Believe it or not, at one point in time fried chicken and waffles was as exotic a dish in Cleveland as they came. My first experience with the now-ubiquitous comfort food took place in 2001 in the basement of the Civic on Mayfield, where a young entrepreneur who went by the name Phil the Fire hosted weekly soul food brunch buffets. Right alongside the macaroni and cheese, cheddar cheese grits, cornbread, fried catfish and sweet potato pecan pie was that delectable pairing of moist, sweet waffles and crispy fried chicken.
We've come a long way since those early days, when restaurants like Phil the Fire, Lancer's Steak House, Chester's on Noble, and Angie's Soul Cafe were pretty much the only games in town when it came to Southern and soul food-style restaurants. Not only has the cuisine expanded into new geographical territories, extending westward from its historically eastside habitat, but the food itself has mutated. Modern practitioners of the trade are picking up the torch of their forebearers, tweaking it, and exciting a whole new generation of comfort food fans.
Perhaps the biggest push forward came about five years ago, when Angie's Soul Cafe owner Akin Alafin launched Zanzibar in Shaker Square, Stonetown on Prospect and Jezebel's on Larchmere (now closed) all within a few years of one another. Each, in its own unique way, built upon and expanded the Angie's soul food brand and menu. Around the same time, a young chef named Nolan Konkoski began introducing city dwellers to his take on "New Southern" cooking with the launch of SoHo in Ohio City. It was there that many Cleveland diners had their first revelatory tastes of pimento cheese, shrimp and grits, catfish po' boys and, yes, fried chicken and waffles.
Another great example of a young chef taking a classic culinary tradition and bringing it into the present day is Joseph Zegarac, whose 1-year-old Lakewood spot Chow Chow Kitchen is adored for its tasty vittles and no-frills vibe. Zegarac combines under one roof some of his favorite Southern comfort food dishes, including the red-hot Nashville hot chicken as well as staples like ham and bean soup, deviled eggs, macaroni and cheese, hush puppies and fried catfish. He's also pushing the envelope with contemporary creations like deep-fried cheese curds with gravy and, er, tofu-stuffed po' boys.
Also last year, Tony Fortner, the longtime chef for the Angie's restaurant group, struck out on his own for the first time in two decades with the opening of Southern Cafe. This sweet little Lakewood dining room serves up many of the dishes that Fortner made popular at places like Angie's, Zanzibar and Jezebel's in a casual, informal setting. Soul food classics like collards-filled soul rolls, fried green tomatoes, shrimp and creamy grits, crispy fried chicken and waffles, Salisbury steak, and sauteed pork chops smothered in brown gravy and onions seem custom built for long Cleveland winters.
Back across town in Cleveland Heights, chef Eric Rogers was doing so well with his Southern-styled sandwich shop Black Box Fix that he upgraded and enlarged his digs by taking over the old Joey's Bistro spot down the block. The brand-new eatery, now called simply the Fix, combines popular sandwiches like the OMG Philly with grilled chicken, Creole shrimp and mushrooms with new items like andouille-stuffed soul rolls, buttermilk fried chicken, and grilled salmon served atop spicy jambalaya.
Come this winter, downtown Cleveland will become home to another Southern-themed restaurant, this one originating a few hours west of the city. When Chicago's Home of Chicken and Waffles opens on Prospect Avenue, in the former home of the Rathskeller tavern, it will be the first location outside the Windy City, where there are currently two locations (down from three). Owner Tonya Johnson opened her first restaurant in 2008 on the southside of town, following that up with a second spot two years later in the Oak Park neighborhood. Diners can look forward to not only the classic fried chicken and waffles dish, but also a version topped with fried chicken livers, gravy and onions. Southern-style dinners like fried catfish and Salisbury steak all come with cornbread and a choice of sides like mac & cheese, yams, collard greens and Cajun red beans and rice. For dessert, there's peach cobbler and sweet potato pie.