the home team, the Cavaliers, starring LeBron James.
But how does it taste? One civic booster, the award-winning chef Jonathon Sawyer, likens the food scene to those in Charleston, S.C.; Nashville; and both Portlands (Maine and Oregon). I wouldn’t go that far, having recently taken a big bite out of Cleveland, although I can vouch for wonderful urban farms, a passion for suds and restaurants emerging from former no-dine zones. (If you spot the local treasure, walleye is the way to go on a menu.)
One missing ingredient: good service. With a handful of exceptions – the upscale Edwins, the happy-go-lucky Mabel’s BBQ – most of the places I tried treated this anonymous diner as if I were invisible. At the trendy Butcher and the Brewer, I sat for several long minutes before any of the five faces behind the epic but unbusy bar bothered to make eye contact. At Alley Cat Oyster Bar, I was asked three times by three waiters if I was ready to order. One foot into an otherwise genial Nate’s Deli, I was hit with “Can I help you?” – from a woman shouting from a booth in the back. And so on. (A local cab driver had no idea where one of the city’s oldest and most beloved institutions, Sokolowski’s University Inn, dished out Polish fare.) Suffice it to say, Cleveland hospitality polls “low energy,” to borrow a phrase from Donald Trump’s library of insults.
The city’s recent uptick in restaurants is partly to blame, says chef Zack Bruell, an observer of the scene since the early 1980s. “All of a sudden, the labor force has been stretched to capacity.”
Trump is calling for “showbiz” at the convention, scheduled for July 18-21 at the Quicken Loans Arena. “Otherwise,” he says, “people are going to fall asleep.” Probably nothing will be able to compete with the expected theater from the GOP’s presumptive nominee and company. Anyone needing a break would do well to take their appetites to any of these vetted establishments.
If you didn’t know its reason for being, it might strike you merely as a chic French restaurant with an impressive cheese cart and a bartender who knows what she’s doing. Although Edwin happens to be the middle name of founder Brandon Chrostowski, the name of the establishment is short for “education wins.” Long story short: Chrostowski got into trouble as a youth in Detroit, caught a second chance with the help of a Greek chef and wants to see that others in similar situations have a way out – and up – after having been “touched by the system.” (His words.) Thus, the majority of the people greeting you, taking your order and cooking your food are former convicts, participating in a six-month program that teaches them what they need to know about the restaurant trade, from crunching numbers to tasting wine. For your enjoyment: frog legs, potato-tiled grouper, dessert souffles and, with advance notice, pressed duck with blood sauce. Not to be missed is the grilled seafood sausage in a pool of shallot butter sauce – “proof,” says the owner, “that food is a vessel for change.” Amen.
Prolific restaurateur Zack Bruell calls his eighth contribution to the food scene “a glass box on the river,” and that it is: an exposed kitchen and breezy dining room overlooking a boardwalk on the eastern bank of the Cuyahoga River. A hybrid between an East and a West Coast oyster house, the light-filled, oyster-hued seafood specialist serves a lobster roll, fried calamari (with kimchi), grilled octopus (with succotash), crab cakes and shrimp-stuffed peppers that come with a server’s warning: “They’ve got quite a kick.” Duly noted. Bivalves are another lure; some days, as many as 5,000 oysters are shucked to order. The curious name? Bruell’s girlfriend once called him a you-know-what.
“EAT MEAT” screams an illuminated red sign at the scene of my across-the-board favorite eating experience in Cleveland, its barnlike expanse as shiny as the smile of creator Michael Symon, Iron Chef on Food Network and co-host of “The Chew” on ABC. Ever heard of Cleveland-style barbecue? Pork spareribs reverberating with Eastern European spices suggest the idea has legs, as do sides such as spicy cabbage mixed with spaetzle. Also finger-licking good: fatty brisket cooked low and slow over fruitwood, and broccoli salad jazzed up with dried cherries and peanuts. Helping keep me in my seat was a bartender whose beverages matched his banter. Ever had a Sazerac snow cone? Don’t knock it till you’ve eyed it.
The Flying Fig
What to do with a surplus of green beans? If you’re Karen Small, the owner of one of Cleveland’s early farm-to-table restaurants, you toss them in tempura batter, fry them to a light crisp, and serve them with ponzu sauce and a dip sweet with reduced pineapple juice. Seventeen years after putting them on her debut menu, Small says she can’t take the appetizer off. Same for her hamburger, which wins fans with its grass-fed beef and arrives with a garnish of fine onion rings and a cone of hand-cut fries. The chef’s menu reflects her Italian background and her love of Asia, France and Spain, all of which means it’s proudly American. And her sources include produce (lettuces, herbs) from the six-acre Ohio City Farm, a neat field that has a view of the cityscape and is tended by Burmese refugees. Find time for the exemplary chicken paillard lavished with an arugula-feta-ramp salad, and don’t leave before you try the signature dessert, a divine caramelized banana split that gets its crunch from shards of griddled sticky buns and its punch from rye-infused caramel. The beautiful food suggests serious training; Small counters, “I’m self-taught.”
Sokolowski’s University Inn
Having previously indulged in the baked rice pudding, I can see why the pope, or at least his likeness, smiles down on the dessert selection at this 93-year-old landmark peddling Salisbury steak and nonstop polka. Never mind that the cabbage crammed with beef, pork and veal and draped with tomato sauce is food enough for three. To visit this Polish institution, run by the third generation of the Sokolowski family, without adding some pierogi to my cafeteria tray would be a shame. The crescent-shaped dumplings, made with sour cream, stuffed with potatoes and cheese and drenched in butter and onions, merit a spot in the hall of fame of comfort food – surely part of the reason the James Beard Foundation recognized Sokolowski’s as one of America’s Classics two years ago. “Enter as strangers,” reads a sign on the photo-plastered wall, “leave as friends.”
The joint dares you to buy into a different breakfast. Anyone for a banh mi fueled with springy Vietnamese sausage, kimchi, a fried egg and a smear of “everything bagel” cream cheese? Try it; you’ll like it. If pancakes with white chocolate, candied jalapeños and salted caramel-coffee crumble are more adventure than you want at 8 a.m., ask for some Training Wheels. They’re the menu’s term for buttermilk flapjacks, naked save for powdered sugar and proof that simple (light and fluffy) is sublime. A storefront with white walls, the cafe shows a sense of humor with a collection of black-and-white photos of a man getting an egg smashed against his head and another being splashed with milk. Whatever. A quote on the chalkboard reads, “I like coffee because it gives me the illusion that I’m awake.” Too bad this (bracing) coffee comes not in a mug but a paper cup, supposedly so you can take it into the street to continue caffeinating after paying the bill.
“We encourage sampling,” says Jesse Mason, the lead scooper at the pint-size shop. Cheers for that, because his weekly-changing menu runs to such enticements as sea salt caramel, mint chip and taro root – the No. 1 seller – each honest flavor made in small batches using organic milk from a local Amish-run dairy. Rolled out two summers ago by the Los Angeles transplant and his wife, Helen Qin, the walk-in attraction takes ideas from everywhere: customers (lavender ice cream), Qin’s Chinese background (black sesame-squid ink ice cream), even the owners’ meals away from home (chicken and waffles ice cream). One night a month, the creamery becomes a drive-in, showing movies on a 16-foot inflatable screen. And come this fall, the owners will return to serving ramen on certain nights, if only because they want to share a happy memory from L.A.
Sure, you can get a Reuben or a burger. But your focus should be on the Middle Eastern specialties that the Maalouf family has been offering in this modest 50-seat cafe for almost three decades, such as chicken marinated in mustard and lemon, then grilled and rolled up in pita with whipped garlic. The charm of their Lebanese food: “No shortcuts,” says co-owner Ghassan Maalouf. The chickpeas and fava beans for the coriander-zapped falafel are ground on-site, and the eggplant for the baba ghanouj is roasted right here. “Nate’s” refers to the deli’s long-ago operator. “The name doesn’t matter,” says Maalouf, whose parents never bothered to change the title so as to “leave vanity out” of the equation. The back booth is sometimes occupied by his now-retired father; an employee’s young charge clears tables, even though he’s no taller than the cart he’s pushing through the dining room. Nate’s is as much about family as it is about flavor.
Butcher and the Brewer
For sheer ambition, it would be hard to top this epic industrial American tavern, its row after row of community tables ending in flashy tanks and tubes. An estimated 1,500 barrels of beer a year (about 380,000 pints) are, as the restaurant says, “hand-built”; any given day, upward of a dozen house beers are on tap. Most popular? The crisp German-style Repeater Kolsch. Most unusual? Albino Stout, the shade of pale ale. Beers also find their way into a handful of cocktails. Full-time butchers and charcuterie makers assure good (and innovative) eating. Think tacos hit with chorizo and pickled jalapeños, whole smoked chicken wings, lamb ribs in jerk sauce. But everyone is welcome, food-wise, hence the kale Caesar salad and the flatbread, flavored as if it were a pierogi.
If there’s a golden boy in town, it’s chef Jonathon Sawyer, whose James Beard award (2015 Best Chef: Great Lakes) and varied restaurants have won Cleveland a measure of culinary respect in recent years. His youngest establishment is Northern Italian, intimate and eye-catching, with illuminated streams of glass beads dangling from on high and whitewashed brick walls creating a cool cocoon. Mirrored tables are a canvas for charred, Parmesan-flecked broccoli on a brushstroke of roasted eggplant, and pepper-spiked rigatoni draped with creamy lamb ragu. Want the full Sawyer experience? Loosen your belt for his 12-course tasting menu: a parade of charcuterie, local mushrooms, house-made pasta and, teases the menu, “beast roasted with pine, hard wood or hay.”