When it comes to outdoor dining, our delight is directly proportional to the degree of winter's wretchedness. How else to explain why, when warm days finally arrive, there is hardly a restaurant, deli, café, or wine bar here that doesn't drag out a chair or two, unfurl a ratty umbrella, and call it "alfresco dining"?
You know the kind of spots we mean: sidewalk tables lined up within spitting distance of a noisy, smelly bus stop. Barren "patios" settled in the middle of dusty gravel parking lots. Wobbly tables crowded so close to the street that passing motorists can read the menu over your shoulder as they cruise by.
There's really no reason to put up with such nastiness, no matter how desperately you're seeking sunshine and fresh air. Here's our short list of some of the best alfresco dining spots in the Cleveland area. Start today, and you might be able to hit them all before the first snow flies.
On the East Side . . . You can hardly do better than the intimate, secluded garden at the Baricelli Inn (2203 Cornell Road, 216-791-6500). The aroma of flowers, fresh herbs, and of course, the earthy, intensely flavored contemporary Mediterranean fare drifting out of the kitchen make the lushly landscaped setting feel unmistakably European. Come for cocktails and appetizers, or stay all evening soaking up the smells, sights, and sounds of summer.
Old brick, mature trees, and a forest of blue market umbrellas make the enclosed patio in front of Lure Bistro (38040 Third Street, Willoughby, 440-951-TUNA) a favorite for summertime chillin'. If there's anything better on a warm night than sipping fruity drinks from the Tiki bar before plunging into a feast of cool, clean-flavored sushi, we're pretty sure it can't be done in public.
For a true sense of rural relaxation beneath big trees, it's hard to beat casual Bass Lake Tavern in Chardon (426 South Street, 440-285-3100). Chagrin Falls' Gamekeepers Taverne (87 West Street, 440-247-7744) also boasts a well-shaded outdoor hideaway, tucked into a handkerchief-sized space behind the historic restaurant.
On the West Side . . . The urban air doesn't get much fresher than inside the lovely landscaped courtyard at Three Birds (18515 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-221-3500). Hidden behind a brick-and-iron wall, shaded by tall hardwoods, and checkered with sandstone-lined flower and herb beds, the patio is a remarkable backdrop to the kitchen's sleek, contemporary creations.
In Tremont, the small, enclosed patio at Theory (2221 Professor Avenue, 216-621-2301) serves up a sophisticated blend of natural beauty and urban funk, perfectly complemented by the tightly focused menu of upscale American cuisine, with its emphasis on organic beef, Kobe steaks, and boutique wines.
And while noise, exhaust fumes, and the stares of curious passersby take the fun out of most sidewalk dining, the street-front seating at the Italian-accented Giovanna's on Clifton (10427 Clifton Boulevard, 216-631-3463) is an exception, thanks to a generous setback, tasteful landscaping, and a crop of cheerful market umbrellas that provide a welcome sense of privacy.
Indian uprising . . . Upscale Indian cuisine -- with its sensual synthesis of muscular seasonings and gourmet ingredients -- is haute stuff in London and New York, but hasn't even been a blip on the local culinary radar. That may change, now that New Delhi native Rajesh Kattaria has been installed as executive chef at Century, the restaurant at the downtown Ritz-Carlton. Don't expect to find a "bread bar," à la N.Y.C.'s Tabla. But Kattaria promises that Indian and Southeast Asian accents will find their way onto the menu in the coming weeks.