"Where do we eat?"
That's a very simple question that often warrants a very complicated answer. Well, that depends on who we're with, what part of town we find ourselves in, how much cash we feel like burning through, and maybe even how hungover we happen to feel. But more often than not, we will end up sitting at a table in one of the following restaurants.
And that's precisely how we approached the compilation of this list. Living in a city blessed with talented chefs and exceptional restaurants, we diners have no shortage of places to spend our dough. But when compelled to choose — as diners are every night they elect to leave the cooking to somebody else — we gravitate to the places that make us feel special, the places that consistently execute on food, service and setting, the places that we never regret choosing. In short, our favorite restaurants.
Mabel’s BBQ | Downtown
The folks waiting in line for a seat at Mabel’s BBQ are there not in hopes of catching a glimpse of high-profile chef, owner and Cleveland native Michael Symon (sorry), but rather to score some of the best barbecue in the state. At this shrine to low and slow, prime meats like pork ribs, beef brisket, pork belly and giant beef ribs arrive at the table fast, smoky and delicious. Just steps from Symon’s flagship eatery Lola Bistro, Mabel’s ushers in “Cleveland-style barbecue,” a hybrid of Texas-style smoking and Midwestern sensibilities. Beef, pork and lamb ribs are smoked over local fruitwoods. Brisket is rubbed with pastrami spices. Polish kielbasa stands in for Texas hot links. And Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard finds its way into the BBQ sauce.
The Greenhouse Tavern | Downtown
A whole roasted pig face might sound like a dish designed to shock more than satisfy, but that's where chef Jonathon Sawyer differs from the pack. The genesis of this immensely satisfying — and, yes, shocking — dish was not spectacle, but rather practicality. In a nose-to-tail restaurant like Greenhouse, no part of the animal is wasted. When you combine fearlessness with culinary depth, you end up with a restaurant that routinely destroys boundaries, births trends and brings everybody along for the gut-pleasing ride.
Lola Bistro | Downtown
Every god needs a temple, even the culinary ones. Cleveland is Michael Symon's parish, and when those parishioners want to worship the man who brings heaps of praise onto our city's food scene, they do so here, at Lola, the unofficial shrine to the "Rust Belt Revival." Food tourists book tables here months out, locals grab seats at the bar last minute, high-rollers set up shop at the chef's table near the open kitchen — and all of them leave a little lighter in the wallet, heavier in the belly, and happier for the opportunity to brush with greatness. Whether he's in the house or not, Symon's direction can be felt in every course.
Arcadian Food and Drink | Gordon Square
One of the hottest neighborhoods in terms of new restaurants is Detroit Shoreway, particularly in and around the Gordon Square Arts District. When Arcadian opened its doors after a long three-year slog to the finish line, neighbors could not believe their eyes. This model of architectural wonder is modern, minimal and fresh as the driven snow. Sure, there are chef-driven items like caviar tastings, seafood towers and beef cheek bourguignon, but there also is amazing pizza and fried chicken.
The Flying Fig | Ohio City
Long before "farm-to-table" was a trite catchphrase, and the local farmers market network still was in its infancy, chef Karen Small endeavored to fill her dinner plates with food from area farms instead of national trucks. It wasn't easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. In so doing, she — along with a small handful of other progressive chefs — helped transform Cleveland from a lackluster Midwestern flyover food town to what it is today: a shining example of how farms, chefs and restaurants can work together to help save the planet while turning out delicious, contemporary fare.
Momocho Mod Mex | Ohio City
Eric Williams didn't invent modern Mexican cuisine, but he certainly introduced a large number of Clevelanders to the concept. His fine form, honed from years spent in top kitchens, provides the chef with the skills and confidence to bend cuisines into something new, exciting and delicious. Sure, considerable exposure has placed Momocho squarely on the see-and-be-seen list of restaurants. But when the crowds thin, and the tourists head back from whence they came, this hip Ohio City tavern always reverts back to its roots as a warm, convivial neighborhood tavern.
Spice Kitchen and Bar | Gordon Square
Chef-owner Ben Bebenroth was doing just fine with his high-end catering company Spice of Life, hosting day-dreamy Plated Landscape feasts in bucolic settings around Northeast Ohio, when he decided to take a chance on a cursed corner location in Gordon Square. That was more than three years ago, and in that time Spice has grown into a neighborhood fixture, a restaurant that so seamlessly fits with the residents' eco-friendly sensibilities that you wonder how they got along without it all these years. More so than almost any chef in town, Bebenroth takes local, sustainable, and seasonal to heart — and makes abiding by the land a pain-free proposition.
The Black Pig | Ohio City
It's never easy to be the following act for a rising star chef like Jonathon Sawyer, as Mike Nowak was at Bar Cento after Sawyer's departure. But all that is ancient history now that Nowak leads Black Pig, which moved and improved from its spot on West 25th to the former Light Bistro (and Parker's) location on Bridge. The ever-growing cadre of fans make frequent sojourns to enjoy French-inspired fare starring heirloom pork in all its pink, piggy glory. While lofty in pedigree and provenance, the fare is easygoing, approachable and otherworldly when it comes to taste.
Flour Restaurant | Moreland Hills
Flour is one of the few restaurants that always manages to have a few surprises up its sleeves regardless how often one visits. On its surface, it's a contemporary Italian bistro, with familiar-sounding dishes like stuffed peppers, calamari, Neapolitan pizzas, and pasta galore. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that regardless how familiar a dish might sound, there's always more to the story. In place of linguini with clam sauce you get cockles with spaghetti and caviar. Short ribs are char-grilled before a slow braise in red wine and chocolate milk. Eggs Benny features fried mortadella in place of dry-ass Canadian bacon. When you have talent the likes of Paul Minnillo and Matt Mytro — "Old School" and "New School" — in the kitchen, it's best to keep gaps between visits as brief as possible.
SoHo Kitchen and Bar | Ohio City
Just when you think Ohio City had published some sort of secret manual that restaurant operators had to adhere to just to open their doors, along come Nolan Konkoski and Molly Smith with designs of their own. SoHo doesn't really fit the mold established by its brethren, and for that we couldn't be more pleased. No farm-to-table American bistro this, SoHo instead heads south to Low Country land and returns with lip-smacking, finger-licking, toe-tapping feasts of creamy shrimp and grits, mahogany fried chicken and aromatic, seafood-rich boils. Not much larger than the parlor of a quaint Victorian, this restaurant is agreeably intimate and hospitable — just like the folks who run it. A top-notch American whiskey selection is the gravy on the country-fried steak.
L'Albatros | University Circle
We could very easily have included most of Zack Bruell's restaurants on this list because the guy seems to hit a homerun every time he picks up a bat. But more than any other Bruell spot, L'Albatros manages to make diners feel special in ways that other restaurants do not. In short, it's a special-occasion restaurant that needn't be reserved for special occasions. We love the out-of-the-way locale, the history-dripping old carriage house, and that romance-inducing magic-garden patio. But without stellar food and service, all of the former would be mere window dressing. Grab the lengthy one-page menu, point your finger at some French words and phrases, and know that whatever the kitchen sends out will knock your socks off.