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