If we've learned anything from the unstoppable proliferation of Five Guys, it's that damn near everybody loves a thin, greasy hamburger. Unlike the thick gourmet models sold at upscale joints, diner-style burgers go down easy like Sunday morning. Coincidentally enough, that's usually about the time we're ordering our fifth round of drinks and second round of burgers at the always-amusing ABC Tavern. Cooked on a griddle rich with the drippings of 10,000 patties, these addictively delicious gems are topped with cheese, lettuce, tomato, and fried onions before being giftwrapped in wax paper. Eminently eatable in every way, these salty flavor bombs are the answer to all of life's problems. Or at least those we attempt to unravel come 2 a.m.
1872 West 25th St., Cleveland, 216-861-3857
The old-country vibe starts the moment you log onto Sterle's website and get hit by a blast of bouncy accordion music. The menu itself could have been concocted by your Slovenian — or Polish or German or Italian — grandma. There's wienerschnitzel, sauerkraut, strudel, veal scallopini, pork chops, chicken parmigiana — not a single bite of trendy bistro food. Prices are low, family-style meals are the specialty, and it's clear that no cutting-edge designer had anything to do with the huge dining room's country-lodge ambiance. On Fridays and Saturdays, you can bring Grandma to hear all her favorite polka tunes played live by top Cleveland musicians, with dancing to work off that big meal (Sterle's is unfamiliar with the "small plate" concept). The food scene in Cleveland has changed a lot in the 50 years since Sterle's opened, but a meal here will take you right back to 1960, long before anyone heard of "global fusion" cuisine or knew what a "bistro" was.
1401 East 55th St., 216-881-4181, sterlescountryhouse.com
Attracting diners to any establishment in restaurant-rich Cleveland is hard enough. But luring them out to an Airport Marriott? Now that takes talent of herculean proportions. Contradicting the old saw about "location, location, location," chef Ellis Cooley proves daily that if you make something delicious enough, people will come to devour it. Modern, original, and laser-focused, the chef's take on contemporary American fare comes off not as contrived, but seductively approachable. Built of local, seasonal goodness, delectable items like velvet mushroom soup, braised rabbit and wilted greens, and seared scallops with pea shoots, pickled ramps, and coconut cream have diners heading out to Hopkins with or without travel plans. Going above and beyond the call of his chefly duties, Cooley recently added a sizable vegetable garden to his hotel's urban plot, just so he can stuff fresh-picked squash blossoms with homemade green-tomato jam. For those reasons — and many, many more — Ellis Cooley is most deserving of this crown.
4277 West 150th St., Cleveland, 216-706-8787, amp150.com
This little pink shop, tucked in an obscure corner of Tremont, is well worth searching for. You won't find case after case of the standard peanut clusters/caramels/mint melts here. Rather, Lilly offers a small but choice selection of their own handmade truffles that combine exotic ingredients in delectable pieces that are also little edible works of art. Random sample creations: the Cinnabunny, which features Vietnamese cinnamon, ground ginger, and clove honey in dark chocolate; and the Maui Wowee, with Madagascar vanilla bean and Hawaiian black lava sea salt in a heart-shaped white-chocolate container decorated with yellow smiley faces. The roster of about 20 varieties is constantly changing, so you need to stop in to see what they've come up with lately. Lilly also carries craft beers and fine wines, and they'll happily suggest pairings with their chocolates.
761 Starkweather Ave., Cleveland, 216-771-3333,
We are blessed to live in a land well populated by outstanding ethnic restaurants of all stripes. But for pure old-fashioned American veganism, the Vegiterranean is the place even non-vegans love. If you didn't know any better, you'd swear the menu was made for meat lovers. Entrées include grilled "Gardein" chicken or steak, and spaghetti with vegan meatballs. Vegiterranean emphasizes locally grown veggies and gives a nod also to locally brewed beers from Cleveland and Akron. And be sure to check out the tofu-ricotta fries — which the restaurant proudly claims are the best Chrissie Hynde has ever had. Not that she speaks without bias: The Pretenders frontwoman owns the place, and she can often be spotted hanging out there.
21 Furnace St., Akron, 330-374-5550, vegiterranean.com
It would be very simple to discount B Spot, Michael Symon's East Side burger bar, as a quick payday for a celebrity chef. But as most diners can attest, Symon wouldn't dare tarnish his brand by attaching it to a middling product. Cleveland's Iron Chef attacked this project with as much passion as he did Bar Symon, Lola, and Lolita. The result: a contemporary bar and grill that serves astonishingly consistent gourmet hamburgers. Built of beef supplied by famed New York purveyor Pat LaFrieda — a custom blend of chuck, sirloin, and brisket — the four-finger-thick pub burgers explode with beefy goodness. Griddled to crusty perfection, the toothsome patties boast a rosy hue and properly textured grain. Blood, salt, and fat wash across the tongue in successive waves. Folks who like to gild the proverbial lily can order varieties crowned with pastrami and slaw, corned beef and kraut, or flipsteak and Cheez Whiz. A well-stocked relish bar and sauce-laden table caddies allow diners to further doll up burgers to their (cultured) tastes.
28699 Chagrin Blvd., Beachwood, 216-292-5567, bspotburgers.com
A visit to Millie Brady's Collision Bend is like a trip to Grandma's house, if Grandma had a hot dog rotisserie and jukebox stocked with '50s rock. Less of a bar, or even a café — "we don't serve food," the delightful octogenarian says with a smile as she serves up the complimentary snacks (chips, meatball subs, burgers, you name it) — Collision Bend is more like an understated party thrown by Millie every Friday afternoon, open to all who happen to become aware of its endless charms. The Collision Bend (so-named because it sits at a crook in the Cuyahoga that's precarious for passing vessels) can be found a short, gritty stroll from the few nightspots on the Flats' East Bank. The place is open only on Fridays, from about 3 p.m. till "late," as Millie says — "9 p.m. or so." God invented bars so we could take fortifying refuge from the world, and then he invented Millie to make it happen.
1646 Center St., Cleveland, 216-749-6556
While not as packed as their Thursday "Big Ass Beer Night," Rocky River Brewing Company's Sunday "Draft Night" is a beer drinker's delight. Instituted earlier this year as a potent recession buster, the after-6 p.m. specials include $2.50 pints of Rocky River's delicious and fortifying house brews, plus $5 pizzas. The beers vary according to seasonal demand (though we'll down pints of the tasty Oompa Loompa chocolate stout any time of year), and the individual-sized pizzas (including buffalo chicken, stuffed pepperoni, three-cheese mix, and chicken ranch) constitute a full meal unto themselves. And though economists tell us the recession is over, "Draft Night" is still going strong.
21290 Center Ridge Rd., Rocky River, 440-859-2739, rrbc.squarespace.com
The past 12 months have been light on heavyweight restaurant openings. Zack Bruell added Chinato to his holdings, Michael Herschman returned with Menu6, Amp 150 landed at the Airport Marriott, and Zinc Bistro debuted in the Theater District. But apart from these, the past year was largely consumed by grilled cheese, hamburgers, hot dogs, and rabidly chased food trucks. That is not to discount this year's most dynamic new addition, Dante — for even in the most crowded of fields, this Tremont scene-stealer would have been the odds-on favorite to nab the prize. Set in a small, elegant, and undeniably spectacular bank building, Dante is one of the most fetching hash houses on Tremont's crowded Restaurant Row. Chef Dante Boccuzzi's extensive travels have given him a Swiss army knife of skills that, in the wrong hands, could be disastrous. But Boccuzzi artfully blends cuisines like Italian, French, and Asian in ways that feel less like gastronomic whiplash than smooth, smooth sailing. Stellar cocktail and wine lists round out an enterprise long on professionalism, short on attitude, and wide with diner smiles. Dante is yet another world-class restaurant that we are blessed to have at our disposal.
2247 Professor Ave., Cleveland, 216-274-1200, restaurantdante.us
Every blessed time we visit Wonton Gourmet, we swear that we'll explore deeper regions of the menu. After all, the bright and tidy AsiaTown restaurant couldn't make it any easier, considering that the room is wallpapered with color photos of each and every dish. But try as we might, the words that tumble out of our mouths invariably sound like: "turnip cakes, chive potstickers, shrimp dumpling soup, Hong Kong-style fried chicken, roast duck, and sautéed Chinese greens, thank you very much." Hey, at least we don't order the sweet-and-sour pork! Sure, there have been times when we wandered a bit, mixing things up with an order of salt-baked shrimp or clams in black bean sauce. And we liked them — we really, really liked them. But that doesn't stop us from going back the next week and saying, robotically, "turnip cakes, chive potstickers, shrimp dumpling soup..."
3211 Payne Ave., Cleveland, 216-875-7000