For some folks, summer's the time for Mickey-filled family vacations, grueling multi-state bike trips, or freewheeling hops aboard the music festival circuit. Not us; we prefer to summer right here in Cleveland, where the climate finally suits our clothes, and our gardens, dogs and chickens keep us pleasantly engaged.
That's not to say that we don't dig the occasional weekender, when we can explore the food and fun of a nearby city and still be back for Sunday supper. One of our favorite one-tank trips is Columbus, a city that appears to be updating itself faster than Java software.
For eons, Columbus has been trying to outgrow its bland reputation as "Test Market City, U.S.A," where white-bread Americans gobble up the latest fast-food creations on their way to church. In truth, Columbus is a rapidly growing city filled with young culture-minded professionals eager to spend their dough at the newest bars, bistros and boutique specialty foods shops. Every time I visit, I'm blown away by the delicious progress.
Friday, 4 pm
Summer on the half shell
Before checking into your hotel, roll straight into the Short North District. What not too long ago was a very artsy but very brief stretch of blocks just north of downtown has crept clear up High Street almost to the OSU border. It's loaded with bars, bistros, art galleries and funky retail shops.
We were seduced by a marquee-style sign with 1,000 pin lights that combined to form the name "The Pearl," followed by the words "oyster room." The impulse to devour fresh-shucked oysters and crisp, cold Chablis was too strong to overcome. Opened in February of this year, the Pearl (641 North High St., 614-227-0151) is the first new restaurant concept in five years from mega-operator Cameron Mitchell. But this is no chain: With a sharp vintage-meets-modern design, heart-of-it-all location, and chef-driven fare, this Pearl is one of a kind. We stuck to oysters, shucked at the sleek subway-tiled oyster bar, and wines by the glass.
Meats, cheeses, gimlets
Pop into Mouton (954 North High St., 614-732-4660), a petite cocktail lounge with razor-sharp styling, for a few nibbles of charcuterie, artisan cheeses and great local bread. Pair those snacks with an expertly crafted classic cocktail like a Gimlet or Negroni, or select from the brief but brilliant wine list.
A few short blocks away is Middle West Spirits (1230 Courtland Ave., 614-299-2460), located on an alley just east of the main drag. One of the first Ohio-based micro-distilleries, Middle West whips up award-winning spirits like OYO (o-WHY-o) vodka, made from local soft red winter wheat, plus whiskey and bourbon. Every Friday and first Saturday of the month this attractive urban distillery opens its doors to the public for fun and informative tours and tastings. Tours last 90 minutes and reservations are required.
To hear Magdiale Wolmark speak about food is to get to the very roots of the farm-to-table movement. For a decade, Wolmark ran a popular vegetarian restaurant in this breezy storefront on the edges of Victorian Village. Now, at Till (247 King Ave., 614-298-9986), he applies the same principles of sustainability to the meat, poultry and seafood he serves. He personally drives hundreds of miles to source his biodynamic beef, which is ground into delicious, guilt-free burgers. Pole beans, pulled minutes before service from the restaurant's urban garden, are sautéed and served with a light mustard sauce. House-smoked trout is molded into a cake, seared up crisp, and topped with a runny egg. There still are plenty of vegetarian and vegan dishes for the neighborhood crowd that has grown dependent upon it.
Saturday, 9:30 am
To market, to market
Columbus' North Market (59 Spruce St., 614-463-9664) is nothing like Cleveland's West Side Market – and that's a wonderful thing. This 140-year-old public market (in its current home since 1995) is filled to its wide-open rafters with choice vendors and small businesses, each offering something unique. This is where Jeni Britton-Bauer launched her professional ice-cream career, and you'll still find a Jeni's scoop shop inside. Grab a cup of locally roasted java from Touch of Earth, a Bavarian pretzel from Brzel, and just explore the scene. For a hotel room snack before dinner, pick up some fine cheeses from Curds & Whey and amazing European-style bread from Omega Artisan Baking. Then walk over to the Barrel & Bottle and ask the good folks what wine or beer to pair with it. Every Saturday through fall, a farmers market pops up just outside the main building.
Meet me in German Village
Summer is prime time to stroll the cobbled lanes of German Village, located just south of downtown. That's when the postage stamp-sized front and side gardens of these immaculate brick homes explode with color and life. Park your car and wander down picturesque streets like City Park and Mohawk. Pop into Pistacia Vera (541 South Third St., 614-220-9070) and tell them it's your first time and you'll be rewarded with a free macaron. This picture-perfect dessert bistro offers a full spread of delicate French pastries and classic European desserts. Grab an iced coffee on your way out.