This time last year, local restaurateurs were holding their collective breath, awaiting the blows from dozens of chain restaurants going into the East Side's Legacy Village and Eton Chagrin, and the West Side's Crocker Park. So how's it actually shaken out?
"It's been much worse than we feared," says Sergio Abramof, owner of Sergio's in University Circle and president of the Cleveland Originals, a group of local restaurant owners dedicated to protecting and promoting the area's independent restaurant scene. "Not only have we seen many independents fail; it's been so bad that even some of the chains have pulled out as well!" (Those would include Amazon Trail, Chi-Chi's, Ground Round, and a handful of Denny's.)
No doubt about it: A weak economy and the influx of heavily capitalized chains continued to take a toll in 2004. Among the higher-profile victims: Mise, Circo/Zibibbo, Sal & Angelo's, Mad 4 You, Dottie's Diner, Ward's Inn, Alexandria's on Main, both Phil the Fire locations, and SubStance. Titanic sank before passing its first anniversary, and the venerable Szechwan House just hung up its woks after 22 years. (However, word has it that the owners plan to open a new East Side spot in the coming year.)
Yet from a diner's perspective, 2004 also brought cause for rejoicing, as new independent dining rooms continued to pop up across the region, ranging from such chic spots as Downtown 140 in Hudson to homey little pit stops like Das Schnitzel Haus in Parma.
Other welcome additions included Mom's Diner (Orange Village), Giovanna's on Clifton (in the former Mise space), OPA! on 25th (Ohio City), D'Agnese's Tomato Grill (Hudson), and Christopher's Aurora Bistro (Aurora). Then there's Red, the Steakhouse (Beachwood), Cowboy Food & Drink (Bainbridge), Blue Canyon Kitchen (Twinsburg), Gusto (Little Italy), Kristopfer's (North Olmsted), and a second Johnny Mango outpost in Willoughby.
It's also worth noting that two other recently opened dining rooms, Zach Bruell's sophisticated Parallax in Tremont, and Marco Rossi's urbane Ponte Vecchio on the old Superior Viaduct Bridge, seem likely to become two of the region's finest, thanks to their big-city style and exceptional food.
There's more in the pipeline, too, including a second Sushi Rock location (not to mention a new Mitchell Bros. Ice Cream shop) planned for La Place in Beachwood, and Abramof's new, as yet unnamed restaurant slated for Shaker Square.
As always, the tables of Northeast Ohio are filled with good things to eat. Let's raise a fork to a happy, prosperous, and well-fed New Year.