Cross the Hope Memorial Bridge from downtown into Ohio City and the contrasts are striking. At times, it feels like entering a different city altogether. Which it once was. Incorporated in 1836, the City of Ohio was settled largely by the working-class immigrants who'd built the Ohio and Erie Canal. Ohio City became natural rivals with the slightly more well-heeled settlers on the other side of the river in Cleveland. The two cities came to blows over the Columbus Street Bridge, which took travelers through Cleveland while bypassing Ohio City. No one was killed in what became known as the Bridge War, but we'd have to say the Cleveland side won: Ohio City was annexed by its east side neighbor in less than 20 years. As it continued to draw immigrants over the next century, Ohio City became known for the West Side Market and for its beautiful, Victorian-style homes. Historic restoration efforts from the 1960s onward helped pave the way for the neighborhood's revitalization. Today, with its dining scene and proximity to downtown, Ohio City is one of the most desirable neighborhoods in Cleveland.
Karen Small is the godmother of farm-to-table dining in Cleveland, and Flying Fig is her baby. She opened the Fig in 1999, when Ohio City was still largely ignored, if not actively avoided, by many. From its inception, the restaurant was committed to the idea of seasonal, locally sourced food, more than decade before that became a national trend. Her commitment to dining excellence shaped the dining scene of not just Ohio City, but Cleveland as a whole. While other area restaurateurs have given in to the temptation to over-expand and compromise quality, Small has kept her operation tiny, manageable and consistently creative. The atmosphere is intimate, and the American fare keeps things simple but surprising, taking dishes like a confit chicken thigh and adding cremini mushroom gravy. The drink menu is as sophisticated as the food, making brunch at the Fig a neighborhood staple. For those on the run, the attached Market at the Fig offers quality local products and serves consistently great sandwiches.
Once one of the city's largest industries, brewing in Cleveland had ceased completely by 1988. That was the year the Conway brothers, Pat and Dan, decided to set up Great Lakes Brewing Company in Ohio City. Rather than alter or tear down the historic Elton Hotel where they began operations, the Conways elected to preserve it, a principle they held to as operations expanded. Decades ahead of the modern craft brewing movement, the Conways grew their operation into the 21st largest craft brewery in the country. Today, it's impossible to imagine St. Patrick's Day without a Conway's Irish Ale, or Christmas in CLE without the iconic Christmas Ale. And as long as the folks at Great Lakes continue to preserve the neighborhood while making great beer, we'll never need to. You can get Great Lakes anywhere, but the Ohio City brewpub is worth a visit for the pub exclusives and the illuminating tours of the brewery.
Under the open, Byzantine tile roof of the West Side Market, shoppers can find food from Greece, Cambodia, the Middle East, and a whole host of Eastern European nations. The smell of cured meats and oils and cakes mingle in the air. Produce vendors shout out deals. Take out the parking and a visit to West Side Market is pure Cleveland food magic. The Market can trace its roots back to 1840, when former Ohio City mayors Josiah Barber and Richard Lord donated land to the city on the condition that the site always host a public market. The Pearl Street Market, named for the street that would later become West 25th, served the neighborhood, in particular the immigrant population, for 75 years. When the population grew too large for the market to adequately serve, construction began on a larger site across the street. Architectural firm Hubbell and Benes, perhaps best known for designing the Cleveland Museum of Art, helmed the project. In 2012, the Market celebrated its 100th anniversary, and shows no signs of slowing down.
The belief of the Brews and Prose reading series is captured in its motto: "Literature is better with beer." Hosted in the bottom floor of Market Garden Brewery the first Tuesday of every month, Brews and Prose strives to make poetry and fiction more accessible by pairing it with Market Garden's craft brews. Readers have included novelists, poets, and memoirists both national and local, like Akron essayist David Giffels and Tampa author Alissa Nutting. Buying a book will get you a bookmark and a free beer, which may be, as series founder Dave Lucas often says, the best deal in town.
Is the arresting, multi-story Victorian mansion at the corner of Franklin and West 44th actually haunted? Probably not. The original owner of Franklin Castle did experience a spate of family deaths, but some savvy PR probably accounts for most of the ghost sightings and stories. Should this deter you from trying to glimpse a spook in one of the windows? Absolutely not.
Cleveland has been blessed with a proliferation of artisanal ice cream shops, but Mason's Creamery sets itself apart with its creative flavors. Not only will customers find ice creams like Sweet Potato Pie, Vietnamese Coffee and Vegan Vanilla with Sweet Sriracha Sauce, if they're lucky, they can partake in one of the monthly ramen pop-ups.
Before Ohio City became a foodie haven, Nate's Deli was serving the best Middle Eastern food in the city. A small, family-owned restaurant, Nate's is the "everybody knows your name" kind of establishment it's hard to believe still exists. The tabouli and fattoosh salads are always made fresh, and it's one of the only places in the city where customers can order a plate of raw kibbee.
There's a welcoming smell on entering Forest City Shuffleboard: sawdust mixed with fried food. It's a charmingly retro establishment offering indoor and outdoor shuffleboard courts and tables. It's friendly to all ages, and even if you don't care for playing shuffleboard, there's plenty of craft beer to choose from.
In an increasingly digitized culture, there is comfort to be found in the physicality of board games. That could be why Tabletop Board Game Cafe is so darn fun. With a warm, inviting atmosphere and a library of nearly 1,000 board games to choose from, Tabletop is a place to enjoy a childhood favorite or learn a completely new one. Some nice bites and beers will sustain you, and $5 will let you play all day.
In 2014, executive chef Michael Nowak moved The Black Pig from the main drag on West 25th to a smaller, more intimate location at 28th and Bridge. The move has paid off in spades: Nowak now quietly runs one of the best food and bar programs in the city. The food is seasonal, European-influenced, and places a heavy emphasis, of course, on pork.
Nearly five years since its opening, Porco Lounge & Tiki Room continues to bring its tiki vibes to Cleveland. It has won national awards for its drinks, and its recognition has helped raise the visibility of Cleveland's formidable cocktail scene. The secret to its success? The atmosphere is fun, the decor is on point, and the drinks will knock you off your barstool.
When you get a plate of veggies at The Flying Fig, chances are they were plucked from the ground just down the street that very day. Just behind the West Side Market, Ohio City Farm is one of the largest contiguous urban farms in the U.S. They provide grains for special Great Lakes beers, and their partnership with the Refugee Response provides a sustainable living for dozens of local families.