Best Of 2009

The word "best," especially as it applies to restaurants, is as subjective as they come. What one diner finds exceptional, another may deem downright abominable. Many eaters prefer to play it safe when ordering, while others dine out specifically to explore the culinary scenery. And then there's the inconsistency: good service on Wednesday, chaos come Saturday. "Best" restaurants, however, satisfy day in and day out. They reward equally the bold and the timid, the carnivore and the leaf-eater, the weekday diner and the weekend sojourner. Fire is that kind of restaurant. Despite its eight-plus-year existence, the establishment feels fresh on every return visit. That's largely due to chef-owner Doug Katz's devotion to local, seasonal ingredients, which requires a near-constant tweaking of the menu. But it's also the room, a sophisticatedly sharp space with timeless appeal. The best restaurants are those we find ourselves going to without a second thought, and we find ourselves at Fire an awful lot. (13220 Shaker Sq., 216.921.3473, — Trattner

"Opening this restaurant was an absolute no-brainer," explained chef-owner Zachary Bruell just weeks before introducing the Best New Restaurant of 2009. He was referring, of course, to the tactic of bringing updated French bistro fare to the University Circle carriage house that for decades housed That Place on Bellflower. It appears he hit the proverbial nail on the head: From the moment the doors parted, the restaurant has been besieged by zealous guests — guests who know a good thing when they see, smell and taste it. There were many other noteworthy openings last year, but no restaurant shot out the starting gate so fully formed, so spotless in its execution, service and setting, as L'Albatros. For the first time in a long time, the historic space bubbles with wit, spirit and energy. An already delightful patio was elevated to star status. And the food — from the first schmear of pork and veal pate to the last gooey glop of stinky cheese — is so good it beckons diners back again and again like an illicit lover. Bravo, Bruell. Bravo. (11401 Bellflower Rd., 216.791.7880, Runner up: the Greenhouse Tavern (2038 E. Fourth St., 216.393.4302, — Trattner

Let's just be upfront about Cleveland's embarrassment of cupcake riches and allow that there are a lot of contenders in this category. From Hudson's Main Street Cupcakes to Beachwood's White Flower (ha ha) to the closer-in Cleveland Cupcake Company and Lucky's Café, you can find sweet delights to satisfy tastes from the pedestrian to the posh. But A Cookie and a Cupcake takes the category with their impossibly pillowy crumb and their perfect, perfect frostings. It's telling that their little Tremont storefront is 5 percent devoted to display and sales and 95 percent devoted to kitchen — co-owners Wendy Thompson and SynDee Klingenberg are clearly people who love to bake, and their customers reap the benefits with inventive and tasty cakes. (2173 Professor Ave. Cleveland, 216.344.9433 — Kretsch

Some will have you believe that pizza sans pepperoni is blasphemy. But in Naples — and Highland Heights, Ohio — pizzas are topped with mozzarella di bufala, artichokes, maybe some nice prosciutto. At Crostatas, the Neapolitan-style pies are prepared the old-fashioned way: Dough is made fresh daily and allowed to rise slowly overnight; imported tomatoes are hand-crushed to make the sauce; toppings are used sparingly to not detract from the glorious crust. But without the massive wood-burning oven, which blasts the pizza to "done" in 90 seconds, none of the above matters a whit. Assembled on site by Italian craftsmen, the handsome hearth soars to a blistering 900 degrees Fahrenheit and is the crucial ingredient in proper pie production. (558 Bishop Rd., 440.449.7800, — Trattner

Beard, Bar Symon, B Spot — it's been a big year for our celebrity hash slinger. In addition to snagging — finally! — the James Beard Award for Best Chef, Symon birthed his wildly enjoyable American brasserie, Bar Symon. Apparently on overdrive, the chef recently teamed up with the Cavs and Aramark to open two signature eateries inside Quicken Loans Arena. The fast-casual restaurants promise to add a dash of excitement to a normally drab culinary landscape. But wait, there's more! Symon is on schedule to launch his latest venture, B Spot, before the year comes to a close. Located at Eton, the rock-fueled eatery will feature gourmet burgers, brats and beer. That's not all, folks: Symon fans eager to bring the chef into their kitchens will have the opportunity to do so come early November, when his first cookbook, Live to Cook, goes on sale. ( — Trattner

Mention the phrase "family meal" and images of grease-stained buckets of fried chicken invariably come to mind. Mention that phrase at Luxe, and prepare to be wowed with a multi-course meal that costs little more than the aforementioned bucket. Adventurous diners who order the family meal are rewarded with a three-course spread served family-style for just $22 per person. I say adventurous because the chef decides at the last minute what will be served. (Meat, fish or veg preferences are respected.) Dinners usually include salad or appetizer, mains and dessert, with portions more than generous enough to satisfy all participants. For folks who love a bargain but hate deciding what to order, the family meal offers the best of all possible worlds. (6605 Detroit Ave., 216.920.0600, — Trattner

In its original, unassuming Fairview Park location, this popular sandwich shop prepares mouth-watering sandwiches and soups that make lunchtime mealtime. But who has time to drive all the way out to the west-side suburb during lunch hour? The recently opened downtown Presto's — tucked into a blink-and-you'll-miss-it spot in the front of the Old Arcade — features the same menu as the Fairview Park location. Good thing, because the tomato and blue-cheese soup is one of the tastiest sips Cleveland has to offer. But foremost Presto's is a sandwich place, and it nails nearly every demo — from carnivore-pleasing meat subs to cheese- and veggie-stacked combos. Presto's even serves a peanut-butter-and-banana sandwich that would make Elvis proud. (401 Euclid Ave., 216.344.3999) Gallucci

Lisa Paige Blair's chocolate-covered-pretzel creations — "Sweets with a twist" — are like little works of art, almost too pretty to eat. Almost. We took a platter of them to a party recently, and they quickly became the center of attention; adults were shooing kids away to claim more for themselves. If that sounds cruel, it's only because you haven't tried them. Quality chocolate wrapped around a salty crunch, some smothered in toppings like mini-M&Ms or peanuts — it's all far too sophisticated to waste on kids' simple pallets. And we can scarcely describe the Pretzabits, addicting little cookie-like concoctions that you'll want desperately to eat by the handful, diet be damned. There are a few pretty packages to choose from so they make great gifts — but order some for yourself. You'll thank us. (30700 Bainbridge Rd., Solon, 440.349.3311, — Lewis

When Phoenix Coffee opened its second downtown spot in the Warehouse District (there's another shop on East 9th St.), they made a bold decision to brew their standard cup of joe via the French Press method. Instead of dripping water through a filter of ground coffee, like a typical drip coffeemaker, French Press involves steeping the coarsely ground coffee like tea. It eventually gets pressed to the bottom with a screen plunger. The process yields a full-bodied cup of opaque darkness that will make you appreciate your morning beverage in a whole new way. It's a little pricier than most servings, but it's worth every penny. (1300 W. 9th St., 216.771.9696, Gill

Now in its 10th year, Mitchell's boasts three (soon to be four) locations around town, but our favorite is the original in Westlake — a homey, spacious shop where the friendly staff scoops up mounds of the cool, sweet stuff behind a super-long counter. Always-on-the-menu favorites like banana cream pie, black raspberry chip and coconut actually taste like they're supposed to, thanks to fresh fruit and real chocolate. But it's the seasonal specials — like peach in the summer, peppermint in the winter and a recently introduced cake batter (which was the best thing we put in our mouths all year) — that keep us coming back week after week. (26161 Detroit Rd., Westlake, 440.250.0952, Gallucci

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