Like a burbling pot of paprikash, Cleveland's 2011 dining scene was constantly in motion. Old spots shut down, new spots popped up, and chefs fluttered between venues like picnic napkins in a summer breeze. In other words, it was pretty much business as usual. Here's a look back at some of the high points.
A Moving Experience
Among the year's top news for foodies was Crop Bistro & Bar's migration from the Warehouse District to new, temple-like digs in Ohio City.
After nearly four years on West Sixth Street, Crop 1.0 shuttered on April 30. Five days later, owners Steve Schimoler and Jackie Shultz launched the ultra-casual Cropicana on Whiskey Island, catering to the beach volleyball and boating crowd. Meantime, construction began in earnest in the former United Bank building on Lorain Ave., across from the West Side Market. The splashy new venue finally opened in October, complete with 40-foot ceilings, a shiny open kitchen, and seating for 185 in the 10,000-square-foot room. (This doesn't even count the downstairs private dining room, tucked into the former bank's enormous vault.) While Chef Schimoler's menu of flavor-infused modern Americana (think dishes like cherry-chipotle barbecued ribs and fried local chicken and waffles) has remained mostly intact, the vibe has gone from cozy to in-your-face fabulousness, in what is arguably the most impressive physical space in the region. You'll find them at 2537 Lorain Ave.
Also on the move this year: well-seasoned chef-restaurateur Paul Minnillo. After years in Little Italy (most recently as owner of the now-defunct Baricelli Inn), Minnillo opened Flour — his new contemporary Italian cutie — this spring in Moreland Hills. Less than six months into its run, opening chef and partner Chris DiLisi decided to move on. "We had drastic differences of opinion on how to run a restaurant," DiLisi told Scene at the time. In recent weeks, Minnillo has brought in Matt Mytro (formerly of Boulevard Blue and Paladar, and founder of the culinary T-shirt company Stove Monkeys) to share the chefing duties. Flour is at 34205 Chagrin Blvd.
Just a few doors down from Flour, Fountain opened in July. Iris and Steve Wheeler's Euro-style café originally featured a menu executed by Cleveland veteran chef Donna Chriszt (the former Jeso, Oz, and most recently Dish Deli). Scene gave the spot a glowing review in early September. By mid-September, Chriszt had been given the boot, and Brian Okin, most recently of downtown's former Verve (in space now occupied by Jeff Uniatowski's breakfast-and-lunch spot Carnegie Kitchen) was wearing the tall toque. Fountain is at 34105 Chagrin Blvd.
Continuing the culinary chess game, you may recall Okin as one of three co-founders of the popular pop-up dinner series, Dinner in the Dark. His partners in the project are Ellis Cooley (who at the beginning of 2011 was piloting the airport Marriott's innovative AMP 150) and Jeff Jarrett, who had left Hudson's North End to open Palate last winter in Strongsville. In June, Cooley bailed on Cleveland for a berth in West Palm Beach; Jarrett landed at AMP 150 immediately thereafter. You'll find AMP 150 at 4277 West 150th St.
Then there was Dragonfly, club owner Jeff Allison's Ohio City excursion into the sit-down restaurant world. After flitting about for several months seeking its groove, Dragonfly finally found direction in April with the addition of veteran chef Marlin Kaplan. Rebranded as a nouvelle American/Asian-fusion restaurant, Dragonfly has taken flight. Meantime, Kaplan (who helped usher in the Cleveland restaurant revival back in the 1990s with Marlin and Pig Heaven) parted company with his Luxe partner Melissa Cole, and with his Roseangel partner Rosita Kutkut to concentrate on the new project. You'll find Dragonfly at 1859 West 25th St. in Ohio City.
As for the spots that Kaplan left behind: Luxe continues to thrive in the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood. Meantime, Kutkut partnered with consulting chef Susan Walters to rebrand Roseangel as the tapas-themed La Boca Barrio; that spot folded almost before the ink on the menu was dry. (On the bright side, look for Ben Bebenroth's Spice Kitchen and Bar to open in that space right after the New Year.)
Other top openings included Ginko, chef Dante Boccuzzi's brilliant sushi spot beneath his eponymous Dante, at 2247 Professor Ave. in Tremont. Look for Boccuzzi to continue expanding his brand in 2012 with D.C. Pasta Company in Strongsville's former Palate, and D.B.A. in Akron's former VegiTerranean.
Equally welcome: Jonathon Sawyer's sassy Noodlecat at 234 Euclid Ave., near Public Square. Fun, casual, and quirky, Noodlecat is a personality-packed expansion on the out-of-the-box thinking that Sawyer does so well at his nearby Greenhouse Tavern.
Also bringing new life to the downtown scene is Pura Vida, Brandt Evans' svelte contemporary lunch and dinner spot at 170 Euclid Ave., inside Tri-C's new Hospitality Management Center. (Longtime Cleveland diners will recall that Evans first made a splash at Kosta's in Tremont. Later, he went on to open Blue Canyon Kitchen in Twinsburg, where he remains a chef-partner.)
Other downtown openings included a second location for Taza Lebanese Grill. The upscale sister to Fady Chamoun's popular Aladdin's Eateries launched this fall in the former Crop Bistro space at 1468 West Sixth St. (The original remains in operation in Woodmere.) Just down the street in the Warehouse District, Hyde Park Restaurant's extensively renovated Metro Bar + Kitchen shut down, only to be replaced by a member of the Illinois-based Bar Louie chain.
Also new to the Warehouse District: Prime Rib Steakhouse. The Superior Avenue meat retreat specializes in prime rib, carved to order at the table; a spinning salad bowl and sides served from a rolling cart complete the show. Time will tell if there's room in these parts — already home to XO, Morton's, and a Hyde Park — for yet another steakhouse.
Unfortunately, another anticipated Warehouse District showplace — the multi-level, mega-moola Tomo Japanese Steakhouse at 1293 West Ninth St. — is still stuck in liquor-license limbo and has yet to open.
Perhaps the saddest death in the downtown dining family: The loss of Fat Fish Blue, for decades Cleveland's destination for blues, jazz, and Creole cooking. Its replacement in the field of downtown dining and entertainment? The Las Vegas-based Tilted Kilt, a Hooters' style chain featuring burgers, beer, and gals in skimpy costumes. Look for it to open in time for St. Paddy's Day. Of course.
Of course, downtown wasn't the only locale to feel the winds of change. In Little Italy, chef Fabio Moto revived the beloved Club Isabella, now inside the totally renovated Goose Acres Music on Cornell. Phil "the Fire" Davis relaunched his chicken & waffles palace in Beachwood inside a former Houlihan's. And Coventry's Mint Café reopened under new management as the cheekily named High Thai'd.
Also in Cleveland Heights, Jillian's Billiard Club morphed into Myxx, a spot that building owner Kim Lisboa calls a "New York-style tapas bar." Former Flour Girl Bridget Thibeault joined forces with Stone Oven owners Tatyana Rehn and John Emerman to launch Luna Bakery and Café. And the breathtakingly beautiful Rockefellers, originally part of local millionaire John D.'s Forest Hills development, opened on Valentine's Day with an eclectic modern-Mediterranean menu.
Meantime, Clyde Mart's Bistro and Barroom ceased to be, making it the latest in a long line of shuttered restaurants to be housed in renovated Lee Road dining cars. Fortunately, he sold the space to caterer Candi Robinson, who now operates it as the eclectic Favor Bistro. No such happy ending though for the ill-fated Fracas in the former Centrum Theater. That spot opened, revamped, and then closed for good all within a matter of months.
One of the biggest surprises of the year may have been this: the closing of Heather Haviland's Vine & Bean on Larchmere Boulevard. Her popular Lucky's Café in Tremont remains a favorite destination.
Into the West
On the other side of the Cuyahoga, the restaurant madness continued. Ohio City lost Lelolai Bakery (which has since relocated to downtown's Old Arcade) but gained the bustling Soho Kitchen and Bar, operated by longtime chef Nolan Konkoski. Roberto Rodriguez launched the delicious Orale Kitchen, an offshoot of his popular-prepared Mexican foods stand in the West Side Market. Sam McNulty (Bar Cento, Bier Markt) crossed the street to unveil the expansive Market Garden Brewery. Nate Williams opened Bogtrotters Doorstep in space behind the Old Angle Tavern; the carryout spot specializes in late-night hours and big, hand-crafted sandwiches.
Also in Ohio City: Pastry chef Courtney Bonning has put the finishing touches on her Bonbon Pastry & Café. Ian P.E. stirred the pot with his Palookaville chili. Alaturka opened in mid-January with a menu of Mediterranean-style soups, spreads, salads, and grilled meats. And right on the heels of opening Gordon Square's XYZ Tavern, the triumvirate of Alan Glazen, Linda Syrek, and Randy Kelley added the classy Viaduct Lounge (the former Ponte Vecchio) to its list of accomplishments.
A little further west, in Lakewood, Jammy Buggars joined the pub lineup. Vegetarian-friendly Root Café expanded into a roomy corner storefront on Detroit Avenue. And we discovered Barroco Grill, a small, snazzy startup specializing in Latin-inspired street food, including delicious stuffed arepas. Look for owner Juan Vergara to expand into the Warehouse District in 2012.
Other tidbits to whet your appetite for the coming year: the opening of Bottlehouse Brewery in Cleveland Heights, the May addition of a new ABC Tavern in University Circle, the launch of Josh Kabat's Cleveland Pickle sandwich shop in downtown's City Club, the new Mitchell's Homemade Ice Cream shop and ops in Ohio City, a new Hospitality Restaurants' concept in Strongsville, and the resurrection of downtown's Zinc Bistro under the capable hands of Chris Hodgson (owner of the popular food trucks Dim and Den Sum and Hodge Podge) and Scott Kuhn (owner of Washington Place Bistro and the Welshfield Inn).
Our mouth is already watering in anticipation of Zack Bruell's planned French-American restaurant in a former jewelry store on Playhouse Square. Named after its historic location, Cowell & Hubbard should launch in January.
And of course there is the new restaurant, café, and catering service in the works at the Cleveland Museum of Art to look forward to: Overseeing operations will be Doug Katz, chef-owner of Fire Food and Drink on Shaker Square.
As always, the tables of Northeast Ohio are filled with great things to eat. Grab a fork and dig in.