Food & Drink

How Food Is Bringing the Rust Belt Out of Its Decades-Long Recession

Published On 05/17/2017
I n the late '90s, the Tremont neighborhood just south of Downtown Cleveland was better known for bodegas and break-ins than bistros. While a handful of fine-dining options existed elsewhere -- largely in the city center and affluent suburbs -- Tremont was still referred to as the "South Side," home to blue-collar dives that opened at first light to serve thirsty third-shifters fresh off the clock at nearby steel mills.
When Chef Michael Symon opened Lola in 1997 at the corner of Literary and Professor in the heart of Tremont, he set in motion a series of events that few at the time could have predicted, impacting not just his city, but an entire region.
Back then, the neighborhood was beginning to show some small signs of life, but it was a far cry from the Roaring '20s, when 35,000 residents packed every square inch of that inner-city community. But in the wake of numerous shuttered factories, the rise of suburbs, and the construction of an interstate that cleaved the neighborhood into fourths, those numbers dwindled to less than 10,000, sending countless properties into disrepair.
In the two decades since Lola -- an upscale bistro focused on progressive Midwestern fare -- opened its doors, Tremont has experienced nothing short of a food-fueled renaissance. While mainstays like the iconic century-old Polish cafeteria Sokolowski's still thrive, new spots from big-name chefs began introducing the neighborhood to a whole new population. Long-abandoned residential properties were purchased and renovated, soon joined by new market-rate apartments and pricey townhouses. Lemko Hall -- the site of the wedding reception scene in the classic film The Deer Hunter -- was converted into condominiums. These days, Tremont is a bustling, high-density community filled with bars, restaurants, coffee shops, and art galleries.
But this narrative didn't stop at the Tremont border; the seismic ripples emanating from the South Side eventually reached other Cleveland neighborhoods, transforming the city over those same two decades from a chef-starved wilderness into a Yelper's wet dream. Those ripples soon made it out of Cleveland, and then beyond Ohio's borders to other Rust Belt cities. And all of it can be traced as accurately as a genealogical register back to a handful of pioneering chefs.
"You start building a little family tree and then the family tree branches out and starts doing their own thing and the next thing you know you have a culinary scene," explains Symon, Cleveland's first recipient of a James Beard Award for Best Chef: Great Lakes. "We opened Roast in Detroit 10 years ago and look what has happened to the dining scene since that time. It's completely different. It's night and day."
Evan Lockhart/Thrillist
"I was cooking in Detroit... the country's consensus was pretty much 'Let it fucking burn.'"
Michael Symon | Cavan Images
Dinette | Jeff Swensen
Courtesy of Greenhouse Tavern
"I do some weird shit... you can't come right out of the gate with a pork-heart schnitzel."
James Rigato | Joe Vaughn
"At a certain point, even if you're consistent, it's just not interesting."
The Greenhouse Tavern | James Douglas Studio
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