The 26 Essential Cleveland Restaurants

Local? Visitor? Doesn't matter. Here's the skinny on the restaurants that define Cleveland.

The 26 Essential Cleveland Restaurants

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Salt | Lakewood

At this Lakewood hotspot, chef-owner Jill Vedaa trots out two dozen small plates – and not one of them is a taco, burger, flatbread or pasta. Instead, diners are introduced to a playbill featuring playful items like sweet potato croquettes, smoked beets, braised octopus, lamb carpaccio and pork pie. At Salt, “small” never means boring. The juxtaposition of hot and cold elements, of creamy and crispy textures, of sweet and salty or smoky and spicy flavors, keeps diners intrigued from course to course.

Plum Cafe | Ohio City

Plucked from the pages of an interior design magazine, this Ohio City venue is peaceful, elegant and stunning. Chef-partner Brett Sawyer is not one to be pigeonholed, as evidenced by this small plate-heavy roster that zigs from crispy fried chicken skin to whole fried fish. One minute you're biting into Southern-style dishes like fried catfish nuggets and crispy cornmeal croquettes and the next you're loading up wafer-thin Indian flatbread with rice, chutney and tangy yogurt sauce.

Fire Food and Drink | Shaker Square

It's a challenge to keep the attention of diners in a culinary market as dynamic as ours. It's even harder to do so for years on end on the eastside of Cleveland, where dining at new restaurants is blood sport. Chef-owner Doug Katz has been doing that for more than a decade in a location that can be murder on restaurants: Shaker Square. The restaurant has thrived because it is one of the most consistently excellent options in town in terms of food, service and atmosphere. If Fire opened up tomorrow in Tremont looking just as it did 13 years back, it still would win Best New Restaurant: that's how timeless the place is. Katz owns the farm-to-table American bistro genre, where the season's best ingredients are coaxed into flavor-forward plates of perfection.

Szechuan Gourmet | Asiatown

If you let it, dining out still can be an adventure. Most of us go through our days ordering the same dishes at the same restaurants because we know what comes next. Dine at Szechuan Gourmet and it's all a delicious crapshoot. The menu is long and obtuse, lacking anything resembling a description. Categories like "soup" and "entrée" are more suggestion than actual grouping. But that's all part of the charm of this Asian eatery inside the Tink Holl market, where dishes are foreign, exotic and earth-shatteringly delicious. Dishes hum with the energy of 10,000 Sichuan peppercorns, which produce a tongue-tingling buzz that you never want to end.

Fahrenheit | Tremont

Cleveland doesn't often export its concepts; we're more of a borrower. But chef Rocco Whalen has seeded Charlotte, North Carolina, with some genuine Cleveland DNA with the recent opening of a Fahrenheit 21 floors above the clean city streets. North Carolinians are now discovering what we have known for years: Whalen has a knack for delivering explosive food that resonates with damn near every diner. His pizzas are more addictive than crack, and his Kobe beef short ribs on lo mein noodles have been known to invade people's dreams. But more than anything, this Tremont bistro buzzes with the sort of energy that convinces diners that they made reservations at the right spot. You want buyer's remorse? Eat somewhere else.

Superior Pho | Asiatown

Little known fact: When Superior Pho opened up eight or so years ago, most of us had never even heard of let alone sampled this Vietnamese staple. Sure, there were a few tepid versions buried on ethnic menus around town, but nobody had devoted an entire restaurant (and nest egg) to the noodle soup until Manh Nguyen opened shop. Lucky for us, he got things right. Had he not, a whole major new trend might never have gotten off the ground. Service is swift, prices are fair, and the bowls of heady beef broth, chewy noodles, random bits of meat, and vegetal accouterments are guaranteed to brighten even the darkest of days.

Toast | Gordon Square

Toast isn't much like other restaurants. It's the unique creation of its owner, Jillian Davis, and thus is a one-off in terms of concept, decor and menu. That's just fine with us because she's got great taste when it comes to picking wine, picking cocktails and picking chefs. Soon-to-be-wed partners Jennifer Plank and Joe Horvath bring a little bit of the country farmhouse vibe into the heart of Gordon Square, where adorable little plates change with the weather. The Toast Trio is a nifty starter, perfect with a glass of wine or a signature cocktail. The rustic housemade charcuterie is required eating, as is pretty much anything else exiting the tiny kitchen.

Ginko Restaurant | Tremont

It takes a master chef like Dante Boccuzzi to open a truly exceptional sushi restaurant like Ginko. Who else would invest all that dough in a world-class sushi chef and coolers stocked with the freshest fish flown in daily from the Tskiji Fish Market in Tokyo? Cleveland has been lucky enough in the sushi genre, with one or two really good places at any given time. But when Ginko opened up it instantly raised the bar, defined the category and presented locals with the kind of sushi bar typically found in big coastal cities. Take a seat at the counter and let the chefs school you with their offerings of deftly cut fish. The funky subterranean setting adds to the entire experience, offering a cocoon-like setting where the focus lands squarely on the plate.

Tommy's Restaurant | Coventry

Some joints get grandfathered into lists like this one, and if you haven't eaten at Tommy's in recent years, you might think this one has too. But in a city lousy with copycat concepts and mimeographed menus, Tommy's remains a true original, a place where picking up the monster menu feels both warmly familiar and refreshingly unique. I mean, who the hell else sells dozens of various meat pies, escarole and potato pies and toasted cheese sandwiches? One of the few establishments where vegetarians and carnivores (if not Republicans) can peaceably coexist, Tommy's is a holdover from another generation. This timeless gem earns its place on this list every single day it flips the sign on the door from "closed" to "open."

Sokolowski's University Inn | Tremont

It took the James Beard Foundation 91 years to figure out what Clevelanders have known for generations: that Sokolowski's is an American Classic. The restaurant was the recipient of that precious Beard award in 2014, confirming that hearty Polish comfort foods are every bit as deserving of dangling metal pendants as foo-foo foodie fare. We love Sokolowski's because it's an honest reflection of our roots, dished up with zero pretention in a rustic tavern setting. This is food you don't have to contemplate; this is food that isn't deconstructed; this is food that is so familiar it feels like the meals Mom would make us. That's because it is.

Slyman's Restaurant | St. Clair/Superior

These days, every corner store and pub claims to serve "Cleveland's Best Corned Beef." That's bullshit, of course, because Slyman's has been the reigning champ for decades. Unhinge your jaw and sink your enamels deep into a fresh-sliced Slyman's corned beef sammie and you're enjoying one of the finest food experiences in town. Butter-soft and sweet, with whiffs of rye and mustard, these beef bombs seem to melt on contact. But there's more to Slyman's than pink meats; there's the hot turkey with fries and gravy, the egg salad sandwiches and the Reubens, to name a few. Like Sokolowski's, the crowds here so accurately represent a demographic cross-section of our populace that you could knock out a census sampling with one quick visit.

The Butcher and the Brewer | East Fourth

Butcher and the Brewer is the most ambitious, audacious and daring dining project to land in Cleveland since pioneering showman Nick Kostis opened his $5-million fun zone, Pickwick & Frolic, just down the block. Stepping off East Fourth Street and into this cavernous, cacophonous beer hall is a jolt to the senses, where every turn of the head reveals another facet of the sweeping operation. Butcher and the Brewer succeeds first and foremost as a "Great American Beer Hall" because it brews great beer and serves it up in a historic old hall.

The butcher part: A see-through meat locker reveals full sides of swinging Ohio beef, which is ground into burgers, sliced into steaks and dried into jerky. And B&B encourages grazing which, in fact, is the best way to tackle the wide-ranging menu.

Banter Beer and Wine | Detroit Shoreway

One part bottle shop, one part restaurant, and all parts sausage, this corner storefront in Detroit Shoreway specializes in butcher-driven sausages and Montreal-style poutine. Make the rounds of the coolers for a cold beer – or order a pint or glass of wine from the bartender – grab a seat, and enjoy a corndog, Polish Boy or braised rabbit capped poutine with fries, local curds, and gravy.

Dante | Tremont

After years spent globetrotting through places like London, Milan, Hong Kong, San Francisco and New York, native Clevelander and nationally recognized chef Dante Boccuzzi came back to claim his spot as one Cleveland's most famous chefs. In the years that followed he has gone on to open multiple restaurants, including another one that made this list. But Dante always will be his signature, eponymous restaurant, one that showcases through fine-tuned food the chef's knack for blending Italian, American and Asian influences. He has a true gift when it comes to seafood and pasta, both of which get plenty of airtime at this stunning Tremont bistro.

Citizen Pie | Collinwood

Vytauras Sasnauskas might just love his hand-built Stefano Ferrara pizza oven from Naples more than the pies that fly out of its glory hole. At this small cafe across the street from the Beachland Ballroom, pizza fans from all over the region squeeze in for a taste of wood-fired perfection. Divided into categories for red and white pizzas, the menu offers guests more than a dozen traditional and creative pies from which to choose. Of course, there is the pitch-perfect Margherita, but also the Roman, which is topped with smoked mozzarella, Gaeta olives, Calabrian chiles and soft, creamy stracciatella.

Lucky's Cafe | Tremont

Breakfast, we are so often told, is the most important meal of the day, even when eaten, as we so often do, after noon. Greasy-spoon diners are all right by us, but when we want to up our game and invest in a meal plucked fresh from the earth, made from scratch with skill, and served in a place that doesn't reek of stale coffee, we make a pilgrimage to Lucky's. If you don't think farm-fresh eggs, local butter and milk, and happy-harvested meats make a difference — and thus, aren't worth the added expense — then find the nearest Denny's. That will free up a few more in-demand seats at our favorite neighborhood cafe.

About The Author

Douglas Trattner

For 20 years, Douglas Trattner has worked as a full-time freelance writer, editor and author. His work on Michael Symon's "Carnivore," "5 in 5" and “Fix it With Food” have earned him three New York Times Best-Selling Author honors, while his longstanding role as Scene dining editor garnered the award of “Best...
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