Staying bright as the spotlight dims
Chefs who work in the long-ignored cities across the Great Lakes Region all say they appreciate the newfound attention and would never dare to look that gift horse in the mouth, though they recognize that sometimes things change when the spotlight shifts elsewhere.
"Exposure is wonderful and we want our story to be told," says Rigato.
The limelight often translates to unexpected culinary tourism, which is great for restaurants that have become mainstays in "next big thing" articles. But for those who do plan to schedule a visit, chefs like Sawyer would encourage you to book an extra day, hit some of the less-obvious spots, and get a better lay of the land. There are way too many great spots -- new and old -- to cram into a round-up or listicle.
"When people write about our city, I want them to write about some of the more interesting cultural places that people who live here go to all the time," says Sawyer. "You always read about Symon, you always read about that dickhead Sawyer, and a few other names. It's not that I'm against that storyline, it's that I feel there's a much more authentic part of Cleveland that sort of gets missed in all the stories."
But locals need to do their parts, too, say chefs. For the cities of the Rust Belt to continue to evolve into mature, serious restaurant markets -- to advance, say, from fourth-tier to third or second -- diners need to seek out quality over novelty. By cultivating an appreciation for those restaurants that honor traditional foodways, quality local ingredients, creativity, and a commitment to improve, shoppers can help steer the ship away from the rocks.
No city is immune to restaurant closures. Last year, Eater reported 75 shutterings in Portland, Oregon, a prime example of a city that transitioned from downtrodden industrial town to hot food city at a rapid clip that saw openings outpace demand. But the hope is that quality will win out, that cream always rises to the top, that new never beats well-seasoned. When that happens, those successful restaurants can continue to employ residents while helping the neighborhoods and cities and family farms around them survive, thrive, and attract attention (for the right reasons) for decades to come.
Buffalo chef Gedra, for one, is thrilled about the prospects.
"Check back in 10 years," he says. "We are still in the infantile stages of this thing. It's exciting, but the real work is just getting started."
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