Key to the City

Where to Go Out in the Flats, Cleveland's Newest/Oldest Riverfront Spot

The Flats is on the rise: That’s the Cleveland line today. Once considered a lost cause, the district now boasts luxury apartments, summer concerts, and patio drinking with Instagram-ready waterfront views. In the summer months, twentysomethings with disposable income Uber down to see their favorite bands, or hit the various meet markets lining the river. It’s a particular type of urban renewal: loud, flashy, largely booze-driven.
 
It's one of many Cleveland “neighborhoods” -- the term is used loosely here -- experiencing a resurrection, of sorts. Cool in the '70s, cool again now. This is taken as a sign of the city’s general standing: If the Flats is back, then Cleveland is back, baby.

The Flats hasn't always been a nightlife destination, but it's been part of Cleveland’s story from the get-go. In 1796, Moses Cleaveland and his band of westbound settlers arrived at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River on Lake Erie. It was the perfect place to put a town.
 
Except it wasn’t. Things got downright swampy in the summer, when mosquitoes brought malaria and other diseases. The Western Reservers headed to higher ground, to the site of Downtown today. Only the stubborn Lorenzo Carter stayed behind, and his cabin -- well, an East Bank replica of it -- continues to bore Cleveland school children on field trips to this day.
 
At some point, someone bestowed the shallow valley with its perfectly Cleveland name. For the Slavic immigrants who worked there, and for their children and their children’s children who partied there, it would come out in the compensatory, nasally way of the Inland North: the Flaayuts.

Your parents partied here. Maybe their parents did, too. When you go out in the Flats, you are going out with history.

The Flats never would've been developed without the Erie Canal, which connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean and turned Cleveland into an industrial powerhouse. The area was deemed perfect for the warehouses, furnaces, and oil refineries that accompanied the boom. Industry became our industry. Of course, we all know what that led to: several industrial river fires in the 20th century, including the 1969 one that landed the city a Time exposé and kicked off Cleveland’s reputation as the butt of America's jokes.

Yet the fire was only the exclamation point on the long sentence of the area’s decline. Most warehouses were already closed by ‘69. The bars were actual dives, the “maybe get knifed there” kind. But it turns out former industrial spaces with riverfront views make for pretty cool music venues. Bands like Devo and Pere Ubu played the Flats in venues like Pirate’s Cove (now closed).

But like punk itself, the Flats were co-opted and mainstreamed. Big-name developers like Jacobs and Wolstein moved on the area, and in the '80s, bars went up like wildflowers -- spots with giggly names like Coconut Club and D’Poos. By the '90s, it had the highest concentration of bars in the Midwest. It was a point of civic pride: Cleveland’s very own Bourbon Street.
 
What made the Flats fun was also what made it dangerous. The beer was a little too cheap -- we’re talking 99-cent beer nights. There were virtually no residences or restaurants. Things got a little fratty. Underage drinking became rampant. Worst of all, there were no railings to protect revelers from the water, and no safety ladders to get them up if they fell in. Three people died in 2000, and the city finally cracked down. Bars were slapped with health code violations and shuttered. By the end of the 2000s, the Flats had the vibe of “a Scooby-Doo ghost town.”

The Flats District
The Flats District | Erik Drost/Flickr

Then the 2010s came around, and Believeland optimism started taking hold in the city. Developers set their sights on the literal rubble of the East Bank. Could they make like a variety station and bring back the best of the '80s, '90s, and today?
 
Maybe. The shiny new Flats East Bank now offers a slate of on-trend bars, restaurants, and luxury condos. Plans for a movie theater and more affordable, millennial-friendly apartments are in the works in an effort to make the place feel more like a neighborhood. But the real questions facing the Flats -- will people stay after that 15-year tax abatement? Can we make them less segregated? -- have yet to be answered.

Still, there’s a strange thing about the area that’s unique among Cleveland’s districts: Your parents partied here. Maybe their parents did, too. When you go out in the Flats, you are going out with history. Like the city that surrounds it, it's long been a place of cohabitating opposites: blue collar and white collar, industry and nature, fire and water. But there’s one thing that’s been true for over a hundred years: Whether you’re a stevedore, a factory worker, or an investment banker, you can always find a drink there. And for a Clevelander, maybe that counts more than anything else.

Here are our favorite places to have a drink, grab a bite, or catch a show in the Flats:

Harbor Inn
Courtesy of Harbor Inn

Harbor Inn

1219 Main Ave
The diviest of dive bars, but you can still get a good IPA

We’ve said before that Harbor Inn, Cleveland’s oldest continuously operating bar, is one of the best dive bars in the country. It began its life in 1895 as a watering hole for stevedores and industrial workers. Vlado “Wally” Pisorn, a man dubbed King of the Flats, bought it in the '60s and, over 40 years of ownership, established its reputation as a nationally known watering hole with grit and cred. Depending on the crowd that’s in -- could be decades-long regulars, union guys, yuppies slumming it, thrifty hipsters -- you might get a “record scratch” moment as you enter. Don’t let it scare you. Order from the surprisingly diverse beer selection, play some darts, and, if the mood’s right, ask to see one of the 90-year-old liquor bottles on the shelf.

Flat Iron Cafe

1114 Center Street
A truly old-school Irish pub that doesn’t try to convince you it was shipped wholesale from County Cork

Named (possibly) for the industry of the area, or maybe because it kinda sorta resembles the strangely shaped building in New York, the Flat Iron Cafe is another old, old Flats establishment. Founded as a hotel and cafeteria for dockworkers, the Flat Iron became a favorite gathering place for the Irish. Famed Cleveland mobster Danny Greene is said to have frequented the place. It’s also supposedly haunted by a ghost who leaves change -- but only dimes -- for patrons to find. Mostly, it’s an unpretentious, welcoming establishment where you can drink off the stresses of a Browns game one day and take your niece or nephew to lunch the next.

Collision Bend Brewing Company

1250 Old River Road
Excellent food and reliably good beer with an unbeatable river view

Named for a particularly difficult turn in the river to navigate, there’s nothing treacherous about the beer and food offerings at Collision Bend. For the first brewpub in his local food empire, favored CLE restaurateur Zack Bruell partnered with brewer Luke Purcell. Like many local brewers, Purcell spent time at Great Lakes Brewing Company -- almost two decades, in fact -- before going his own way. He brings Great Lakes’ signature approachability to Collision Bend’s beers, which may have helped them win Best Brewpub in America from USA Today last year. Wonderfully high windows, a fun SoCal-inspired menu, and one of the best river porches in the city make Collision Bend an essential destination of Cleveland summer.

Punch Bowl Social Cleveland
Punch Bowl Social | Amber Boutwell

Punch Bowl Social

1086 West 11th St.
A playground for adults, but with better drinks

Much of the newly developed East Bank is a little gaudy: cringeworthy chains like Margaritaville, try-hard concepts like Lindey’s Lake House, too-trendy ideas like Backyard Bocce. We’ve got to hand it to Punch Bowl, though: these guys really go for broke. It’s 27,000 square feet where the joy of acting like a kid meets the joy of alcohol. Bowling, mini-golf -- sorry, “Putt Club experience” -- pinball, foosball. If you loved it in middle school, it’s here. Tack on a great rooftop view and food that’s better than it has to be and you’re looking at a fun place to spend a few hours before it gets too packed.

Merwin’s Wharf

1785 Merwin Avenue
Metroparks-owned eatery with a view of some green space

Named for an early Cleveland settler (not, unfortunately, for a wizard), Merwin’s Wharf is the most prominent of all the Cleveland Metroparks-run eateries. Located in the tiny Hart Crane Memorial Park, Merwin’s is a great place to take in the greenery and post-industrial remnants of the Flats. As a classy-casual, family-oriented place, it’s something of a relief from the relentless party nature of the area. Go for the mac & cheese, it’s killer.

Hoopples

1930 Columbus Road
A friendlier, more welcoming take on old-school cool

If you love the idea of Harbor Inn but feel like you’re interrupting the regulars every time you walk in, Hoopples might be a happy medium for you. Open as a building since the late 19th century, Hoopples took over a shady riverfront bar in the '80s. They added windows with a great bridge view, some solid bar food. Along the way, it became such a staple for those in the know that it’s built its own take on the Cleveland signs. Now, young professionals rub elbows with old timers without feeling like tourists. After all, we’re all here to watch the Indians. Or watch the Columbus Road bridge -- free dupa shots (don’t ask) when it goes up!

Alley Cat Oyster Bar

1056 Old River Road
Coastal-quality seafood on the riverfront from the Bruell School

Kick a can in the Flats and it’ll knock against a bar; dining destinations aren’t as easy to come by. Already in the not-quite-four years of the East Bank redevelopment, some seemingly surefire restaurants have come and go. Alley Cat, fortunately, is still holding it down, remaining Cleveland’s best seafood spot that won’t cost you an arm and a leg. Well, maybe just a finger or two -- East Bank prices aren’t cheap. But it’s worth it, as this Bruell establishment brings seafood staples like oysters (duh) and the tastiest lobster roll you’ll find outside Maine.

cleveland aquarium
Courtesy of Cleveland Aquarium

Cleveland Aquarium

200 Sycamore Street
Sharks, stingrays, and monthly booze tastings

One of the early drawbacks of the aquarium when it opened in 2013 was price-vs-value. Twenty dollars felt a little steep given the aquarium’s smallish size. But they’ve been in the midst of an expansion process due to be completed this year, and the walk-through tunnel is undeniably cool. Plus, they’ve embraced some fun events, like Talk Like a Pirate Day and the monthly booze tastings (cleverly titled Adult Swims).

Music Box Supper Club

1148 Main Avenue
A classy venue for national and local acts on the West Bank

The Music Box took a gamble opening when it did: fall in the Flats is never a safe bet, particularly the year before major East Bank redevelopment began. But since 2014, Music Box has become a quietly indispensable part of Cleveland’s grown-up music scene. Artists the caliber of Billy Bragg, Rufus Wainwright, and the Indigo Girls have graced the venue’s two stages, but there’s ample opportunity for local artists to play as well. In particular, the downstairs Supper Club offers a wonderfully intimate venue for performances. The food is definitely a cut above the average music venue fare as well.

Shooters on the Water

1148 Main Avenue
Flats staple as big and ostentatious as an '80s perm

You have to admire the sheer ostentatiousness of Shooters. The decor of choice seems to be a 1980s take on an 1890s saloon. There are two massive bars, dozens of vintage guns on the wall, fans moving like rowboat oars, and a glowing, Tree of Gondor-looking thing in one corner. Why not? It survived the dark years of the Flats for a reason, and that reason is most likely its enormous patio. Head out there, loosen another shirt button, enjoy a little yacht rock. Your parents would be proud. Hell, you’ll probably see them there.

The Odeon Concert Club

1295 Old River Road
Preserved venue from Cleveland’s rocking history

Once an essential venue in Cleveland’s vibrant concert scene, the Odeon lost popularity as venues like the House of Blues started popping up. It faded in relevance as the old Flats did, closing its doors in 2006. Nine years later, it re-opened in time for the East Bank revival. Though it’s not likely to host the likes of Weezer, Bjork, or Metallica again anytime soon, it’s still comforting that an integral part of the city’s music history has been brought back.

Brick and Barrel Brewing

844 Columbus Road
C-Town brewery that’s earned your attention in a crowded scene

We know your Craft Beer Friend has already told you about 10 breweries that’re like, criminally underrated, but hear us out: Brick and Barrel does not get nearly its due. Billed as “The brewery under the city,” Brick and Barrel sits on a lonely stretch of the Flats just down from Irishtown Bend. It’s best known for the delightfully dry Bitter Chief IPA. Is it a beer trolling Wahoo defenders? Is it supporting them? Is it just a Rorschach test? Other deliciously heavy beers like the Wee Heavy Scotch Ale are fixtures on draught, and the taproom has the fun, open-garage feel that makes breweries like Noble Beast so appealing.

Jacobs Pavilion

2014 Sycamore Street
The destination in the city proper for outdoor concerts

Who says you have to drive all the way down to Blossom to see a great outdoor concert in Cleveland? Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica (formerly the Nautica Pavilion -- we have trouble keeping up with the name changes, too) offers ample seating and one of the best views of Downtown from any venue. This summer, it will play host to Vampire Weekend, Alice Cooper, and Anderson .Paak, among others. By the way, park on the East Bank and walk a bit longer to avoid that post-concert congestion.

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Billy Hallal is a Thrillist contributor. You can read his work here or at FreshWater Cleveland.