If you visit Bernie and Mike Sokolowski's dark, homey Polish cafeteria overlooking the gritty industrial flats, you'll get a big spoonful of Cleveland's ethnic heritage along with the dense homemade pierogi, meaty roasted bratwurst, and giant handrolled "pigs in a blanket." The brothers, along with sister Mary Lou Balbier, are the third generation to man the steam tables at this monument to working-class heroes, and even former Presidents have stopped to pay homage and eat some brats. While the straightforward food is simple in the extreme, the atmosphere alone -- one part Polish, one part blue-collar, and all Cleveland -- is enough to make a lunch trip here a must.
There really is nothing like good food to bring people together, and Phil "the Fire" Davis's "comfort food for the soul" proves the point. The amateur caterer-turned-restaurateur opened his 45-seat dining room just off Shaker Square at the beginning of this year. But word of his famous L.A.-style chicken and waffles (a breathtakingly sweet and savory combination of crunchy fried chicken and tender waffle, doused, as you will, with both hot sauce and maple syrup) has traveled fast. Today, his homey restaurant is almost constantly crammed with a well-integrated crowd of happy chowhounds. World peace through sweet-potato pie? It could happen, and Phil could be just the man to cook it up.
We don't want to get all Joe Hill-y on you, but supporting the small family farmer is a noble cause. Not only does it ensure our access to food that is locally and responsibly grown, but it also keeps our remaining patches of countryside out of the hands of developers, who snatch up former farmland faster than you can say "ConAgra" and raise bumper crops of Big Boxes and McMansions. Turns out that taking a stand couldn't be more enjoyable either: Just make time to shop the various North Union Farmers Markets (in Lakewood, Cleveland Heights, Olmsted Falls, and of course, on Shaker Square), where the tomatoes are vine-ripened, the melons taste like sugar, and the corn was still growing in the field until about an hour before the truck headed into town. And it's not too late: The Saturday morning Shaker Square market remains open through December 14.
While there is something indisputably weird about strolling into a Flats bar in the first light of day, it's worth the fleeting disorientation to discover breakfast at the River's Edge. At this hour, the well-worn East Bank watering hole is dim and friendly, with early birds perched around the bar downing huge portions of chow. Favorites include "stuffed" French toast, filled with a massive slab of cream cheese and strawberry preserves, and the delicious Mish Mash: a half-dozen eggs scrambled with bacon, potatoes, and onions, and piled up so high that the accompanying rye toast threatens to slide right off the plate. Some people contend that the working stiff's breakfast at the Edge is this city's best-kept secret. For price, quality, and friendliness, we say it's the best, period.
Depending on the time and day, diners here may find a DJ spinning contemporary Greek and Euro-techno tunes or performers playing traditional Greek music, or belly dancers shimmying through the aisles. But it's the simple homemade food -- perfect pastitsio, savory gyros, and crunchy galatobourekos, brought to the table straight from the oven -- that makes this place a standout. Thoroughly modern, but casual and comfortable, Niko's is a prime example of how fine a neighborhood restaurant can be, when owners care enough to make it so.
Situated on the banks of the Cuyahoga River, Lockkeepers is sort of the Cary Grant of Cleveland dining rooms -- handsome, refined, and yes, charmingly old-fashioned, with a masculine Arts and Crafts decor and a big menu of upscale American-dream foods, ranging from foie gras and caviar to prime rib and porterhouse steak. The wine list is serious, the service is professional, and -- as you might expect -- the air is heavy with the perfume of money. So how to finance this splurge? Preferably on someone else's platinum card. That always makes the champagne just a little bit sweeter, mais non?
Place one historic inn and one chilly night into a lovely Western Reserve town; blend thoroughly. Add two lovers, a crackling fireplace, and a menu of lusty foods. Season well with red wine. Simmer slowly until hot. Pour onto fresh sheets, and do not disturb until morning. Serves two.
We love Madison Village and Coventry, skate shops and martini bars. But when we need to restore our faith in humanity and we need a five-scoop sundae to do it, there's no place more retro-wholesome and welcoming than Malley's. The pretty-in-pink ice cream shops transport us to a place Happy Days reruns and our parents' reminiscences have only hinted at.
Aladdin's big menu of Mediterranean foods, including crowd-pleasers like hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli, falafel, and a truly wonderful sweet-and-crunchy baklava, makes a great alternative for health-conscious diners. Although meat is on the menu, many of the items are vegetarian, and the kitchen eschews the use of sulfites, preservatives, saccharin, or artificial additives. A raw juice bar, with freshly squeezed carrot, apple, mango, celery, and orange juices, is another plus. Service is friendly, prices are reasonable, and all locations are entirely smoke-free. Don't you feel better already?
The serene, well-appointed dining room at downtown's Juniper Grille is filled with glittery tabletops plenty big enough for spreading out The Wall Street Journal. The delicious fare includes pancakes crammed with juicy berries, sunny poached eggs smiling up from a blanket of chive-flecked hollandaise, and smooth java served in white porcelain mugs. If there's a smarter, better-tasting way to ease into the daily white-collar rat race, we haven't found it.
The names of the dishes roll across the tongue like ripe black olives: Carpaccio di Tonno. Ribollita Toscana. Sformato di Zucchine. And the flavors? Like little time bombs, set to shower the palate with truffle oil, fresh herbs, and savory reductions. Osteria di Valerio & Al is an intimate little restaurant, where the authentic flavors of the Piedmont are woven into sophisticated, contemporary dishes. Those interested in a slice of pizza pie need not apply. But for those pursuing a slice of culinary paradise, your table is waiting.