Call it a reflection of our blue-collar roots, but some of the best food in town still goes down in Cleveland's bars, pubs, taverns, and gastropubs. (Not sure what that last one is is? Read on.) Of course, that's one of the fringe benefits of living in one of the best food towns in the Midwest: There is absolutely no reason to soak up your pints with stale pretzels, cardboard pizza, or greasy fish fries when you can complement them with gourmet chips, succulent pulled pork, or ahi tuna on sesame noodles. Here are some spots to consider the next time you need more than just a brewski.
Deagan's Kitchen + Bar
If you want to learn what a gastropub is supposed to look, feel, and taste like, pencil in a visit to Deagan's in Lakewood. Open for a little more than a year, the place should be required eating for any operator bold enough to make the claim that they too are a member of this budding restaurant genre, where the goal is a happy collision of ambitious cuisine with informality and kick-ass beer. It's remarkable how many things owner Dan Deagan got right. From the build-out and design to the menu and waitstaff, no opportunity for improvement appears to have been overlooked. Dozens of creative options fill the categories of bar snacks, small plates, big plates, and sides. And with prices firmly in the $4 to $16 range, diners can make a habit of the place. Just $3 buys a trio of deviled eggs, their whipped yolks enriched by local goat cheese and kicked up with mustard. By swapping buffalo mozzarella for processed cheese, the kitchen elevates fried cheese to new heights. Deagan's not only got the "gastro" part right; they nailed the "pub" portion too. Craft beer fans have at their disposal 30 killer drafts, with many of those spots reserved for special and seasonal brews. Folks looking for something different can order one of the "beer cocktails," such as the Shandygaff, made with Bell's Two Hearted Ale and ginger beer. 14810 Detroit Ave., Lakewood,216-767-5775, deagans.com.
Grovewood Tavern & Wine Bar
The Grovewood Tavern — an anchor of its North Collinwood neighborhood for 13 years — may have begun life as a wine bar. But today it's equally well known for its broad beer list, boasting everything from familiar German lagers to Indian ales and seasonal brews infused with pumpkin and cloves. As for the food? Offerings have expanded far beyond cheese plates (though they still have those) into a complete menu of bold, eclectic options. According to owner Beth Davis-Noragon, the ahi tuna — crusted with black and white sesame seeds and served over sesame noodles — is among the most popular entrées. The kitchen is not afraid to blur the map to mix and match global flavors. Nowhere is this more evident than in their pot-stickers, which are splashed with Thai chili butter and garnished with seaweed salad — but fashioned from Lithuanian dumplings, in a nod to the neighborhood's deep Eastern European roots.17105 Grovewood Ave., 216-531-4900, grovewoodtavern.com.
Since 1959, Brothers has been the place to go for good food served with local blues. But beginning this year, Brothers' commitment to great music and extraordinary food has shifted into high gear. A new menu, launched in September by executive chef Michael Nadolski (formerly of the five-star Pavilion restaurant in Antigua) goes the gastropub route, featuring locally sourced ingredients and in-house preparations. Popular examples include the pulled-pork taco with jalapeno slaw, and cheddar mac & cheese with pulled pork and smoked apples. The dinner experience starts with Brothers Bites, which include house-made chips, honey-rosemary roasted mixed nuts, and Brothers' signature stuffed cornbread (collard greens, bacon, and cheddar cheese in a deep fried cornmeal batter). Fans of lighter fare can enjoy the Brothers Cobb Salad, while vegetarians delight in Brothers' black bean veggie burger. Sandwiches, steaks, and burgers round out the menu, giving way to an assortment of homemade desserts. To go with, you'll find a broad assortment of beer, wine, and cocktails from the fully loaded bar.11609 Detroit Ave., 216-226-2767, brotherslounge.com.
Owners Randy Kelley, Linda Syrek, and Alan Glazen have turned the former Perry's Family Restaurant, a defunct greasy spoon on Detroit Avenue, into another reason to linger in the Gordon Square Arts District. Since opening in late February, XYZ Tavern has offered more than its share of enticements to keep folks coming back. The staff strikes that perfect tone between feisty and festive. We can't say enough about the smashing craft beer list and the jaw-dropping whiskey anthology of 70-plus gems. XYZ's patio will undoubtedly join the ranks of Best Alfresco Watering Holes. And if you know where to look, there are more than enough treats on the dining menu to please even finicky palates. Eclectic and affordable pub-style comfort food is the name of the game, with great burgers, corned beef, and chicken sandwiches filling the bill. Don't miss the housemade chips and the killer chicken and waffles. All in all, it makes this lively American pub a true neighborhood destination.6419 Detroit Ave., 216-706-1104, xyzthetavern.com.
While it looks as if it could be home to a hip bistro, this Rocky River beer palace focuses on American comfort food. Starters — here called "shareables" — include addictive pretzel-crusted fried pickle slices served with house onion dip, and mini pigs in blankets with a puff pastry belt and grainy mustard dip. Fondue fans will go gaga for the suitably cheesy Buffalo chicken dip, a hot crock of molten dairy dotted with chicken and ringed by chips. But it's the good old sandwich department that delivers the biggest returns. Loaded with juicy and well-marbled house-smoked brisket and crowned with Swiss, slaw, and sauce, the griddled reuben has made our short list for sandwich of the year. Equally rewarding is the gourmet French dip, which swaps the customary sliced roast beef for tender grilled filet. Sandwiches — there are a dozen — come with great house-made chips or fries. Perhaps the best news of all to bar lovers: Market boasts 100 brews, quickly making it the craft-beer capital of Rocky River. 1137 Linda St., Rocky River, 440-799-4292, marketbeer.com.
B Spot Burgers
Specializing in gourmet burgers, brats, and bologna sandwiches, B Spot is Michael "Iron Chef" Symon's most happy-go-lucky notion to date. To craft the best burgers, you gotta start with the best beef, and Symon has come up with what he believes is the ideal formula: two parts chuck, two parts sirloin, and one part brisket. The meat is imported from legendary New York meat purveyor Pat LaFrieda, who supplies bespoke blends to the likes of Danny Meyer and Mario Batali. Seared on a flat top, the six-ounce patties are tucked into a fresh-baked bun for two-fisted enjoyment. There are 14 different iterations, featuring everything from cole slaw, pastrami, and Swiss to corned beef and kraut.Fans of the pitch-perfect Lola burger, with fried egg, bacon, aged cheddar, and onions, will find it here. Diners can customize their sandwiches by visiting a small condiment station containing various relishes, pickles, and peppers. On every table is a caddy of six sauces that includes Lola ketchup, Stadium Mustard, and a delicious brew called coffee BBQ. It's strange to see Lola's svelte and dainty fries beneath a landslide of meaty bean-free chili, but damned if the chili-cheese fries aren't fun to eat. They share the "bar snack" portion of the menu with tomato-blue cheese soup, three styles of wings, and golden-brown onion rings. Don't overlook the ridiculously thick milkshakes, and adults can choose from an exceptional listing of beers. 20 Main St, Crocker Park, Westlake, 440-471-8270.28699 Chagrin Blvd., Eton Chagrin, Woodmere, 216-292-5567.18066 Royalton Rd., Strongsville, 440-572-9600, bspotburgers.com.
Great Lakes Brewing Company
An award-winning brewery, an historic setting, and a smart take on tavern fare make Great Lakes the region's top brewpub. Whether it's a roasty porter, a golden lager, or a citrusy pale ale, each full-flavored beer offers its own satisfaction; count on a dozen craft brews on tap each day, including several seasonal treats. To go with, the menu is overflowing with tried-and-true faves like Stilton-ale soup, pretzel chicken, and a bratwurst and pierogi plate. As a reflection of the owners' commitment to a sustainable ethos, local ingredients and products show up frequently. That includes things like Killbuck Valley mushrooms, Mackenzie Creamery chevre, and the exclusive Porter Chocolate Chunk ice cream made by our own Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream. Factor in a bustling all-weather patio and a fun and informative "beer school," and it's no wonder Great Lakes has become a Cleveland landmark. 2516 Market Ave., 216-771-4404, greatlakesbrewing.com.
Located in a new exterior section of Akron's Summit Mall, the Rail is one of the most appealing adaptations of the gourmet burger bar to hit Northeast Ohio. Like the room, the menu is delightfully uncomplicated. Here, the focus is squarely on the burgers and beer. Those major players are supported by a cast of crunchy starters and sides, creamy hand-dipped milkshakes, and a trio of salads. At joints like this, creativity is ditched in favor of quality, and that's fine by us. Chef-owner Mike Mariola offers eight ounces of local, grain-fed goodness grilled over an open flame. For beverages, there is the usual round-up of hoppy craft beers — including a nice selection of local suds. The Guinness float pairs Ohio ice cream with Irish suds for an adults-only treat that falls somewhere between happy hour and dessert. Let's just call it "happy dessert" and leave it at that.
3265 West Market St., Akron, 330-864-7245, therailburger.com.
Flip Side's burgers weigh in at a healthy seven ounces, a hair shy of a half-pound. But it's not the poundage that gives these burgers a boost. It's the pedigree: Made with all-natural, grass-fed Ohio beef, the burgers not only taste amazing; they boast health, environmental, and buy-local benefits — a claim that cannot be made by good old ground chuck. Patties are seared on a flattop, giving them a great crust, before being tucked into a toasted, sesame-seeded brioche bun. Models range from the minimally embellished Simplicity (with just lettuce, tomato, and onion) to the prime-rib-topped Philly. The Black & Blue sports crumbled blue cheese, port-braised onions, and a black pepper kick. Capped with bacon, cheese, and a runny fried egg, the Shawn Burger (named after chef-owner Shawn Monday) is an appropriately messy mouthful. And anything French-fry-related pretty much rocks. Monday babies his spuds to the point of potato perfection: His multi-stage process involves salt-water blanching, air drying, and double frying in lard. We gilded the proverbial lily by going with the decadent gravy fries. Even the sweet potato fries — normally a poor excuse for a crispy snack — exit Monday's kitchen cracker-crisp. One of the tastiest burgers is made not with beef, but curry-scented Jamison lamb. It is topped with cool and refreshing cucumber slaw and yogurt sauce. There are also tuna, chicken, turkey, and veggie sandwiches for those who pass on red meat. To go with: a great selection of craft brews on tap. After all, the only thing better than a great burger is a great burger paired with a great beer.49 Village Way, Hudson, 330-655-3547, flipsidehudson.com.
"Jammy Buggar's" just may be the worst restaurant name in the history of dining. The good news is that behind the ugly moniker lies a very likable restaurant. Open since May, the Lakewood pub has attracted a robust and loyal following in a very competitive market. Wisely, owner Jim Sprenger zeroed in on an oft-overlooked segment of the constituency. Whereas most of his competitors aim high or low — dispensing ho-hum pub grub or upmarket gastro fare — Sprenger steers straight for the middle ground. By offering good quality food at rational prices in a comfortable setting, JB's is filling the niche often dominated by middling national chains. Fried mozzarella might sound stale as week-old bread, but JB's version is fresh and lively. Small orbs of airy Buffalo mozz are lightly breaded, fried, and drizzled with pesto. The bite-sized balls are paired with a warm marinara sauce that's good enough to pass for soup. Or consider the "loaded fries": a platter of crunchy spuds showered with bacon, cheddar, sour cream, and chives. It's essentially potato skins that you eat with your fingers. Pair that with a cold IPA from the better-than-average beer list, and you've got the ultimate game-day meal. 15625 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-767-5922, jammybuggars.com.