"Where do we eat?"
That's a very simple question that often warrants a very complicated answer. Well, that depends on who we're with, what part of town we find ourselves in, how much cash we feel like burning through, and maybe even how hungover we happen to feel. But more often than not, we will end up sitting at a table in one of the following restaurants.
And that's precisely how we approached the compilation of this list. Living in a city blessed with talented chefs and exceptional restaurants, we diners have no shortage of places to spend our dough. But when compelled to choose — as diners are every night they elect to leave the cooking to somebody else — we gravitate to the places that make us feel special, the places that consistently execute on food, service and setting, the places that we never regret choosing. In short, our favorite restaurants.
The Greenhouse Tavern (Downtown)
A whole roasted pig face might sound like a dish designed to shock more than satisfy, but that's where chef Jonathon Sawyer differs from the pack. The genesis of this immensely satisfying — and, yes, shocking — dish was not spectacle, but rather practicality. In a nose-to-tail restaurant like Greenhouse, no part of the animal is wasted. The trick is figuring out how to make your customers hand over their hard-earned cash for the wrong end of a pig. The answer: Make it fucking awesome. When you combine fearlessness with culinary brilliance, you end up with a restaurant that routinely destroys boundaries, births trends and brings everybody along for the gut-pleasing ride.
What we recommend: Foie gras-steamed clams and properly butchered rib steak
Lola Bistro (Downtown)
Every god needs a temple, even the culinary ones. Cleveland is Michael Symon's parish, and when those parishioners want to worship the man who brings heaps of praise onto our city's food scene, they do so here, at Lola, the unofficial shrine to the "Rust Belt Revival." Food tourists book tables here months out, locals grab seats at the bar last minute, high-rollers set up shop at the chef's table near the open kitchen — and all of them leave a little lighter in the wallet, heavier in the belly, and happier for the opportunity to brush with greatness. Whether he's in the house or not, Symon's direction can be felt in every course.
What we recommend: Beef cheek pierogies and grilled calves heart
The Flying Fig (Ohio City)
Long before "farm-to-table" was a trite catchphrase, and the local farmers network still was in its infancy, chef Karen Small endeavored to fill her dinner plates with food from area farms instead of national trucks. It wasn't easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. In so doing, she — along with a small handful of other progressive chefs — helped transform Cleveland from a lackluster Midwestern flyover food town to what it is today: a shining example of how farms, chefs and restaurants can work together to help save the planet while turning out delicious, contemporary fare.
What we recommend: Local beet salad and grass-fed Ohio beef shoulder
Momocho Mod Mex (Ohio City)
Eric Williams didn't invent modern Mexican cuisine, but he certainly introduced a large number of Clevelanders to the concept. His fine form, honed from years spent in top kitchens, provides the chef with the skills and confidence to bend cuisines into something new, exciting and delicious. Sure, considerable exposure has placed Momocho squarely on the see-and-be-seen list of restaurants. But when the crowds thin, and the tourists head back from whence they came, this hip Ohio City tavern always reverts back to its roots as a warm, convivial neighborhood tavern.
What we recommend: Guacamole sampler and smoked trout and crab chilaquiles
Spice Kitchen and Bar (Gordon Square)
Chef-owner Ben Bebenroth was doing just fine with his high-end catering company Spice of Life, hosting day-dreamy Plated Landscape feasts in bucolic settings around Northeast Ohio, when he decided to take a chance on a cursed corner location in Gordon Square. That was more than two years ago, and in that time Spice has grown into a neighborhood fixture, a restaurant that so seamlessly fits with the residents' eco-friendly sensibilities that you wonder how they got along without it all these years. More so than almost any chef in town, Bebenroth takes local, sustainable, and seasonal to heart — and makes abiding by the land a pain-free proposition.
What we recommend: Polenta chickpea fries and rabbit gnocchi
Anatolia Cafe (Cleveland Heights)
Before Yashar Yildirim opened Anatolia Cafe — first at Cedar Center, then later on Lee Road — most of us knew precious little about Turkish cuisine. Now, thanks to this restaurant and the half dozen that followed in its footsteps, we're practically döner pros. Yildirim was a pioneer in more ways than one; his sparkling renovation of 5,000 square feet at the southern end of the Cedar Lee District was by no means a safe bet. But thanks to the satisfying simplicity of Turkish cuisine, with its refreshing dips, flavorful grilled meats and fish, and aromatic stews, Clevelanders became supporters of the man, the restaurant, and the cuisine in general.
What we recommend: Sautéed calf's liver and iskender
Crop Bistro and Bar (Ohio City)
Running a restaurant is hard work, which explains why so many chefs are somber, serious types. But when Steve Schimoler rode into town on his magic bus from never-never land, he instantaneously elevated the mood of the entire local food scene. He approaches his menu as a boy would approach an erector set — but in place of beams, pulleys and motors, the chef employs seasonal veggies, meats and seafood. And the results are no less fun: playful, eye-catching and drop-dead delicious. Schimoler's boundless boyhood spirit proves that true artists don't have to be cheerless bastards.
What we recommend: Crispy pork belly and a big pile of crop pasta
Pier W (Lakewood)
If you, like many people, haven't been to Pier W in a while, you're missing out on a pretty special experience. It's not often that a so-called "special occasion" restaurant manages to succeed as a great neighborhood bistro, too. The contemporary bar and lounge is one of the best places on the West Side to spend happy hour, where delicious small plates and bar snacks merge with creative craft cocktails. For a more graceful meal, plant roots in the tiered dining room, where every seat boasts jaw-dropping views of the water and distant skyline. But unlike most "menus with a view," this place offers both form and function. Executive chef Regan Reik sources some of the freshest fish in town, and treats it with the respect it deserves.
What we recommend: Lobster bisque and Georges Bank diver scallops
The Black Pig (Ohio City)
It's never easy to be the following act for a rising star chef like Jonathon Sawyer, as Mike Nowak was at Bar Cento after Sawyer's departure. But it wasn't long at all before diners forgot all about that "other chef" and simply enjoyed the tremendous food exiting the kitchen. Nowak himself moved on, to this brick-walled bistro down the block, where his ever-growing cadre of fans make frequent sojourns to enjoy French-inspired fare starring heirloom pork in all its pink, piggy glory. While lofty in pedigree and provenance, the fare is easy-going, approachable and otherworldly when it comes to taste
What we recommend: Meat board and pork schnitzel