Among the uninitiated, conversations about Cleveland can be grim: The city was rocked by recession. Some magazine article said there was a lot of crime. They unfairly inducted Led Zeppelin into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, but not Gin Blossoms. It goes on. But, thanks, in part, to a massive revitalization effort and the stalwart, stubbornly prideful folks who call it home, it's also rebounding in an astounding way. Cleveland is now a destination food city... and nobody seems to know.
In order to remedy this, Thrillist recently rampaged through the city for 36 gluttonous hours. We walked the streets at all hours, hosted by local luminaries, restaurateurs, goodwill ambassadors, brewers, movers, shakers, and people who just kind of move normally. We hugged strangers. We hit dive bars, markets, community gardens, beer gardens, and a ton of restaurants... some that helped define the city's culinary landscape, and some that are redefining it. Then we slept for a week. This is what we found... and best of all: it's just the tip of the iceberg.
In the heart of Ohio City -- a stretch of Cleveland in the middle of a food and drink resurgence many compare to a less-hipster-y version of Brooklyn's Williamsburg -- sits Bar Cento, a classy, dimly lit restaurant run by the unofficial ambassador of Ohio City, Sam "Don't Call Me Jimmy" McNulty. Bar Cento's open kitchen pops out incredible housemade charcuterie, plus upscale Italian fare, including an array of pizzas like the egg/bacon Sunnyside. But Bar Cento's more than a restaurant, serving as an entryway into the rowdy Bier Markt and its endless taps, plus a hidden speakeasy underneath that's shelling out craft cocktails.
The Greenhouse Tavern
Chef Jonathon Sawyer has cooked all over the country/TV, and, when he decided to go back to his hometown, he also made it a point to help change the culinary landscape. GT's a tails-to-trotters kinda place, where you can get a fully cooked pig head plopped on your table to go along with tendon soups and tartare. The less adventurous can still find bliss in a giant "Flintstone" short rib and one of the best burgers in town. It's upscale, adventurous food done in the least pretentious way possible by a chef who treats his restaurant like a living room, right down to the massive VHS collection on display (sadly for that copy of Point Break
, there is no meatball sandwich on the menu).
Momocho Mod Mex
Mexican food can be severely underrepresented in the Midwest, but Momocho -- under the carving knife of James Beard-nominated chef Eric Williams -- is not having any of that. His menu features both classic and off-kilter takes: guacamole comes traditional or loaded with fancy stuff like smoked salmon or white chocolate, taquitos pack carnitas and duck confit, and entrees range from pecan-crusted trout to tamales stuffed with lamb. The nine different margaritas also don't hurt.
Crop Bistro & Bar
Back in 1925, the only liquids you'd find in Crop were assets, considering the place used to be a bank
, rather than a monolithic restaurant with 17,000ft of floorspace, most of which is usually packed with people flocking to one of the city's most-acclaimed restaurants. But despite all the grandeur -- marble columns, restored murals, etc. -- the menu remains moderately priced, especially considering the open kitchen's popping out huge slabs of rib eye, smoked/roasted chicken & waffles, and colossal veal chops. Meanwhile, you can also book a party in the old-school vault, which still sports its gigantic iron door, now used to prevent Rick from stealing your food.
Like a Midwestern cousin to New York's Katz's Deli
, Slyman's is the kind of place where you'll find tourists and locals lined up on any given day, with the shared goal of getting one of Cleveland's biggest and most beloved sandwiches. Just as New Yorkers crave the pastrami of the city's venerable delis, so to do Clevelanders crave the corned beef at the 50-year-old Slyman's, piled about half-a-foot high on rye with no accoutrements to distract from that homemade flavor. Roast beef and pastrami get the same treatment, but really, if you're not getting the corned beef, you're doing it wrong.
Seti's Polish Boys
While Cleveland has a huge Polish population, the Polish Boy isn't just the unofficial food of the Sixth City; it's one of the most iconic American foods
out there, a glorious mess of a mutant hot dog that packs a bun with a kielbasa, coleslaw, and fries, then dumps hot sauce all over the thing. It's become the stuff of Midwestern legend, and you can score this jaw-stretching monster all over the city. The Eastside's Seti's makes, perhaps, the city's best... and in case all that other stuff loaded into a bun isn't ridiculous, this infamous truck will also pack that sucker with chili and cheese.
Spice Kitchen & Bar
Clevelanders are fiercely loyal about keeping things as local as they can, and Spice's commitment runs so deep that its entire menu consists of entrees made from ingredients sourced from local farms and grown in its own gardens. That means the menu and the cocktail offerings are constantly changing, depending on what's available. And while most restaurants might use that philosophy to get a little pretentious, Spice keeps it grounded, offering up brat burgers and steaks alongside a selection of entrees that's never the same as the week before.
Every city worth its salt (or chili) has a legendary 24-hour diner that helps define it, and most cities would be lucky if their diners were half as amazing as the Detroit-Shoreway 'hood's Steve's Lunch, a 60-year institution that has seldom closed its doors since it opened them. With less than a dozen seats in the place (and tabletop jukeboxes for nostalgia), the joint's specialty is its amazing, skinless beef franks piled with dry chili (kind of like Detroit Coney-style), or its take on the classic Polish Boy.
Sokolowski's University Inn
In a city whose citizens' last names have more "skis" than the whole of Aspen, you'd better believe that Polish food isn't limited to Polish Boys. For nearly a century, Sokolowski's has been an institution, dominating the trendy Tremont neighborhood well before "trendy" was a commonly used adjective, and serving up fresh kielbasa, handmade pierogies, and paprika chicken alongside decidedly not-Eastern Euro fare like crab cakes.
You've gotta love it when a badass chef sticks with his roots, and B Spot is a prime example: Clevelander Michael Symon -- a Beard-winner, Food Network mainstay, and generally swell guy -- has contributed endlessly to the revitalization of Cleveland's food scene with restaurants like Lola and Lolita, but his accolades and upscale endeavors aside, dude also loves burgers, and that's what B Spot makes. Get 'em topped with pulled pork, eggs, bologna, or pastrami... but no matter what meats, be sure to pair it up with a beer from the encyclopedic, locally focused menu. Or three.
Melt Bar & Grilled
Everybody loves grilled cheese. But most people aren't willing to pledge their love of bread and melted cheddar by branding their body with its image... except in Cleveland. Maybe it's the addictive nature of one of the best sandwich shops in the nation
, or the aftermath of partaking in the gigantic beer selection, but there are hundreds of people in the Cleve with Melt-inspired tattoos, which get them discounts at the ridiculously amazing joint that serves up dozens of hulking variations of the classic sandwich packed with everything from pulled pork to steak, pierogies, fish, and lasagna.
West Side Market
The indoor/outdoor market -- which looks like a cross between a train station and a Gotham City villain's hideout -- has, since 1840, served as an essential one-stop shopping place for chefs and home cooks, with dozens upon dozens of butchers, bakers, and produce-suppliers hawking their wares. It's also a place where you can graze some of Cleveland's best street-foods, from sausages to gyros, pretzels, pierogies, and more. It's one of the best markets in the country (it even has its own diner on-site), and the source of pretty much all that is delicious in the city.
The Duck Island Club
At 1am on a Saturday, Thrillist wandered into Duck Island after a long night of bar crawling. Our editor was greeted by a gigantic glass of Wild Turkey before bearing witness to two older women playing conga drums while a DJ spun "The Humpty Dance". The tiny, neighborhood dive was packed to the gills. Within 15 minutes, 2/3 of the barflies had introduced themselves, many via hugs and back-slaps, and others through encouragement to rip a bongo solo to "Poison". We declined. But two Wild Turkey tumblers later, our editor declared the bar one of the best, friendliest dives he'd ever been in. When the Turkey wore off, the label remained. Duck Island's that awesome.
The Midwest takes its hot dogs very, very seriously, so it only makes sense that this North Coast legend contracted a James Beard semifinalist to design its crazy-ass menu, which rocks 1/4lb dogs topped with everything from mac & cheese to Andy Capp's Hot Fries, daikon, SpaghettiOs
, Froot Loops, and nacho cheese. Any trepidation about eating breakfast cereal on a frankfurter will quickly go out the window, especially if you're there during "polka happy hours".
The Tremont Tap House
In the near future, this two-story converted house will make its mark among Cleveland's breweries, but, until then, it will remain an oasis for craft-beer junkies with its 20+ taps, paired up with one of the best brunches in the city. The outdoor patio is a key destination for drinkers in need of some Vitamin D, while the friendly and knowledgeable bartenders relish the challenge of greeting tourists and bleary-eyed locals alike with the perfect food pairing to set them on the right track to recovery.
Velvet Tango Room
The Velvet Tango Room gets its speakeasy vibe from, well, being located in an actual former speakeasy (the bullet holes in the ceiling remain to this day), but you're not going to be drinking some nasty bathtub-gin martini in this place. Located in an inconspicuous old house -- complete with backyard garden -- VTR is committed to classic and modern cocktails, crafted with loving attention and served up on their own or as part of sampler flights. Also, the owner wears an ascot and kind of looks like The Most Interesting Man in the World. Men in ascots take their cocktails very, very seriously.
The Rowley is a drinking man's bar... and in a town where most bars make other cities' watering holes seem as dry as a Mormon wedding, that's saying something. The dive is located right by the Christmas Story
house and is the kind of place where Ralphie's dad would fit in, drinking cheap beers and impossibly low-priced shots, playing the old-school bowling machine, or simply muttering to himself while perched on the stool... an activity preferred by the leathery regulars who have called it home for decades. Oh, and they're open at 5:30am every day to accommodate third-shifters, or people who refuse to call it a night even though it's technically dawn.
Cleveland's obsession with the speakeasy aesthetic permeates bars across the city, but this East Fourth basement club ratchets up the old-school vibe by emulating the more sophisticated drinking side of the seedy era. As such, the cocktails -- often served to a live soundtrack by local crooners and jazz heads -- include lovingly crafted classics and originals, like the egg white-infused Julius Gin Fizz (kind of a boozy version of the mall classic), the cider & bourbon Bad One of the Bunch, and a Hamhattan made with pork belly-spiked bourbon.
Located in the Stockyards area (which, as stockyard-type areas are wont to do, can be a little intimidating to tourists), the main floor of this ballroom isn't the only thing that's big. Beers come in liters (for $6), wings come by the pound, and every Tuesday the owner/chef -- who is affectionately known as Grumpy -- cooks up $1 tacos... which wouldn't be a big deal if they weren't scratch-made and didn't include fillings that range from Korean BBQ to bear. Outside, there's a humongous beer garden, and, of course, there's live music, which is essential in keeping you awake after four liters of beer, 3lbs of wings, and 20 tacos.
Prosperity Social Club
If the Rowley represents old-school Tremont, then Prosperity is indicative of the new wave of the neighborhood's revitalization. Which is to say, this is a hipster oasis, and a damn fine one. That means a seasonally rotating selection of local and regional craft beers, $2 tallboys, live music, and craft cocktails, including a huge variety of martinis. Located in a 1938 ballroom, the place kind of looks like a house. You know you're in the right place when you see the bikes parked outside.
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Great Lakes is the stuff of microbrew lore: What started out as a tiny, experimental brewery in a land dominated by macrobrews became, unto itself, an empire that lords over a huge swath of Ohio City. Set up in the former Schlather Brewing Company (established in 1879) -- plus six other buildings -- GLBC shells out some of the Midwest's best beers, including the celebrated Christmas Ale and Eliot Ness, named for the Prohibition cop who spent his days at the pub that's now a speakeasy-style GLBC hideout.
Indigo Imp Brewery
There are microbreweries, and then there's Indigo Imp, a tiny spot where finding the tasting room is half the fun. The hidden gem is located in an unmarked room in a gigantic, antiquated warehouse, with extremely limited hours. But get in there, and you'll taste some of the most unique small-batch brews around: unpasteurized beers made using open fermentation, which basically means they're brewed in gigantic vats with no covering except the gigantic blanket of yeasty foam that bubbles to the top. Try the Bombshell Blonde. She's a looker.
Fat Head's Brewery
Fat Head's -- which is in the process of expanding nationally with a spot in Pittsburgh and an upcoming pub in beer-nirvana Portland, OR -- understands the balance between big beers and big food. That's why it pairs its 25+ award-dominating beers -- among them the Great American Beer Fest gold medalist Hop JuJu Imperial IPA and World Beer Cup silver winner Head Hunter IPA-- with drinking food that will make more than your head fat.
Located in Cleveland Heights, the relatively new BottleHouse packs a funhouse's worth of laid-back bar activities -- trivia, pinball, board games, and open mic nights -- into a super-chill spot pouring nano-brewed beers by dudes who kind of just said "screw it" and started brewing their own beer. In addition to its choice Dumb Luck Irish Lager and Bad Ass Rye, the place is also at the forefront of the booming mead movement, pouring the honey-distillate from various mead makers -- beware the cherry chipotle -- plus their own experimental Viking grog, brewed up in the tiny space adjoining the bar.
From the dudes behind Bar Cento, Nano Brew is a chill Ohio City haunt where locals dominate giant Jenga and 24 taps pour regional favorites all night, both in the cavernous bar and the huge beer garden. But a steady stream of Bell's Two Hearted does not a nano-brewery make... luckily, Nano Brew derives its name from its experimental, one-barrel brewing operation, where brewmaster Andy Tveekrem plays Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, shelling out pub-exclusive beers that could (or could not) become mainstays at the pub's sister bars. Regardless of the night, you'll be able to grab a pint of something you can't score anywhere else in the world. Be warned: it'll make you suck at Jenga.
A short drive down the road in Akron, Thirsty Dog Brewing Co. is biting at the heels of Great Lakes, transforming an industrial area populated by a seedy strip club, its own facilities, and, well... that's about it... into an empire. With World Beer Cup and Great American Beer Fest accolades under its belt, it's launching a sneak attack on Midwest drinkers via its 20+ offerings, which range from the flagship Old Leghumper porter to a vast array of barrel-aged one-offs that keep beer snobs on their toes, based on individual batches. The tasting room, meanwhile, is smack-dab in the middle of the warehouse brewery... meaning trips to the bathroom can be interrupted by a forklift.
Hoppin' Frog Brewery
The tiny Akron brewery has been ranked among the top 20 breweries in the world
, which makes it more than worth the trek to the inconspicuous brewery just to get a taste of the legendary B.O.R.I.S. The Crusher Oatmeal Russian Imperial Stout. But Hoppin' Frog upped its profile by going HAM on the tasting room menu, too, transforming a convection kitchen into the source of amazing steaks, tacos, and more. That the place looks like it's housed in a storage unit near the birthplace of the Goodyear Blimp only makes it more alluring.