These are heady days for Cleveland's dining scene.
Food-obsessed television shows are trampling a trail to our restaurants. Our farmer's markets and urban farms are yielding bumper crops of national cred. The venerable West Side Market, leading up to its momentous centennial, has become one of the state's top attractions of any kind. And of course, Michael Symon — our own Iron Chef and winner of a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef — keeps popping up like a Jack-in-the-box: shaved pate, weird laugh, and all.
In the nearly ten years that I've covered this beat, I've watched the definition of "great restaurant" bounce around like a frenetic lottery ball. Time was, you had to serve caviar on Limoges china to be considered exceptional.
Today, the biggest buzz seems reserved for grassroots successes and ethnic eccentricities. Great food, we have learned, can come from the side of a truck, the back of a bar, and the depths of a cafeteria steam table. And yes, it can still come from the well-equipped kitchens of our finest five-star chefs.
So the time seems right to take a look at how we got here. After all, all this glory didn't just happen overnight. It grew slowly over decades — a delicious patina of timing, talent, toil, and good fortune. Out of all this gustatory evolution, what are the restaurants — new and old — that best represent Cleveland's dining DNA?
What follows are the 25 most important restaurants in Northeast Ohio, a mirror reflecting who we are right now as a city of eaters. Make that: a city of happy, fortunate, and well-fed eaters.
"I really believe we have lasted because we always have had great love for what we do, and we understand that consistency is really important," says Karen Small, chef-owner of 11-year-old Flying Fig. For a chef who sources almost all of her ingredients from local farms, consistency is no small feat. Long before it was trendy, Small made "local, seasonal, and sustainable" her personal mantra. By doing so, she educated the palates of not only Cleveland diners, but also the next generation of Cleveland chefs. Considered one of the founding mothers of our farm-to-table movement, Small deserves much of the credit for our high-profile dining scene. Located on Market Avenue, one of the city's most charming lanes, the Fig is the great neighborhood bistro anchoring the great neighborhood of Ohio City.
2523 Market Ave., 216-241-4243,
There was a time when the epicenter of Northeast Ohio was Cleveland Heights — and more specifically, Coventry Road. And the epicenter of Coventry Road? Well, that would have been — as it is today — Tommy's. "There is this current trend to create these new suburban lifestyle centers," owner Tom Fello explains. "Well, Coventry Village is the original grassroots lifestyle center. The reason we call it a 'village' is because, in the truest sense of the word, it is." For four decades, this peace-loving café has been nourishing Cleveland's craziest cats, whose names are immortalized on the menu as popular sandwiches. Though this former sprout bar has a reputation as a laid-back hippie hang, the truth is that it's a well-oiled machine. It has to be, considering the near-constant flow of foot and mouth traffic here. And while many erroneously believe that Tommy's is a vegetarian restaurant, the delicious truth is this place takes care of herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores alike.
1824 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-7757, tommyscoventry.com
Losing a celebrity chef like Jonathon Sawyer can decimate a restaurant, a personality-driven business if ever there was one. But despite losing its top toque to his own ambitions, Bar Cento has continued to thrive just as it has since day one. Much of that continued success can be attributed to the near-seamless transition from Sawyer to Mike Nowak, who was second-in-command from the start. Possessing the same earnest passion for local, sustainable, organic product — and pork, glorious pork — Chef Nowak continues to earn a following. Rather than coast on the coattails of his predecessor, he adds and drops menu items with the confidence of a seasoned pro. Prices remain value-driven, and the informal yet polished atmosphere makes this wine bar one of the best reasons to visit Ohio City. "We believe in the 'rising tide lifts all boats' theory, with the aim of continuing to grow the Ohio City district," says owner Sam McNulty.