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For the local dining scene, 2003 was, at best, a year for cautious optimism.

With apologies to Forrest Gump, years are like tossed salads: There's stuff you liked, stuff you didn't, and probably a thing or two you never expected to find inside the bowl. For dedicated diners, 2003 was no different. Here are some of the highlights.

Here and gone

Watching a restaurant fail is always ugly, but this year, no shutdown seemed more portentous than that of the venerable Watermark, "the flagship of the Flats" since 1985. Even showing the door to longtime (and well-paid) executive chef Michelle Gaw wasn't enough to halt the upscale restaurant's financial slide, which was undoubtedly tied to the declining fortunes of the east bank of the Flats as a whole . . . For newcomers, the thumbnail history goes something like this: Historically, with its riverside location, the Flats has been mostly a warm-weather hangout. So during the early '90s, as the usual hipster clientele drifted up the hill to discover the year-round charms of the newly emerging Warehouse District, the east-bank clubs and restaurants were forfeited to a younger, less affluent, and considerably more rowdy crowd of barhoppers, who not only didn't spend much money, but also turned off the people who had some. In other words, the place became uncool. Hell, what more can we say? Even Dick's Last Resort shipped out this year!

Speaking of the Warehouse District, 2003 also saw the demise of the time-honored Greek Isles, but in this case, the mourning's been short-lived. Zdenko Zovkic and his übercool dining room, XO, quickly put their mark on the old spot, and the scene is all the better for it.

Also in short order, in trendy Tremont, the sharp-edged Mojo turned into a beautiful Theory; meanwhile, the veddy veddy chic 806 Wine and Martini Bar bubbled up, practically in Theory's backyard. Tremont's once cool Kosta's closed. But the bustling South Side opened (in the former Hi & Dry), and so did the snazzy little sub and pizza shop, SubStance, as well as Cleveland comfort-food station Halite (in Ohio City's former Traci's) -- helping these near-West Side 'hoods hold onto their titles as the city's fastest-growing dining destinations.

Other notable West Side newbies included Italian-scented Aroma (Avon Lake), contemporary-American Three Birds, and Irish pub Sullivan's (both in Lakewood), along with North Olmsted's sushi palace, Aoeshi. In the debit column, though, we bid adios to that old Mexican standby, Villa y Zapata.

The eastern 'burbs lost Dottie's Diner, but added the quick, casual Tomaydo-Tomahhdo as well as a new flagship Hyde Park Grille, a classy, old-fashioned steakhouse.

On the other hand, the Gateway District was down a ribeye or two with the burnout of Ferris Steakhouse. On the other other hand, the neighborhood more than evened the score with the addition of soul-food giant Phil the Fire and the new, improved music-and-food venue, Wilbert's.

Back on the East Side, Little Italy's Vetturini's was shuttered, only to be quickly replaced by Filomena's, while the arty little panini place Tutto Giorno brought new life to the long-empty Salvatore's. Meanwhile, Indian Karma came to Coventry, along with Decent Pizza. And not too far away, on the Cleveland Clinic campus, a new Classics was born, bringing together a sophisticated setting, suave service, and a stunning menu of impeccable Euro-modern fare.

Soul food and southern cuisine -- not long ago invisible to many (i.e., white) Northeast Ohioans -- continued its march toward ubiquity with the opening of La Donna's Soul Food and American Cuisine on the West Side, Carolina's Southern Cuisine on the East Side, and Gookies downtown. And if the kitchen at Razmataz Café, on Clifton, is more Southern than soulful, at least it produces a mad Louisville hot brown.

Continuing the southern theme (south of Cleveland, that is), Park City Diner brought homey comfort food to Valley View, Hudsonites noodled around at Pad Thai, upscale Jacob Good Downtown (a brother to Canton's successful Peter Shears Downtown) set up shop in Akron, and the pioneer of that city's modern downtown dining scene, the always-interesting Treva, near Canal Park, got traded for yet another Italian restaurant, Bricco.

While this is by no means an all-inclusive list, it's encouraging to see that, in 2003, openings seem to have outpaced closings; even better, some of the new places are already among the best in town. Throw in the dozen or so chain restaurants that have opened in Woodmere and Beachwood in the last few months, and -- despite the shaky local economy and contentious political climate -- the sheer number of new dining rooms is impressive.

Tough to swallow

Of course, not everything has been peaches and cream. Among the more unique disasters, the future home of Boulevard Blue, just off Shaker Square, collapsed in June's heavy rains, and in Hudson, the basement lounge and wine cellar at The Inn at Turner's Mill was inundated not once, but twice during July's rain-induced floods. (Happy endings: Things are long since all dried up at The Inn, and Boulevard Blue, now newly built from the ground up, will be opening soon.)

But even rainproof restaurants have taken a drubbing from the region's weak economy and shrinking population: Simply put, not enough people plus not enough money adds up to hard times all around. Of course, this merely exacerbates an already-existing malady: Local demographics have never favored the development of a world-class dining scene in Cleveland. The area's populace is too small and not wealthy enough to support a vigorous restaurant community on a par with Chicago's, New York's, or San Francisco's.

That's one reason business leaders' recent attempt to resurrect the convention center by hoisting hotel and restaurant taxes seemed so wrongheaded. Obviously, the convention-center proponents were correct in claiming that because hotels are for tourists, a bed-tax increase would be a nonissue for voters. But to argue that the county's restaurants are primarily amenities for out-of-towners couldn't be more disingenuous -- or dangerous. On the contrary, any restaurateur knows that repeat business from a cadre of local "regulars" is the key to survival. To claim that it's tourist dollars that support the scene is illogical, and to drive away locals by hiking their dinner checks would be folly.

Trend-spotting

We'd never be so silly as to suggest that 2003 was The Year of the Burger: In this meat-eater's paradise, every year since 1947 can vie for that title. That said, this has been the year that some very sexy burgers won regular berths on local menus. Of course, Moxie's foie-gras-topped burger is the standard-bearer in this category, but check out the plush Kobe-beef burger at Theory. Nor have bargain-hunting gourmets been priced out of the market: The thick, luscious Danny Melt at Halite, made with prime- and choice-grade beef from a West Side Market vendor, is nearly as indulgent as -- and considerably less expensive than -- its Kobe cousins.

Cheese courses continue to come on strong, too, turning up at restaurants such as One Walnut, Flying Fig, Classics, Halite, and, of course, The Baricelli Inn, where The King of Cheese, Paul Minillo, imports fine artisanal products and ages them to perfection in his affinage cooler.

And finally, in a year that found the world's most honored chef, Alain Ducasse, cranking out macaroni and cheese, it's no wonder that comfort foods (with or without "a twist") continue to dominate local menus. Show me a restaurant that hasn't offered a version of osso buco, braised short ribs, or yes, mac 'n' cheese at some point during 2003, and I'll show you a chef whose toque is pulled over his eyes.

Still, whatever your tastes or your income, Greater Cleveland's restaurants have something cooking just for you. As always, the tables of Northeast Ohio are filled with good things to eat. Let's raise a fork to a tasty, adventurous 2004.

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