It's a Tuesday night in the dead of winter, and there isn't an empty chair to be found — in fact, there's a short wait for a table. Those lucky enough to have a seat are sipping wine, nibbling cheese and crackers, and slicing into fat steaks. The scene is no different from what takes place in countless restaurants around town, except for two things: Everybody here's a dude, and everybody's naked.
Mention "the schvitz" to most people, and you'll be met with a blank stare or a gesundheit. But to a growing number of Cleveland's younger, hipper set — including celebrity chefs like Jonathon Sawyer and Michael Symon — it is the most fascinating destination in town. And why not? Cloaked in mystery and history, the schvitz has been indulging men's whims since the 1920s.
At its most basic, the schvitz is a bathhouse — a holdover from the days when Eastern European immigrants filled the Jewish ghettos of Cleveland's near East Side. During the Sabbath, it was forbidden to heat water in the home, but there was no proscription against sweating — or schvitzing — in a steam room. And so men (and men only) made weekly visits. Though times certainly have changed, little about this place has kept up in roughly 85 years.
Few among today's clientele — an easy mix of Jews and Gentiles — much care about the history of the joint. Arriving in groups of two, four, or more, they come to enjoy a carefree guys' night out, with time in a blazing-hot steam room, maybe a nice rubdown, and a riotous feast of steak, stogies, and booze. With the right group of friends, it is truly one of Cleveland's singular experiences.
"I'm not normally into guy stuff. I don't follow sports, I don't care about cars, and I know far more about women's handbags than any straight man should," says Dave Hill, a comedian and writer from Cleveland currently living in New York. "But the schvitz is some quality man time I'm always up for when I'm in Cleveland. Not even the Russian baths in the East Village can compete."
As for the experience itself? Finding it is half the battle. The business has no address and is in a part of town most folks would rather avoid — near Kinsman and East 116th. Guests begin arriving in the afternoon, parking fancy cars in a gated, guarded lot nearby. Not only is the building located down a dead-end street, the nondescript fortress has not so much as a sign.
Check in at the front desk, track down an empty locker, then unload your gear and disrobe. This marks the last time you will see your pants until it's time to leave. From here on out, the attire is strictly towels, bedsheets, or robustly au naturel.
Downstairs, in a tiled room with tiered wooden benches, bare-assed men schvitz, kibitz, and kvetch as they have done for eons. The conversations, too, are timeless, gliding from business and broads to civics and sports.
When the heat becomes oppressive, as it does the moment somebody tosses a bucket of water through the gaping oven door, the occupants escape to the relative comfort of the showers. The truly brave, meanwhile, take a heart-stopping plunge into an icy pool, their blood-curdling screams echoing off the cold, hard walls. Yes, there is shrinkage.
Upstairs, in an area that can best be described as a locker room for inactivity, men nap on cots in near-darkness. When their name is called, they settle in for a 30-minute rubdown, a cross between Swedish massage and Russian torture — and like every employee in the joint, the masseurs are men. Of course, all of these activities are merely time-killers leading up to the main event: dinner.
Taking seats in the unadorned dining room, guests unpack bags filled with cheese, sausages, bread, wine, vodka, and whatever else they care to eat or drink, in a deep and wide expansion of the B.Y.O.B. concept. Doting staffers accommodate every request, from fetching plates and silverware to rounding up buckets of ice. The mood is as celebratory as a bachelor party and, before long, just as rowdy. The only thing prohibited here is cell phones.
Platters of pickles, peppers, and rye bread are delivered to each table. Rib steaks come in three sizes: small, medium, and large, based on their thickness, not width. Sliced to size on a carpenter's band saw, the beefy slabs arrive on a broiler plate covered in chopped garlic. It might be the heat stroke and Heineken talking, but steak just doesn't get any better than this. Hamburgers, made from steak trimmings, are also popular. For those who run dry or come empty-handed, ice-cold longneck beers are self-serve from a cooler.
When it's time to leave, anywhere from three to five hours later, you get dressed, clear out your locker, and return to the front desk. There is no check to pay; instead, simply tell the host what you ate and drank. An average night with steak and door charge is less than $50. Rubdowns are an extra thirty bucks.
Naturally, part of the schvitz's appeal resides in its clandestine nature. The only way to discover it is by accompanying regulars, who arrive six days a week, with nary a need for reservations. But don't assume all regulars want your company. In fact, many discouraged the very writing of this article.
"Aww, man. You really think they want to get written about?" groaned Paulius Nasvytis, owner of the Velvet Tango Room. "That place really is the ultimate in underground." True enough, yet somehow ironic coming from a man who cultivated an air of mystery for years at his upscale cocktail lounge, all the while plastering his wall with press clippings. (Today, of course, Nasvytis gladly offers up the address and phone to anybody who'll listen.)
After all, there is a downside to such secrecy. Though times are seemingly flush right now for the schvitz, that prosperity is surely not a given. Past droughts have given rise to — God forbid — ladies' nights and other equally misguided promotions. And there were numerous times when business was so slow that the landmark's future seemed anything but certain.
"The schvitz is a great place to let it all hang out — literally," jokes Evan Cooper, an east sider who has been hitting the schvitz for years. "But it is definitely not for everybody. It is not in a great neighborhood, and some people are probably creeped-out by the idea of eating dinner in nothing but a towel."
At fifty bucks a pop, not including B.Y.O.B. supplies, it's not a cheap night either. Which is why present-day devotees' appeals for secrecy seem shortsighted.
We should be doing everything we can to ensure that the venerable schvitz survives another 85 years. Discretion is one thing. Selfishness is another.