These are heady days for Cleveland's dining scene. Food-obsessed television shows are trampling a trail to our restaurants. Our farmers markets and urban farms are yielding bumper crops of national cred. The venerable West Side Market, leading up to its momentous centennial, has become one of the state's top attractions of any kind. And of course, Michael Symon — our own Iron Chef and winner of a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef — keeps popping up like a Jack-in-the-box: shaved pate, weird laugh, and all.
And of course, delightful dining can be found in every corner of our humble burg. What follows are our picks for the most important restaurants in Northeast Ohio. Think of it as a mirror reflecting who we are right now as a city of eaters. Make that: a city of happy, fortunate, and well-fed eaters.
Long before it was trendy, chef Karen Small made "local, seasonal, and sustainable" her personal mantra. By doing so, she educated the palates of not only Cleveland diners, but also the next generation of Cleveland chefs. Considered one of the founding mothers of our farm-to-table movement, Small deserves much of the credit for our high-profile dining scene. Located on Market Avenue, one of the city's most charming lanes, the Fig is the great neighborhood bistro anchoring the great neighborhood of Ohio City.
2523 Market Ave., 216-241-4243,
There was a time when the epicenter of Northeast Ohio was Cleveland Heights — and more specifically, Coventry Road. And the epicenter of Coventry Road? Well, that would have been — as it is today — Tommy's. For four decades, this peace-loving café has been nourishing Cleveland's craziest cats, whose names are immortalized on the menu as popular sandwiches. Though this former sprout bar has a reputation as a laid-back hippie hang, the truth is that it's a well-oiled machine. It has to be, considering the near-constant flow of foot and mouth traffic here. And while many erroneously believe that Tommy's is a vegetarian restaurant, the delicious truth is this place takes care of herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores alike.
1824 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-321-7757, tommyscoventry.com
Besides Michael Symon, there may be no Cleveland chef who has done more to attract positive national attention than Jonathon Sawyer. In addition to Greenhouse Tavern’s selection as one of the “Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the U.S.” by Bon Appetit, Sawyer snagged a spot in Food & Wine’s 2010 class of “Best New Chefs.” Affable, humble, passionate, and wickedly skilled, Sawyer makes an ideal ambassador for our food scene. At the restaurant, diners are treated to a rare combination of haute and familiar, where dishes like foie gras-steamed clams and aged Ohio rib-eye are dished up in a modern tavern setting. 2038 East Fourth St., 216-443-0511, thegreenhousetavern.com
Melt Bar and Grilled
We’re not saying that an appearance on Man v. Food — or any other grub-obsessed TV show, for that matter — constitutes an affirmation of quality. But if ever there was a restaurant tailor-made for cross-country syndication, it’s this one. Designed from the ground-up to satisfy broad-shouldered Clevelanders, Melt is comfort food personified. Mile-high grilled cheese sandwiches, stuffed with everything from home-grown pierogies to Lake Erie perch, act like missiles to our pleasure centers. But rather than dish out the gooey goodness in a namby-pamby rec room, owner Matt Fish — a rocker by avocation — has funkified his house with rock & roll, tattoos, and all the craft beer a suds fiend could savor. 14718 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-226-3699, 13436 Cedar Rd., Cleveland Hts., 216-965-0988, meltbarandgrilled.com
Michael and Liz Symon's flagship restaurant in downtown's lively East Fourth Street district is a smart, stunning confluence of sophistication, innovation, and a menu that turns heartland favorites — pierogi, fried bologna, bacon — into points of culinary inspiration. Consider: People actually travel to Cleveland from Chicago, New York, and San Francisco for no other reason than the pleasure of dining at this restaurant. So if you have to pay $10 for valet parking, Mr. or Ms. Rocky River, don't come crying to us.
2058 East Fourth St., 216-621-5652, lolabistro.com
A funny thing happened when Michael Symon moved his ridiculously successful Lola from Tremont to downtown: Most regulars barely noticed. While Lola may have outgrown Tremont, many of Lola's longtime fans have stayed put, simply shifting their allegiance to its lovable offspring, Lolita. And why wouldn't they? Boasting all the charm of the original and none of the Food Network tourists, this cozy bistro feels like home. "Lolita is completely different from Lola," says longtime Symon staffer Matt Harlan. "It is the more casual neighborhood restaurant that Symon always wanted." Symon may have scaled the culinary ladder, but the soul of the chef will forever remain in Tremont.
900 Literary Rd., 216-771-5652,
When folks ask how the hell Cleveland developed this great dining scene, we use Dante Boccuzzi as an example. Here was a young chef at the top of his game, pulling down stars at New York City’s famed Aureole and poised for national acclaim. But when the time came to hang out his own shingle, there was only one place he wanted to go: Home. “This is why I came back to Cleveland,” Boccuzzi says. “This is what I came home to do.” Now settled in a small, elegant, and undeniably spectacular bank building in trendy Tremont, his eponymous restaurant is everything the chef imagined — and a diner could hope for — as well as the place where he delivers his signature blend of Italian, French, and Asian cuisines. 2247 Professor Ave., 216-274-1200, restaurantdante.us
Losing a celebrity chef like Jonathon Sawyer can decimate a restaurant, a personality-driven business if ever there was one. But despite losing its top toque to his own ambitions, Bar Cento has continued to thrive just as it has since day one. Much of that continued success can be attributed to the near-seamless transition from Sawyer to Mike Nowak, who was second-in-command from the start. Possessing the same earnest passion for local, sustainable, organic product — and pork, glorious pork — Nowak continues to earn a following. Rather than coast on the coattails of his predecessor, he adds and drops menu items with the confidence of a seasoned pro.
1948 West 25th St., 216-274-1010,
"It started with me just making a few items on a Saturday and offering them for free to some customers," explains Lucky's chef-owner Heather Haviland, on how she transformed a sleepy little coffeehouse into a full-on brunch bonanza. The pastry chef parlayed her baking skills into one of the most beloved weekend feasts in all of Cleveland, with waits for a table all but guaranteed. And that was before Guy Fieri broadcast those bonkers breakfasts on
Diners, Drive-ins & Dives. So what makes mornings at Lucky's so special? For starters, the quality of ingredients, which include local butter, local eggs, local cheese, and local anything else Haviland can get her oven mitts around. Until you've tucked into a plate of the chef's sausage gravy and scones, you haven't tasted pork in all its piggy goodness. "I'm blessed to be this busy," says Haviland. "I'm certainly not complaining."
777 Starkweather Ave., 216-622-7773, luckyscafe.com
Italian food has always been the cornerstone of Little Italy. But we needed to wait until 2006 — when chef Michael Annandono opened this chic bistro on Murray Hill — to taste the cuisine anew. This Piedmont-trained chef has been delivering the rustic flavors of Northern Italy — the hearty sauces, lush pastas, and roasted game — to the taste buds of appreciative diners ever since. His deftness of hand and lightness of touch give these classic dishes a revelatory refinement not found in the neighboring spaghetti-and-meatball joints.
2198 Murray Hill Rd., 216-721-0300,
You wouldn't know it by picking up a menu these days, but there was a time when four out of five Clevelanders would have assumed "pho" was a cartoon character. But even then, Superior Pho (originally Pho Hoa) was dispensing the stuff in bathtub-sized bowls of comforting warmth. Though others have followed, none has bested this Asiatown pioneer. A recent expansion has eased the sometimes crushing crowds come lunch and dinner, when just $7 lands you a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup and all the accessories: lime, cilantro, Thai basil, hot peppers, et al. And while it's tough to deviate from the pho, there are plenty of other delights on the menu.
3030 Superior Ave., 216-781-7462,
Sokolowski's University Inn
We would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant more closely aligned with Cleveland's past, present, and (we hope) future than Sokolowski's. For more than 85 years, this hometown favorite has treated Clevelanders to hearty, rib-sticking Eastern European fare. What would be condemned at other establishments as kitsch continues to flourish here because it is the only way it has ever been done. Among other things, that means grabbing a tray and working your way down a cafeteria line of diet horrors, beginning with dessert and ending with dumplings. Along the way there are deliriously delicious stuffed cabbages, Salisbury steak, and smoked kielbasa. "We're just proud to still be around," says owner Michael Sokolowski.
1201 University Rd., 216-771-9236,
Parkview Nite Club
Long before anybody ever heard of Battery Park or the Detroit Shoreway, this Cleveland landmark anchored the north end of its near-West Side neighborhood overlooking Cleveland's factories. Opened in 1934, at the tail end of Prohibition, the Parkview is one of the oldest saloons in the city. Little has changed in that time — except for the food, which has been polished up in response to the modern trend toward retro-chic dining. The upscale tavern fare is good, yes, and consistently so. But just as important is the working-class vibe, built from the ghosts of steelworkers and machine operators who used to lift their glass here.
1261 West 58th St., 216-961-1341,
Fire Food & Drink
This 10-year-old bistro feels as stylish today as it did when it opened. Credit goes not only to the designer, who crafted a room with timeless appeal, but also the chef, who tiptoes the line between predictability and change. "Our customers enjoy signature dishes that we will never remove," explains chef-owner Doug Katz. "But we also change our menu quarterly to keep it exciting." That means diners know for damn sure that the menu will feature chicken livers, clay-oven flatbread, and tandoor-roasted pork chops. What they don't know is what seasonal tweaks those dishes will have undergone in the latest menu incarnation.
13220 Shaker Sq., 216-921-3473,
Only in heaven are there perfect restaurants, where every guest is a VIP and every meal is a five-star feast. For something approaching perfection here on earth, book a table at L'Albatros. With alarming consistency, this University Circle jewel produces the kind of evenings from which lasting memories are molded. Chef-owner Zack Bruell filled a desperate need for French bistro fare with this spot — or at least a modern interpretation thereof. "You're only as good as your last meal," admits Bruell, a warning to himself as much as to others.
11401 Bellflower Rd., 216-791-7880,
"With a lot of diners," explains Moxie owner Brad Friedlander, "it's not how good you are, but what's new. After 10 or 12 years, you're considered old." Considering that Moxie is approaching 13, Friedlander decided to shake things up, reformatting the menu and the Beachwood bistro's definition of "regional American." Changes were not made lightly, admits Friedlander of his decision to unveil a new menu of small, medium, and large plates. What has not changed is the pedigree of ingredients and level of culinary mastery. Chef-partner Jonathan Bennett continues to whip up perfect dishes that, regardless of their ethnic origins, contain an all-American sense of pleasure.
3355 Richmond Rd., Beachwood,
One of a Clevelander's greatest joys is an overloaded sandwich of warm-and-rosy corned beef piled into a pocket of soft rye. And Slyman's always,
always gets it right. An unrelenting stream of customers means the slicer never sleeps, ensuring fresh, hot, buttery beef. By stacking multiple briskets on the slicer at once, employees generate sandwiches that contain an ideal mix of lean and fat-gilded meat. Heavy, tall, and fairly priced, these sandwiches are rightly billed as Cleveland's best.
3106 St. Clair Ave.,
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Ask many out-of-towners what comes to mind when they think of Cleveland, and they'll immediately shout out pints of Great Lakes' beloved beers: Dortmunder Gold Lager, Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Burning River Pale Ale, and their other frosted-head brethren. And why not? Since its 1988 opening, Great Lakes Brewing Company has grown into a model of quality, consistency, and brand identity, carrying its hometown banner with a side of pretzel chicken. It is also a paradigm of social consciousness, aiming for an operation that sips energy while releasing as little waste as possible.
2516 Market Ave., 216-771-4404,
"I live, breath, cook, love, and
respect Cleveland — and especially Tremont," announces Rocco Whalen, one of the city's most passionate chefs and ardent supporters. Opening Fahrenheit in 2002, Whalen became every bit as central to the Tremont food scene as Michael Symon (though still without his own street sign). Boisterous, as all bistros should be, this nine-year-old mainstay seems to get better with each passing year. The chef's bold American cuisine never fails to impress, in terms of ingredients, preparation, and presentation.
2417 Professor Ave., 216-781-8858,
Having a robust Asian community bestows upon a town certain benefits, not the least of which is dim sum. We're not talking about a small selection of items available off the regular menu, but the full-on brunch experience. Large enough to accommodate crowds that near 300, Li Wah feels like the epicenter of Cleveland come Sunday noon, when families of every demographic sip tea and snack on Asian delicacies — spring rolls, barbecue pork buns, shrimp shumai, turnip cakes, golden roast duck, and warm custard tarts, among countless others.
2999 Payne Ave., 216-696-6556, liwahrestaurant.com
The closest thing Cleveland has to an Algonquin Round Table is this New York-style supper club that attracts a most deliciously diverse clientele. Named by
Down Beat magazine as one of the world's "100 Great Jazz Clubs," Nighttown draws the serious music fans, for sure. But there is far more to the joint: The menu is decidedly old-school but well-executed, with dishes like whole artichokes, roast duck, trout amandine, and Dublin Lawyer ruling the roost. The comfortably appointed dining rooms, bar, and patio burble with conversation as doctors, professors, writers, artists, and students exchange bon mots over bourbon and beer.
12387 Cedar Rd., 216-795-0550,
Sergio's in University Circle
When it opened in a University Circle carriage house in 1995, Sergio's had the feel of a smart, contemporary, urban townhouse. All these years later, it still does. As one of the few truly exceptional dining choices in University Circle, Sergio's is a natural destination for those off to enjoy the symphony, museums, and conservatories. Sergio Abramof's Mediterranean-themed seafood is as elegant and tasteful as the room around it. "The food I create is delicious, authentic, and a true reflection of my personality," says Abramof. "This is why our customers, our friends, have supported us for so many years."
1903 Ford Dr., 216-231-1234,
When Momocho chef-owner Eric Williams introduced Cleveland diners to "modern Mexican," he did so only after years of running kitchens at Johnny Mango and Lopez. His creative takes on regional Mexican cuisine work because they are grounded in history, familiarity, and respect for ingredients. Thus, Momocho's smoked trout and bacon guacamole is at once classic and modern — and always delicioso. Flavor-seeking diners flock here for roll-your-own beer-braised goat taquitos, crab and smoked trout chilaquiles, and pepita-crusted trout. "Quality and consistency are the keys to our success," says Williams. An unbending edict if ever there was one.
1835 Fulton Rd., 216-694-2122,
A perennial fave for love and seafood, this cliff-side showpiece overlooking Lake Erie offers extraordinary food, elegant ambiance, and jaw-dropping views of the downtown skyline. Factor in candlelight, wine, and maybe a ginormous Seafood Tower (impeccably fresh oysters, crab legs, shrimp, mussels, and Maine lobster salad), and you've got the makings of true romance.
12700 Lake Ave., Lakewood,
Hot Sauce Williams
Even before the notion of (medical) marijuana-laced 'que sauce was being bandied about for the Colorado market, this down-home BBQ spot in the pink-and-blue "cottage" near Cleveland Clinic had us in its thrall. Sure, the Tony Bourdain-types all dig the soulful scene. But North Coasters were addicted to Hot Sauce's zesty ribs, juicy chicken, and overstuffed Polish boys — topped with fries, slaw, and that sweet-and-spicy sauce — long before the out-of-town talent ever heard of it.
7815 Carnegie Ave.,216-391-2230
12310 Superior Ave., 216-249-0710
3770 Lee Rd., 216-921-4704
Dim and Den Sum
Technically, Dim and Den Sum is not a restaurant. But having single-handedly jump-started Cleveland's food-truck craze earns them real estate on this list. Through little more than will power, ambition, and caffeine-fueled vigor, owner Chris Hodgson burst onto an otherwise barren landscape of dirty-water hot-dog carts and industrial roach coaches. He taught Clevelanders that good, creative, and affordable food can indeed be obtained from a mobile kitchen.
Red the Steakhouse
When restaurateur Brad Friedlander set out to craft a great steakhouse, he left nothing to chance — from the top toques who designed the menu to the soaring space itself, with its stacked-stone walls, crimson accents, and sleek, contemporary appointments. Of course, quality was key, and here Friedlander chose to serve only dry-aged beef. Thick-cut and perfectly marbled, the steaks are seasoned with kosher salt and Tellicherry pepper, seared to order over unimaginably high heat, and served sizzling hot on a plain white plate for maximum impact.
3355 Richmond Rd., Beachwood,
While "Der Brau" has been around only since 1983, a German restaurant has occupied this West Side location for more than 80 years. Probably that explains the profoundly European vibe: Eight decades' worth of sauerbrauten, wiener schnitzel, and smoked sausages is bound to leave a mark. Besides the restaurant, an on-site market and deli is stocked with traditional meats, cheeses, and condiments.
13046 Lorain Ave., 216-671-6220,
The name pretty much says it all: Great Thai food and a fun time are what draw Clevelanders to Ty Fun. Beautifully plated and bursting with freshness, dishes like massaman curry, classic pad Thai, and the signature red snapper served with a choice of zesty sauces are the reasons this Tremont restaurant is Cleveland's favorite Thai.
815 Jefferson Ave., 216-664-1000,
A smart spin on the fast-casual concept, Aladdin's combines well-prepared Middle Eastern standards with a sharp focus on health and nutrition, making its many fans feel both virtuous and well fed. And should that dinner of fresh-squeezed carrot juice, silken hummus, and lentil soup leave you feeling a little smug, there's always that toothsome baklava.
Various midwestern locations,