The 25 restaurants Cleveland can't live without

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The 25 restaurants Cleveland can't live without

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These are heady days for Cleveland's dining scene.

Food-obsessed television shows are trampling a trail to our restaurants. Our farmer's markets and urban farms are yielding bumper crops of national cred. The venerable West Side Market, leading up to its momentous centennial, has become one of the state's top attractions of any kind. And of course, Michael Symon — our own Iron Chef and winner of a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef — keeps popping up like a Jack-in-the-box: shaved pate, weird laugh, and all.

In the nearly ten years that I've covered this beat, I've watched the definition of "great restaurant" bounce around like a frenetic lottery ball. Time was, you had to serve caviar on Limoges china to be considered exceptional.

Today, the biggest buzz seems reserved for grassroots successes and ethnic eccentricities. Great food, we have learned, can come from the side of a truck, the back of a bar, and the depths of a cafeteria steam table. And yes, it can still come from the well-equipped kitchens of our finest five-star chefs.

So the time seems right to take a look at how we got here. After all, all this glory didn't just happen overnight. It grew slowly over decades — a delicious patina of timing, talent, toil, and good fortune. Out of all this gustatory evolution, what are the restaurants — new and old — that best represent Cleveland's dining DNA?

What follows are the 25 most important restaurants in Northeast Ohio, a mirror reflecting who we are right now as a city of eaters. Make that: a city of happy, fortunate, and well-fed eaters.

Flying Fig

"I really believe we have lasted because we always have had great love for what we do, and we understand that consistency is really important," says Karen Small, chef-owner of 11-year-old Flying Fig. For a chef who sources almost all of her ingredients from local farms, consistency is no small feat. Long before it was trendy, Small made "local, seasonal, and sustainable" her personal mantra. By doing so, she educated the palates of not only Cleveland diners, but also the next generation of Cleveland chefs. Considered one of the founding mothers of our farm-to-table movement, Small deserves much of the credit for our high-profile dining scene. Located on Market Avenue, one of the city's most charming lanes, the Fig is the great neighborhood bistro anchoring the great neighborhood of Ohio City.

2523 Market Ave., 216-241-4243,

theflyingfig.com

Tommy's Restaurant

There was a time when the epicenter of Northeast Ohio was Cleveland Heights — and more specifically, Coventry Road. And the epicenter of Coventry Road? Well, that would have been — as it is today — Tommy's. "There is this current trend to create these new suburban lifestyle centers," owner Tom Fello explains. "Well, Coventry Village is the original grassroots lifestyle center. The reason we call it a 'village' is because, in the truest sense of the word, it is." For four decades, this peace-loving café has been nourishing Cleveland's craziest cats, whose names are immortalized on the menu as popular sandwiches. Though this former sprout bar has a reputation as a laid-back hippie hang, the truth is that it's a well-oiled machine. It has to be, considering the near-constant flow of foot and mouth traffic here. And while many erroneously believe that Tommy's is a vegetarian restaurant, the delicious truth is this place takes care of herbivores, carnivores, and omnivores alike.

1824 Coventry Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-321-7757, tommyscoventry.com

Bar Cento

Losing a celebrity chef like Jonathon Sawyer can decimate a restaurant, a personality-driven business if ever there was one. But despite losing its top toque to his own ambitions, Bar Cento has continued to thrive just as it has since day one. Much of that continued success can be attributed to the near-seamless transition from Sawyer to Mike Nowak, who was second-in-command from the start. Possessing the same earnest passion for local, sustainable, organic product — and pork, glorious pork — Chef Nowak continues to earn a following. Rather than coast on the coattails of his predecessor, he adds and drops menu items with the confidence of a seasoned pro. Prices remain value-driven, and the informal yet polished atmosphere makes this wine bar one of the best reasons to visit Ohio City. "We believe in the 'rising tide lifts all boats' theory, with the aim of continuing to grow the Ohio City district," says owner Sam McNulty.

1948 West 25th St., 216-274-1010,

barcento.com

Crop Bistro

In the restaurant world, innovation is a double-edged sword. While many of us claim to embrace variety, the truth is we appreciate reliability just a little bit more. Nobody seems to comprehend that paradox better than Steve Schimoler, chef-owner of the Warehouse District's popular Crop Bistro. "I think the success that Crop has enjoyed can be attributed to the fact that we constantly innovate to stay relevant, while creating food that people want to eat more than once," he says. That means dreaming up wacky dishes — like balsamic-drizzled popcorn — that stick around, in one form or another, while offering seasonal tweaks to chestnuts like his seared scallop pho with soba noodles and coconut broth. Of course, one of the most important lessons to be learned from Crop's lasting success is simply to have fun and not take oneself too seriously, both skills at which Schimoler excels.

1400 West Sixth St., 216-696-2767,

cropbistro.com

Lolita

A funny thing happened when Michael Symon moved his ridiculously successful restaurant Lola from Tremont to downtown: Most regulars barely noticed. While Lola may have outgrown Tremont, many of Lola's longtime fans have stayed put, simply shifting their allegiance to its lovable offspring, Lolita. And why wouldn't they? Boasting all the charm of the original and none of the Food Network tourists, this cozy bistro feels like home. "This location is always going to be a special place to our regular customers," says longtime Symon staffer Matt Harlan. "Lolita is completely different from Lola. It is the more casual neighborhood restaurant that Symon always wanted." While the modest space may lack the big-city bling of Lola, it doesn't lack the talent. Chef Andy Strizak turns out flavorful Mediterranean-themed starters, matchless Neapolitan-style pizzas, to-die-for pastas, and perfectly composed entrées. Symon may have scaled the culinary ladder, but the soul of the chef will forever remain in Tremont.

900 Literary Rd., 216-771-5652,

lolabistro.com

Lucky's Café

"It started with me just making a few items on a Saturday and offering them for free to some customers," explains Lucky's chef-owner Heather Haviland, on how she transformed a sleepy little coffeehouse into a full-on brunch bonanza. The pastry chef parlayed her baking skills into one of the most beloved weekend feasts in all of Cleveland, with waits for a table all but guaranteed. And that was before Guy Fieri broadcast those bonkers breakfasts on Diners, Drive-ins & Dives. So what makes mornings at Lucky's so special? For starters, the quality of ingredients, which include local butter, local eggs, local cheese, and local anything else Haviland can get her oven mitts around. The aptly named Shipwreck is a delicious disaster of scrambled eggs, bacon, white cheddar, and golden brown potato. Housemade salsa with guajillo and ancho chiles elevates breakfast burritos to a higher plane. And until you've tucked into a plate of the chef's sausage gravy and scones, you haven't tasted pork in all its piggy goodness. "I'm blessed to be this busy," says Haviland. "I'm certainly not complaining."

777 Starkweather Ave., 216-622-7773, luckyscafe.com

Melt Bar & Grilled

We're not saying that an appearance on Man v. Food — or any other grub-obsessed TV show, for that matter — constitutes an affirmation of quality. Heck, there is no shortage of programs clamoring for fresh content. But if ever there was a restaurant tailor-made for cross-country syndication, it's this one. Designed from the ground up to satisfy broad-shouldered Clevelanders, Melt is comfort food personified. Mile-high grilled cheese sandwiches, stuffed with everything from home-grown pierogies to Lake Erie perch, act like missiles to the medulla oblongata (or wherever it is our pleasure centers lie). But rather than dish out the gooey goodness in a namby-pamby rec room, owner Matt Fish — a rocker by avocation — has funkified his house with rock & roll, tattoos, and all the craft beer a suds fiend could savor. Success can be judged by a variety of factors. But in a town like Cleveland, simultaneously pleasing East and West Siders — as Melt does through two cross-town locales — is pretty much all the proof one needs. And with a third Northeast Ohio location in the works, this town will soon be dripping with cheese.

4718 Detroit Ave., Lakewood, 216-226-3699,

13463 Cedar Rd., Cleveland Heights, 216-965-0988,

meltbarandgrilled.com

Michaelangelo's

Italian food has always been the cornerstone of Little Italy. But we needed to wait until 2006 — when chef Michael Annandono opened this chic bistro on Murray Hill — to taste the cuisine anew. This Piedmont-trained chef has been delivering the rustic flavors of Northern Italy — the hearty sauces, lush pastas, and roasted game — to the taste buds of appreciative diners ever since. His deftness of hand and lightness of touch give these classic dishes a revelatory refinement not found in the neighboring spaghetti-and-meatball joints. Snails, rabbit, veal, guinea hen? They're all here. Only these days, diners are running toward them rather than away. Toss in a seductive setting, polished staff, and Italian-focused wine list, and there's no mystery in how Annandono has succeeded in raising the bar for Italian cuisine.

2198 Murray Hill Rd., 216-721-0300, mangelos.com

Superior Pho

You wouldn't know it by picking up a menu these days, but there was a time when four out of five Clevelanders would have assumed "pho" was a cartoon character. But even then, Superior Pho (originally Pho Hoa) was dispensing the stuff in bathtub-sized bowls of comforting warmth. Though others have followed, none has bested this Asiatown pioneer. A recent expansion has eased the sometimes crushing crowds come lunch and dinner, when just $7 lands you a steaming bowl of beef noodle soup and all the accessories: lime, cilantro, Thai basil, hot peppers, et al. And while it's tough to deviate from the pho, there are other delights on the menu — most notably the addictive hoagies called bahn mi, a French-Vietnamese hybrid featuring roast pork, pickled veggies, fresh herbs, and dollops of mayo and pâté on a crispy baguette. It is due in no small part to such ethnic delights that a whole new demographic is discovering Cleveland's Asiatown.

3030 Superior Ave., 216-781-7462, superiorpho.com

Sokolowski's University Inn

We would be hard-pressed to find a restaurant more closely aligned with Cleveland's past, present, and (we hope) future than Sokolowski's. For more than 85 years, this hometown favorite has treated Clevelanders to hearty, rib-sticking Eastern European fare. What would be condemned at other establishments as kitsch continues to flourish here because it is the only way it has ever been done. Among other things, that means grabbing a tray and working your way down a cafeteria line of diet horrors, beginning with dessert and ending with dumplings. Along the way there are deliriously delicious stuffed cabbages, Salisbury steak, and smoked kielbasa. It isn't just locals who adore this paean to Polish fare: Notable guests have included President Clinton, Anthony Bourdain, and Kevin Bacon — who was less than six degrees removed from a delicious pierogi platter. "We're just proud to still be around," says owner Michael Sokolowski.

1201 University Rd., 216-771-9236, sokolowskis.com

Amp 150

Ellis Cooley's success says more about Cleveland than it does his talent. No hometown hero, Cooley is a gatecrasher from Atlanta (and Florida, and New York). We adopted him as our own, though, because he did the same for us. Equally comfortable on the dining room floor as he is on a Twitter feed, Cooley has cultivated such a strong relationship with his customers that they would likely dine on the airport as opposed to just close to it. "There are a ton of great restaurants in Cleveland," says the chef. "If diners choose to drive out by the airport, then we are obligated to make it special." And special it is. Cooley's refreshingly contemporary American fare is modern, clever, and laser-focused. Built of local, seasonal goodness, delectable items like velvet mushroom soup, braised rabbit and wilted greens, shrimp and grits, and veal short-rib biscuits and gravy have diners heading toward Hopkins with or without travel plans. And in a town that still knows the value of a dollar, there's this: Amp's wonderful four- and six-course tasting menus are only $30 and $45, respectively.

4277 W. 150th St., 216-706-8787, amp150.com

Parkview Nite Club

Long before anybody ever heard of Battery Park or the Detroit Shoreway, this Cleveland landmark anchored the north end of its near-West Side neighborhood overlooking Cleveland's factories. Opened in 1934, at the tail end of Prohibition, the Parkview is one of the oldest saloons in the city. Little has changed in that time — except for the food, which has been polished up in response to the modern trend toward retro-chic dining. The upscale tavern fare is good, yes, and consistently so. But just as important is the working-class vibe, built from the ghosts of steelworkers and machine operators who used to lift their glass here. Together with the cheap beer and good people, there's no wonder that Clevelanders love the Parkview, a true slice of local history.

1261 West 58th St., 216-961-1341, parkviewniteclub.com

Dante

When folks ask how the hell Cleveland developed this great dining scene, we use Dante Boccuzzi as an example. Here was a young chef at the top of his game, pulling down stars at New York City's famed Aureole and poised for national acclaim. But when the time came to hang out his own shingle, there was only one place he wanted to go: Home. "This is why I came back to Cleveland," Boccuzzi says. "This is what I came home to do." Now settled in a small, elegant, and undeniably spectacular bank building in trendy Tremont, his eponymous restaurant is everything the chef imagined — and a diner could hope for — as well as the place where he delivers his signature blend of Italian, French, and Asian cuisines. His pastas are to die for, his meats beyond reproach, and his sushi is just plain fun. So why does Cleveland have a great dining community? Because we start with a great community.

2247 Professor Ave., 216-274-1200, restaurantdante.us

Dim and Den Sum

Technically, Dim and Den Sum is not a restaurant. But having single-handedly jump-started Cleveland's food-truck craze earns them real estate on this list. Through little more than will power, ambition, and caffeine-fueled vigor, owner Chris Hodgson burst onto an otherwise barren landscape of dirty-water hot-dog carts and industrial roach coaches. He taught Clevelanders that good, creative, and affordable food can indeed be obtained from a mobile kitchen. Ever itinerant, Dim and Den Sum might be dispensing righteous short-rib sliders in Midtown one minute and braised pork BLTs in Tremont the next. Fans keep tabs on the meals-on-wheels wagon by following them on Twitter and Facebook. Catch them if you can.

dimanddensum.com, @DimAndDenSum

Fire Food & Drink

For restaurants, like movie stars, constant reinvention is the name of the game. Unless, of course, you happen to be Fire, a 10-year-old bistro that feels as stylish today as it did when it opened. Credit goes not only to the designer, who crafted a room with timeless appeal, but also the chef, who tiptoes the line between predictability and change. "Our customers enjoy signature dishes that we will never remove," explains chef-owner Doug Katz. "But we also change our menu quarterly to keep it exciting." That means diners know for damn sure that the menu will feature chicken livers, clay-oven flatbread, and tandoor-roasted pork chops. What they don't know is what seasonal tweaks those dishes will have undergone in the latest menu incarnation. Of course, daily features, built from seasonal farmer's market goodies, are on hand for those who abhor predictability.

13220 Shaker Sq., 216-921-3473, firefoodanddrink.com

L'Albatros Brasserie

Only in heaven are there perfect restaurants, where every guest is a VIP and every meal is a five-star feast. Here on earth, the realities of traveling chefs, hung-over servers, and shoddy management can disrupt the reverie of a faultless meal. That said, the best chefs and restaurateurs work tirelessly to battle the inertia of complacency. For something approaching perfection, book a table at L'Albatros. With alarming consistency, this University Circle jewel produces the kind of evenings from which lasting memories are molded. From that initial greeting to the delivery of your coat, every step in this choreographed production is thoughtful and deliberate, and designed to make us feel special. Chef-owner Zack Bruell filled a desperate need for French bistro fare with this spot — or at least a modern interpretation thereof. Dense pâté, garlicky escargot, skate wing in brown butter, pied de cochon ... and don't get us started on the cheese! "You're only as good as your last meal," admits Bruell, a warning to himself as much as to others.

11401 Bellflower Rd., 216-791-7880, albatrosbrasserie.com

Moxie

"With a lot of diners," explains Moxie owner Brad Friedlander, "it's not how good you are, but what's new. After 10 or 12 years, you're considered old." Considering that Moxie is approaching 13, Friedlander decided to shake things up, reformatting the menu and the Beachwood bistro's definition of "regional American." Changes were not made lightly, admits Friedlander of his decision to unveil a new menu of small, medium, and large plates. "Based on our research, this is what our customers want." What has not changed is the pedigree of ingredients and level of culinary mastery. Chef-partner Jonathan Bennett continues to whip up perfect dishes that, regardless of their ethnic origins, contain an all-American sense of pleasure. Tempura mushrooms with ponzu crème fraîche, roasted Shishito peppers with sea salt and lime, Korean-style short ribs with grilled housemade kimchee, pasta with sweet peas and pancetta ... We don't care where these dishes come from; just make sure they keep on coming.

3355 Richmond Rd., Beachwood, 216-831-5599,

moxietherestaurant.com

Slyman's Deli

One of a Clevelander's greatest joys is an overloaded sandwich of warm-and-rosy corned beef piled into a pocket of soft rye. Still, improperly prepared, said sandwich can become a major bummer: too salty, too dry, too fatty, too cold, too small, too pricey ... too bad. Slyman's always, always gets it right. An unrelenting stream of customers means the slicer never sleeps, ensuring fresh, hot, buttery beef. By stacking multiple briskets on the slicer at once, employees generate sandwiches that contain an ideal mix of lean and fat-gilded meat. Heavy, tall, and fairly priced, these sandwiches are rightly billed as Cleveland's best. Ever cheerful and always chipper, proprietor Freddie Slyman is proof that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. "We have a friendly, light-hearted atmosphere where everybody knows your name and smiles are free," Slyman says.

3106 St. Clair Ave., 216-621-3760, slymans.com

Great Lakes Brewing Co.

Ask many out-of-towners what comes to mind when they think of Cleveland, and they'll immediately shout out pints of Great Lakes' beloved beers: Dortmunder Gold Lager, Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Burning River Pale Ale, and their other frosted-head brethren. And why not? Since its 1988 opening, Great Lakes Brewing Company has grown into a model of quality, consistency, and brand identity, carrying its hometown banner with a side of pretzel chicken. It is also a paradigm of social consciousness, aiming for an operation that sips energy while releasing as little waste as possible. From growing their own veggies to fueling the company van with spent fryer grease, Great Lakes is a neighbor we can all be proud of.

2516 Market Ave., 216-771-4404, greatlakesbrewing.com

Fahrenheit

"I live, breath, cook, love, and respect Cleveland — and especially Tremont," announces Rocco Whalen, one of the city's most passionate chefs and ardent supporters. Opening Fahrenheit in 2002, Whalen became every bit as central to the Tremont food scene as Michael Symon (though still without his own street sign). Boisterous, as all bistros should be, this nine-year-old mainstay seems to get better with each passing year. The chef's bold American cuisine never fails to impress, in terms of ingredients, preparation, and presentation. Many of Fahrenheit's dishes have become classics that Whalen is near-powerless to pull from his menu: Vietnamese chicken spring rolls, bacon-wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates, Kobe beef short ribs, and coffee-crusted pork tenderloin, to name but a few. But it may be Whalen's fly pies that have drawn the most buzz over the years. Crisp and chewy with a hint of sweetness, the pitch-perfect pizzas are proof that Whalen loves Clevelanders as much as Cleveland itself.

2417 Professor Ave., 216-781-8858, fahrenheittremont.com

Li Wah

Having a robust Asian community bestows upon a town certain benefits, not the least of which is dim sum. We're not talking about a small selection of items available off the regular menu, but the full-on brunch experience. Large enough to accommodate crowds that near 300, Li Wah feels like the epicenter of Cleveland come Sunday noon, when families of every demographic sip tea and snack on Asian delicacies — spring rolls, barbecue pork buns, shrimp shumai, turnip cakes, golden roast duck, and warm custard tarts, among countless others. If there is a more enjoyable, more diverse, more affordable, and more delicious way to spend a Sunday in Cleveland, we have yet to stumble upon it.

2999 Payne Ave., 216-696-6556, liwahrestaurant.com

Nighttown

The closest thing Cleveland has to an Algonquin Round Table is Nighttown, a New York-style supper club that attracts a most deliciously diverse clientele. Named by Down Beat magazine as one of the world's "100 Great Jazz Clubs," Nighttown draws the serious music fans, for sure. But there is far more to the joint than hot licks and cool chords. The menu is decidedly old-school but well-executed, with dishes like whole artichokes, roast duck, trout amandine, and Dublin Lawyer ruling the roost. The comfortably appointed dining rooms, bar, and patio burble with conversation as doctors, professors, writers, artists, and students exchange bon mots over bourbon and beer. It's this rare triple identity — as serious restaurant, inspired jazz club, and especially as living room to an intellectual community — that makes people continue to flock to the top of "the Hill."

12387 Cedar Rd., 216-795-0550,

nighttowncleveland.com

Sergio's in University Circle

When it opened in a University Circle carriage house in 1995, Sergio's had the feel of a smart, contemporary, urban townhouse. All these years later, it still does. As one of the few truly exceptional dining choices in University Circle, Sergio's is a natural destination for those off to enjoy the symphony, museums, and conservatories. But lest you think this place is stuffy, swing by on a hot summer eve to knock back Caipirinhas with a side of jazz. Sergio Abramof's Mediterranean-themed seafood is as elegant and tasteful as the room around it, with shrimp, halibut, and scallops appearing in various guises. "The food I create is delicious, authentic, and a true reflection of my personality," says Abramof. "This is why our customers, our friends, have supported us for so many years."

1903 Ford Dr., 216-231-1234,

sergioscleveland.com

Greenhouse Tavern

Besides Michael Symon, there may be no Cleveland chef who has done more to attract positive national attention than Jonathon Sawyer. In addition to Greenhouse Tavern's selection as one of the "Top 10 Best New Restaurants in the U.S." by Bon Appetit, Sawyer personally snagged a spot in Food & Wine's 2010 class of "Best New Chefs." The accolades further bolster Cleveland as a major foodie town while increasing local culinary tourism. Affable, humble, passionate, and wickedly skilled, Sawyer makes an ideal ambassador for our food scene. At the restaurant, diners are treated to a rare combination of haute and familiar, where dishes like foie gras-steamed clams and aged Ohio rib-eye are dished up in a modern tavern setting. And where else in town can an adventurous diner tuck into a full-on roasted pig face, a delicious dish that belies its ghoulish visage?

2038 East Fourth St., 216-393-4302, thegreenhousetavern.com

Momocho

When Momocho chef-owner Eric Williams introduced Cleveland diners to "modern Mexican," he did so only after years of running kitchens at Johnny Mango and Lopez. His creative takes on regional Mexican cuisine work because they are grounded in history, familiarity, and respect for ingredients. Thus, Momocho's smoked trout and bacon guacamole is at once classic and modern — and always delicioso. Flavor-seeking diners flock here for roll-your-own beer-braised goat taquitos, crab and smoked trout chilaquiles, and pepita-crusted trout. "Quality and consistency are the keys to our success," says Williams. An unbending edict if ever there was one.

1835 Fulton Rd., 216-694-2122,

momocho.com

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