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All things considered, Cleveland's food scene fared well in 2009

Often, a view from without can paint a rosier picture than one from within. Judging by the recent flood of praise that Cleveland restaurants garnered in the national press, one can't help but assume 2009 was a banner year. Esquire magazine's John Mariani included L'Albatros in his roundup of "20 Best New Restaurants in America." Greenhouse Tavern earned its way into Bon Appetit's "Top Ten Best New Restaurants in America." A springtime travel feature in USA Today heaped praise upon five Cleveland eateries, while Guy Fieri of Diners, Drive-ins and Dives seems to have permanently parked his Chevy Camaro in our backyard.

Crunching the numbers, however, reveals a year with fewer restaurant openings than 2008. And apart from a handful of notable exceptions, most of the additions came via familiar names and faces. When it comes to closings — well, there were many, though slightly less than during the previous year.

Empire Building

If it seems that 2009 was the Year of Michael Symon, that's probably because it was. The fanfare began in spring with Symon's Best Chef win at the James Beard Awards. In June, the buzz continued with the launch of Bar Symon, his popular American brasserie in Avon Lake. Dropping at the Q on the eve of the Cavs' home opener were mini versions of Bar Symon and B Spot. The "real" B Spot, a festive burger, brat and beer saloon, was unveiled a few weeks later at Eton Chagrin Boulevard.

Fabio and Ricardo Salerno, the good folks behind Tremont's Lago and Little Italy's Gusto, opened Grotto Wine Bar at Shaker Square. Veteran restaurateur Carl Quagliata, the man behind Giovanni's in Beachwood and Café Toscano in Aurora, replayed an old hand with the revival of Tuscany. After shuttering Blake's Seafood Grill in Chagrin Falls, Hyde Park Restaurant Group reworked the space and concept before unveiling the more casual Jekyll's Kitchen. The equally industrious Gamekeeper's Hospitality group closed the short-lived Village Exchange, replacing it with a sharp little wine bar and bistro called West End. Along with 3030 Ocean in Fort Lauderdale and Latitude 41 in Columbus, consulting chef Dean James Max now adds AMP 150 at the Cleveland Airport Marriott to his restaurant portfolio. Greg and Michael Jurcisin, owners of Euclid's seven-year-old Beach Club Bistro, opened Beach Club Grill in the former Epiq location in Concord.

Solo Flyers

In a year conspicuous for its timidity, it was refreshing to see some operators buck the trend with ambitious solo projects. Chef Brian Okin, former owner of Benvenuti, opened Verve in the old Juniper Grille spot downtown. In Chagrin Falls, Jonathan Westrich introduced Umami Asian Kitchen. Di DeRubba, along with partner and husband John McDonnell, chose an old coffee shop in Bay Village as the site for Vento, a contemporary Italian eatery. Describing it as a "steakhouse with a flip," entrepreneur Ron Larson exposed Strip, a Steak House at the Shoppes of Olde Avon Village. Lee Road's infamous diner cars sat idle for well over a year until ballsy Clyde Mart came along and opened Clyde's Bistro & Barroom.

Ethnic Flair

Cleveland-area diners scored big in the ethnic-restaurant front, gaining polished versions of globally inspired eateries. Darna at Shaker Square introduced locals to contemporary Moroccan cuisine. In the Detroit-Shoreway neighborhood, diners savor the flavors and spices of Argentina, Venezuela and Chile, thanks to La Boca, which repurposed the old Snicker's/Krazy Mac's spot. The well-appointed Naya Bistro in Highland Heights blends healthful Middle Eastern cuisine with a broader Mediterranean palate.

Fans of the long-running Shinano Japanese Restaurant were pleased to see that concept resurrected at a new location in Solon. Vieng's Asian Bistro, which took over the Crocker Park Claddagh, attracts big crowds with a sweeping pan-Asian menu. Tamales and enchiladas replaced matzo balls and knishes when Los Habaneros, a Mexican restaurant, opened up in the old Sand's Blueline Café spot on Van Aken. Likewise, Mexico Lindo set out its shingle in the Old Brooklyn locale that long housed Theo's.

Ohio City is still agog after scoring a funky-fresh burrito bar called Ohio City Burrito, which channels the style and spirit of Chipotle. Cleveland's favorite falafel stand at the West Side Market produced an offshoot called Maha's Café, a full-service restaurant located next to MetroHealth.

Bar and Grill

Proving that everybody loves a cold beer and a fun vibe, these new joints are pleasing big crowds. Partners Ted Lipovan, Derek Wilson and Matt Cole brought a smile to the West Side by opening Fat Head's Brewery & Saloon, a 13,000-square-foot bar, restaurant and brewery. Eric Williams, chef-owner of Momocho, purchased the loveably old-school tavern Happy Dog, transforming it into a hipster hotdog hangout. In similar fashion, Randy and Linda Kelley, the convivial operators of West Side Market Café, snagged Ohio City's ABC Tavern, updating both the space and food. Down the block, Ohio City boy wonder Sam McNulty unveiled his subterranean speakeasy Speakeasy, which specializes in Prohibition-style cocktails. Barley House, an Irish-American bar and grill, opened up in the former Spy Bar spot on West Sixth Street. Billed as a high-energy American saloon, RJ Boland's took over the large Gateway District space once home to Waterhouse and Diamondback Brewery.

Breakfast and Coffee

Tom Clark buoyed the spirits of an entire neighborhood when he opened Blackbird Baking in Lakewood, home to killer European-style breads and pastries. The Big Egg made a return of sorts to the very same West Side spot it had called home for lo, these many years. Keeping East 4th Street residents happy and well-caffeinated is Erie Island Coffee, purveyor of world-class espresso and cappuccino. Chagrin Falls lost Dink's, but it gained a replacement in Fresh Start Diner.

Closings

Swingos on the Lake and Swingos Grand Tavern both closed. Tom Szoradi pulled the plug on his seven-year-old breakfast and lunch spot, Juniper Grille. Tower City's Bice called it quits, as did Westlake's M Bistro. Brian Klopp shuttered his two-year-old Brecksville eatery 2182 Bistro. Dante closed and the operation reverted back to Lockkeepers. Larchmere's Boulevard Blue closed. The far-east side was hit especially hard, losing Bon Appetito, Grill at Bainbridge Commons, Christopher's Aurora Bistro, ML The Restaurant and Dink's, which closed following a 50-year run.

Odds and Ends

Fairview Park's Presto Sandwiches added a downtown outpost. Le Bistro du Beaujolais in Olmsted Falls closed for 10 months following a devastating blaze before reopening. Le Petit Triangle Café is putting the finishing touches on its new expanded footprint since annexing Kimo's Sushi. Valerio Iorio moved his Little Italy restaurant Valerio's up the road to the old Battuto space. Etna, a new Italian restaurant, opened in its place.

Looking Ahead:

Already, 2010 looks to hold culinary promise. Dante Boccuzzi is gearing up to open his Tremont restaurant, Dante. Zack Bruell will add his Midas touch to East 4th Street with the opening of Chinato. Hudson's Rosewood Grill is set to open any day in the historic Inn at Turner's Mill space. Zinc, an ambitious French brasserie, will open in spring on Euclid Avenue. Grilled cheese impresario Matt Fish is reproducing Melt Bar and Grilled in Cleveland Heights. Michael Herschman will return to an East Side kitchen when Boulevard Blue reopens on Larchmere. And the Chocolate Bar, a popular import from Buffalo, will make its debut in the Old Arcade.

dining@clevescene.com

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