Best Of 2016

Brunch in Cleveland — heck, brunch anywhere — used to be an exercise in muted creativity. How many different dishes can we create from a pantry of four ingredients: bacon, eggs, potatoes and bread. A Bloody Mary does not count as an ingredient, despite its ubiquity. But then something magical happened: Chefs who couldn’t be bothered with the traditional began jumping in with two feet. Chefs like Mike Nowak, who works the sweet-and-savory balance beam like an Olympic gold medalist. While still easy like Sunday morning in terms of atmosphere, Black Pig’s weekend brunch offers a level of competence not found at the corner diner. Not only do guests enjoy the benefit of a professional kitchen, but also the service staff that supports it. Come for the short rib hash with eggs and black garlic aioli, or the Black Pig Benedict, with pate-topped English muffin, eggs and Hollandaise, but stay for the relaxed efficiency of a well-run brunch. And the Bloody Marys. Definitely stay for the Bloodies.

2801 Bridge Ave., 216-862–7551, blackpigcle.com.

Food & Drink

Penny Barend and Melissa Khoury, Butchers, Saucisson
Hot dogs are "happy food." We grill up hot dogs at summer barbecues. We knock back hot dogs at the ballpark. We scarf down hot dogs at Costco while shopping for giant flatscreen TVs. That makes Happy Dog a place that sells happy food. The bar--east or west--makes the happy food happier by putting the diner in control of their own wild ride. Ketchup and mustard are fine as far as toppings go, but the real amusement lies in concocting one's own mad creation. You can keep your Fruit Loops, thanks. We prefer the perfect union of bacon, cheddar and a sunny side-up egg. Top that.

Multiple locations, happydogcleveland.com

L’Albatros is a peerless Cleveland restaurant that just so happens to be a French restaurant. As we’ve learned from our culinary studies, not to mention the Best Chef category, owner Zack Bruell can wrap a wonderful restaurant around any cuisine, be it Asian, Italian or Coastal seafood. Here, in this transformed University Circle carriage house, the devices employed are provocative dishes culled from the annals of classic French cookery, reshaped into modern works of balance and finesse. In Bruell’s hands, fusty old archetypes like duck confit, roast cod, skate wing and pied de cochon look and taste like contemporary plats du jour. As attractive as the food is, it’s the spotless setting and service that elevates a great meal into a memorable experience. That’s the kind of magic that’s been happening here on a daily basis for seven years.

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

We’re sure there are activities at which Zack Bruell does not excel. Maybe it’s watercolor painting, perhaps it’s deep-sea fishing, or even organic vegetable gardening. What he does not suck at, we are certain, is cheffing. With a consistency that rivals an atomic clock, Bruell opens new restaurants, in diverse neighborhoods, built around novel concepts. While it’s no simple task to open multiple units of the same format, it is another thing entirely to successfully concoct, manage and maintain a portfolio of culinarily diverse operations. Bruell is fast approaching a dozen such inventions, each one of them an amusement park of deliciousness that adds a spark to the community it calls home. In a highly competitive industry where demand greatly outstrips supply, Bruell cultivates an ever-growing stable of talent which supports his empire and enriches the regional dining scene.
For such an unassuming concept, Banter sure has attracted its share of buzz. After opening its doors in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood this winter, the bar and restaurant switched from being the most anticipated new eatery to the most talked about one. A lot of that support has to do with the owners, a quartet of food and beverage pros with ties like tentacles that touch almost every facet of the industry. A good portion of that admiration is directed to the design of the space which leans to the minimal, the industrial, the gleefully austere. But really, we love Banter because of the poutine, platters of perfect french fries drowning in rich meat gravy and nubby, melty cheese curds. It is precisely the kind of bar food that is shared over cold beers, earthy wines, and straightforward cocktails, all of which are readily accessible. For neighborhood folks, the grab-and-go beer and wine is a gift that keeps giving.

7320 Detroit Ave., 216-801-0305, bantercleveland.com.

Most Jamaican joints around town — and there’s a handful — follow a well-worn formula that does everything but make the experience open and accessible to timid newbies. From the bullet-proof glass to the lack of dine-in seating, these places might serve great food, but only the most diehard jerk chicken fans will brave the delivery system. Taste of Jamaica is different. Located in a Mayfield Road strip mall with plenty of parking, the restaurant is making new friends by the day. Now, we can savor those pot-roasty braised oxtails, fiery jerk chicken and flakey beef patties in a setting that has, well, seats. Even better, those tables are topped with bottles of hot sauce for the true-blue Caribbean food fan.

5104 Mayfield Rd., Lyndhurst, 440-565-7230.

Maybe it’s the fact that Swenson’s Drive-Ins are situated a wee bit out of reach for most of us burger lovers to make regular pilgrimages. Absence, as they say, makes the cholesterol-hardened heart grow fonder. Like a distant lover, we pine for the warm embrace of a Galley Boy, a double-decker sandwich that always hits the spot. Despite its twin-patty construction, the GB is the ideal size and heft when it comes to a car-friendly meal — neither too wimpy nor too grand, with just the right ratio of cheese and special sauces. The other All-Star from Akron, the Swenson’s hamburger is now into its eighth decade as the undisputed champ of the drive-in.

Multiple locations, swensonsdriveins.com.

All steaks are not created equal. Nor are steakhouses. One can settle in for a perfectly delicious steak or chop at any number of other local places, and your wallet would thank you. But for a truly exceptional, top-of-the-line, meat-lover’s extravaganza, the number of suitable options diminishes greatly. The best of the bunch? You’re looking at it. Sure, you’re going to drop a few more pounds of cabbage at Red, but what that cash nets a diner is the kind of meal that sticks with you longer than the creamed spinach burps. A steak dinner should be an event, an excuse to loosen one’s belt, knock back a boozy cocktail or three, and carve into a densely marbled flank of prime beef. When you’re eager to truly gild the lily, this is the flower garden to visit.

Multiple locations, redthesteakhouse.com.

Let’s face it: Korean food is some of the most intimidating stuff around, what with all those little plates of banchan, various raw, pickled or fermented veggies, tofu and fish, and the indecipherable menu. And that’s just the start! But the good folks at Korea House get that, and they go out of their way to share their enthusiasm for the cuisine, an enthusiasm that is both merited and contagious. Korean barbecue, a tabletop cook-up great for groups, turns weeknight dinners into glorious fun. Kalbi or bulgogi, sliced beef short ribs or marinated beef ribeye, get tucked into lettuce leaves, topped with red chili pepper paste, and devoured with glee. Korean soups and stews are the most flavorful foods around, spicy, loaded with meat, tofu or fish, and also great for sharing. Of course, there’s always the bibimbop, a “beginner’s” dish of steamed rice, shredded veggies, ground beef and an egg, served in a hot crock. Whichever way you go, you won’t be disappointed.

3700 Superior Ave., 216-431-0462.