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Why and How Lakewood Is Becoming a Dining Destination 

Lakewood rising

Deagan's Kitchen & Bar opened in downtown Lakewood in 2010 in a space occupied by a string of prior businesses that never really lasted. From the start, the gastropub distinguished itself from other eateries in town by offering an ever-evolving, carefully curated beer and cocktail list, a thoughtful menu featuring upscale bar food, and weekly specials such as Taco Tuesdays and Vegan/Vegetarian night.

In hindsight, it's clear that the arrival of Deagan's lit the fuse on a Lakewood dining explosion. During the last five or so years, nearly 40 new restaurants or food-first establishments have opened in the city. Gone are the days when Lakewood was considered a dive bar mecca. Today, "it's become an area where great chefs want to be," says Deagan's owner Dan Deagan.

In some ways, that desirability is a function of geography. Lakewood's close proximity to I-90 and the Shoreway makes it an accessible destination for both east and west siders. The city is a manageable place to maneuver thanks to abundant (and often free) parking and a bike-friendly and walkable landscape. There's also the matter of changing demographics; Lakewood has experienced an influx of families and young professionals, which Dru Siley, the Director of Planning and Development for the City of Lakewood, says has led to "demand for restaurants that happen to have a bar."

Eric Williams, the chef-owner of the Lakewood-based modern Mexican restaurant El Carnicero (as well as Ohio City's Momocho), also has noticed evolving dining habits within the local food scene. Ohio City is now known as a "beer destination," while the Flats and E. 4th Street have evolved into the city's entertainment districts. However, he says, "What the majority of chefs and restaurateurs that are moving into Lakewood are doing, either as their second or third location—or their first location—is diversity."

Indeed, Lakewood diners now have a dizzying choice of ethnic cuisines, from Asian fusion (Roxu Fusion and Voodoo Tuna) to Indian (Namaste) and Latin-American (the Colombian-inspired Barroco). Burgers 2 Beer recently opened to please carnivores, while Southern comfort food outpost Chow Chow Kitchen and sustainability-minded gastropub Forage offer unique, adventurous menus.

Perhaps more important to the success of many of these new high-quality places is that they're reasonably priced, says Barrio owner Sean Fairbarn. "People want to dine out, and when you want to have affordable food—[and] all of these restaurants in Lakewood are very affordable—you can go out," he says. "You can go out a few nights a week, too."

Of course, Lakewood's stubborn iconoclastic streak, which manifests itself in fierce pride and a desire to champion local businesses, also has contributed to the dining scene's growth. "I think the residents of Lakewood see what's going on in Lakewood and want to support it," adds Fairbarn. "That's important."

Barrio, which opened on Madison Avenue in mid-2013, not only adds another affordable option to the mix, it gives diners another reason to support the local food scene. "We're here to complete the neighborhood," Fairbarn says "We're not here to compete. We want more people coming out of their houses. The more people out on the streets, and the more people coming to this area, that's what Lakewood's all about."

It's worth noting that Lakewood's veteran eateries are very much keeping pace with the newbies: Lakefront seafood staple Pier W opened a rooftop patio in 2013, while the venerable Players On Madison recently reinvented itself as Sarita following an ownership change.

Many of the operators that Scene spoke to also praised what the city has done to cultivate a community where restaurants can flourish. Specifically, they cite Lakewood's reputation for safety and cleanliness, as well as its involvement in keeping the infrastructure in top shape. "The city takes care of the city," notes Deagan. "They put all that money into downtown Lakewood to make it look better. They just completely repaved all of Madison. Having the city be really interested in taking care of the infrastructure helps a lot. It's a city who wants businesses and people to move in. The city makes it very easy for businesses to succeed."

Indeed, before Deagan opened Deagan's Kitchen, he met with then-councilman, now-mayor Mike Summers to "get a sense of how the city would perceive us, and how the city would welcome us." He came away satisfied: "Everyone that we talked to went out of their way to make us feel comfortable, to give us what we needed."

Unrolling this welcome mat is something upon which Lakewood prides itself, according to Siley. "We know that these restaurateurs are going to make a big investment in our community. They're going to bring new food, but they're also bringing jobs and they're making major investment in our 100-year-old buildings. Our mantra has been, 'We want you to invest in your project, not City Hall's process.' So to streamline that process and make it easy for them to open a business has been crucial for us."

As a result, the city has simultaneously positioned itself as a repository of useful information about buildings that might be for sale, as well as tips about restaurant-friendly landlords or other business-related matters. (Williams says he's even been given recommendations for parking lot resurfacing or where to get new windows.) One of the city's newest restaurants, Cleveland Vegan, benefitted in a more tangible way when a portion of its building renovation was grant funded through the City's Commercial Property Revitalization Program.

That was "very helpful, especially when we had just opened," says Cleveland Vegan co-owner Laura Ross. "We had a very positive experience with the city."

That sense of camaraderie and positive interaction trickles down to the restaurant community itself, which seems to operate more like a family than a cut-throat enterprise. When Deagan's Kitchen was still new on the scene, Melt Bar & Grilled owner Matt Fish often sent overflow business his way, recalls Deagan. Newer kid on the block Williams, in turn, states that Deagan has been just as supportive. "I can just call him and ask him a question, like, 'Hey, last year you did Taste of Lakewood. They asked me to do it this year. What should I expect?'" he says. "And [he'll tell me] every detail."

Can Lakewood's dining renaissance be replicated in other communities? Perhaps. It all depends on a variety of factors: population density; the presence of an ambitious community development group; and whether or not a city government is committed to investing in its own infrastructure or willing to work with prospective business owners. "I have friends who have opened restaurants in other cities that have had nothing but trouble with the council, the building department, stuff like that," Deagan notes. Having a strong network of community support also helps. Siley notes he works in tandem with LakewoodAlive and the Chamber of Commerce to ensure "there's no wrong door into Lakewood."

"You'll hear other communities talk about collaboration as though it might be a new thing for them," Siley says. "My role, and my peers at City Hall, we're part of that continuum that collaboration is the way things are done in this community. We're naturally geared toward being inclusive and welcoming."

Lakewood's distinctive confluence of geographic and economic factors and dedication to collaboration have certainly proved a boon for Dan Deagan: Five years in, he says, Deagan's Kitchen is thriving, while sister establishment Humble Wine Bar, which opened down the street in 2013, is "doing fantastic." In fact, he doesn't mince words about his love for the city. "If I could open 10 places in Lakewood, I would."

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