March 02, 2015

24 Restaurants Every True Clevelander Should Have Visited By Now

When compelled to choose where to have our next meal, we gravitate to the places that make us feel special. The places that consistently execute on food, service and setting, the places that we never regret choosing. In short, our favorite restaurants.

"Where do we eat?"

That's a very simple question that often warrants a very complicated answer. Well, that depends on who we're with, what part of town we find ourselves in, how much cash we feel like burning through, and maybe even how hungover we happen to feel. But more often than not, we will end up sitting at a table in one of the following restaurants.

And that's precisely how we approached the compilation of this list. Living in a city blessed with talented chefs and exceptional restaurants, we diners have no shortage of places to spend our dough. But when compelled to choose — as diners are every night they elect to leave the cooking to somebody else — we gravitate to the places that make us feel special, the places that consistently execute on food, service and setting, the places that we never regret choosing. In short, our favorite restaurants.

By Douglas Trattner

Photos via Facebook and the Cleveland Scene archives

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Li Wah | Asiatown 
There aren't many things worth waking up for on a Sunday, but dim sum at this sprawling Asiatown restaurant is one of them. Round up a small posse, plant a flag in a huge round table, and proceed to load it up with every conceivable steamed and fried bun, dumpling and roll. The beauty of this process is that it's a point-and-shoot affair; simply keep your eyes peeled for things that look tasty and ask for one (or two). Portions are small and prices are too, so order a large variety of items whether you've tried them before or not. Be brave and sample the congee, a creamy rice porridge, and the chicken feet, which are fried and braised until melt-in-your-mouth tender. And drink tea, lots and lots of tea.
Li Wah | Asiatown
There aren't many things worth waking up for on a Sunday, but dim sum at this sprawling Asiatown restaurant is one of them. Round up a small posse, plant a flag in a huge round table, and proceed to load it up with every conceivable steamed and fried bun, dumpling and roll. The beauty of this process is that it's a point-and-shoot affair; simply keep your eyes peeled for things that look tasty and ask for one (or two). Portions are small and prices are too, so order a large variety of items whether you've tried them before or not. Be brave and sample the congee, a creamy rice porridge, and the chicken feet, which are fried and braised until melt-in-your-mouth tender. And drink tea, lots and lots of tea.
Lola Bistro | Downtown
Every god needs a temple, even the culinary ones. Cleveland is Michael Symon's parish, and when those parishioners want to worship the man who brings heaps of praise onto our city's food scene, they do so here, at Lola, the unofficial shrine to the "Rust Belt Revival." Food tourists book tables here months out, locals grab seats at the bar last minute, high-rollers set up shop at the chef's table near the open kitchen — and all of them leave a little lighter in the wallet, heavier in the belly, and happier for the opportunity to brush with greatness. Whether he's in the house or not, Symon's direction can be felt in every course.
Lola Bistro | Downtown
Every god needs a temple, even the culinary ones. Cleveland is Michael Symon's parish, and when those parishioners want to worship the man who brings heaps of praise onto our city's food scene, they do so here, at Lola, the unofficial shrine to the "Rust Belt Revival." Food tourists book tables here months out, locals grab seats at the bar last minute, high-rollers set up shop at the chef's table near the open kitchen — and all of them leave a little lighter in the wallet, heavier in the belly, and happier for the opportunity to brush with greatness. Whether he's in the house or not, Symon's direction can be felt in every course.
The Flying Fig | Ohio City
Long before "farm-to-table" was a trite catchphrase, and the local farmers network still was in its infancy, chef Karen Small endeavored to fill her dinner plates with food from area farms instead of national trucks. It wasn't easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. In so doing, she — along with a small handful of other progressive chefs — helped transform Cleveland from a lackluster Midwestern flyover food town to what it is today: a shining example of how farms, chefs and restaurants can work together to help save the planet while turning out delicious, contemporary fare.
The Flying Fig | Ohio City
Long before "farm-to-table" was a trite catchphrase, and the local farmers network still was in its infancy, chef Karen Small endeavored to fill her dinner plates with food from area farms instead of national trucks. It wasn't easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. In so doing, she — along with a small handful of other progressive chefs — helped transform Cleveland from a lackluster Midwestern flyover food town to what it is today: a shining example of how farms, chefs and restaurants can work together to help save the planet while turning out delicious, contemporary fare.
The Greenhouse Tavern | Downtown
A whole roasted pig face might sound like a dish designed to shock more than satisfy, but that's where chef Jonathon Sawyer differs from the pack. The genesis of this immensely satisfying — and, yes, shocking — dish was not spectacle, but rather practicality. In a nose-to-tail restaurant like Greenhouse, no part of the animal is wasted. The trick is figuring out how to make your customers hand over their hard-earned cash for the wrong end of a pig. The answer: Make it fucking awesome. When you combine fearlessness with culinary brilliance, you end up with a restaurant that routinely destroys boundaries, births trends and brings everybody along for the gut-pleasing ride.
The Greenhouse Tavern | Downtown
A whole roasted pig face might sound like a dish designed to shock more than satisfy, but that's where chef Jonathon Sawyer differs from the pack. The genesis of this immensely satisfying — and, yes, shocking — dish was not spectacle, but rather practicality. In a nose-to-tail restaurant like Greenhouse, no part of the animal is wasted. The trick is figuring out how to make your customers hand over their hard-earned cash for the wrong end of a pig. The answer: Make it fucking awesome. When you combine fearlessness with culinary brilliance, you end up with a restaurant that routinely destroys boundaries, births trends and brings everybody along for the gut-pleasing ride.
Momocho Mod Mex | Ohio City
Eric Williams didn't invent modern Mexican cuisine, but he certainly introduced a large number of Clevelanders to the concept. His fine form, honed from years spent in top kitchens, provides the chef with the skills and confidence to bend cuisines into something new, exciting and delicious. Sure, considerable exposure has placed Momocho squarely on the see-and-be-seen list of restaurants. But when the crowds thin, and the tourists head back from whence they came, this hip Ohio City tavern always reverts back to its roots as a warm, convivial neighborhood tavern.
Momocho Mod Mex | Ohio City
Eric Williams didn't invent modern Mexican cuisine, but he certainly introduced a large number of Clevelanders to the concept. His fine form, honed from years spent in top kitchens, provides the chef with the skills and confidence to bend cuisines into something new, exciting and delicious. Sure, considerable exposure has placed Momocho squarely on the see-and-be-seen list of restaurants. But when the crowds thin, and the tourists head back from whence they came, this hip Ohio City tavern always reverts back to its roots as a warm, convivial neighborhood tavern.
Spice Kitchen and Bar | Gordon Square
Chef-owner Ben Bebenroth was doing just fine with his high-end catering company Spice of Life, hosting day-dreamy Plated Landscape feasts in bucolic settings around Northeast Ohio, when he decided to take a chance on a cursed corner location in Gordon Square. That was more than two years ago, and in that time Spice has grown into a neighborhood fixture, a restaurant that so seamlessly fits with the residents' eco-friendly sensibilities that you wonder how they got along without it all these years. More so than almost any chef in town, Bebenroth takes local, sustainable, and seasonal to heart — and makes abiding by the land a pain-free proposition.
Spice Kitchen and Bar | Gordon Square
Chef-owner Ben Bebenroth was doing just fine with his high-end catering company Spice of Life, hosting day-dreamy Plated Landscape feasts in bucolic settings around Northeast Ohio, when he decided to take a chance on a cursed corner location in Gordon Square. That was more than two years ago, and in that time Spice has grown into a neighborhood fixture, a restaurant that so seamlessly fits with the residents' eco-friendly sensibilities that you wonder how they got along without it all these years. More so than almost any chef in town, Bebenroth takes local, sustainable, and seasonal to heart — and makes abiding by the land a pain-free proposition.
The Black Pig | Ohio City
It's never easy to be the following act for a rising star chef like Jonathon Sawyer, as Mike Nowak was at Bar Cento after Sawyer's departure. And Nowak will soon depart too, to Banter in Detroit Shoreway, but Adam Lambert is by his side for now, and will take over then. Speaking of moving: Black Pig, moved, and improved, from its spot on West 25th to the former Light Bistro location on Bridge. The ever-growing cadre of fans make frequent sojourns to enjoy French-inspired fare starring heirloom pork in all its pink, piggy glory. While lofty in pedigree and provenance, the fare is easygoing, approachable and otherworldly when it comes to taste.
The Black Pig | Ohio City
It's never easy to be the following act for a rising star chef like Jonathon Sawyer, as Mike Nowak was at Bar Cento after Sawyer's departure. And Nowak will soon depart too, to Banter in Detroit Shoreway, but Adam Lambert is by his side for now, and will take over then. Speaking of moving: Black Pig, moved, and improved, from its spot on West 25th to the former Light Bistro location on Bridge. The ever-growing cadre of fans make frequent sojourns to enjoy French-inspired fare starring heirloom pork in all its pink, piggy glory. While lofty in pedigree and provenance, the fare is easygoing, approachable and otherworldly when it comes to taste.
Flour Restaurant | Moreland Hills
Flour is one of the few restaurants that always manages to have a few surprises up its sleeves regardless how often one visits. On its surface, it's a contemporary Italian bistro, with familiar-sounding dishes like stuffed peppers, calamari, Neapolitan pizzas, and pasta galore. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that regardless how familiar a dish might sound, there's always more to the story. In place of linguini with clam sauce you get cockles with spaghetti and caviar. Short ribs are char-grilled before a slow braise in red wine and chocolate milk. Eggs Benny features fried mortadella in place of dry-ass Canadian bacon. When you have talent the likes of Paul Minnillo and Matt Mytro — "Old School" and "New School" — in the kitchen, it's best to keep gaps between visits as brief as possible.
Flour Restaurant | Moreland Hills
Flour is one of the few restaurants that always manages to have a few surprises up its sleeves regardless how often one visits. On its surface, it's a contemporary Italian bistro, with familiar-sounding dishes like stuffed peppers, calamari, Neapolitan pizzas, and pasta galore. But dig a little deeper and you'll find that regardless how familiar a dish might sound, there's always more to the story. In place of linguini with clam sauce you get cockles with spaghetti and caviar. Short ribs are char-grilled before a slow braise in red wine and chocolate milk. Eggs Benny features fried mortadella in place of dry-ass Canadian bacon. When you have talent the likes of Paul Minnillo and Matt Mytro — "Old School" and "New School" — in the kitchen, it's best to keep gaps between visits as brief as possible.
Crop Bistro and Bar | Ohio City
Running a restaurant is hard work, which explains why so many chefs are somber, serious types. But when Steve Schimoler rode into town on his magic bus from never-never land, he instantaneously elevated the mood of the entire local food scene. He approaches his menu as a boy would approach an erector set — but in place of beams, pulleys and motors, the chef employs seasonal veggies, meats and seafood. And the results are no less fun: playful, eye-catching and drop-dead delicious. Schimoler's boundless boyhood spirit proves that true artists don't have to be cheerless bastards.
Crop Bistro and Bar | Ohio City
Running a restaurant is hard work, which explains why so many chefs are somber, serious types. But when Steve Schimoler rode into town on his magic bus from never-never land, he instantaneously elevated the mood of the entire local food scene. He approaches his menu as a boy would approach an erector set — but in place of beams, pulleys and motors, the chef employs seasonal veggies, meats and seafood. And the results are no less fun: playful, eye-catching and drop-dead delicious. Schimoler's boundless boyhood spirit proves that true artists don't have to be cheerless bastards.
SoHo Chicken + Whiskey | Ohio City
Just when you think Ohio City had published some sort of secret manual that restaurant operators had to adhere to just to open their doors, along come Nolan Konkoski and Molly Smith with designs of their own. SoHo doesn't really fit the mold established by its brethren, and for that we couldn't be more pleased. No farm-to-table American bistro this, SoHo instead heads south to Low Country land and returns with lip-smacking, finger-licking, toe-tapping feasts of creamy shrimp and grits, mahogany fried chicken and aromatic, seafood-rich boils. Not much larger than the parlor of a quaint Victorian, this restaurant is agreeably intimate and hospitable — just like the folks who run it. A top-notch American whiskey selection is the gravy on the country-fried steak.
SoHo Chicken + Whiskey | Ohio City
Just when you think Ohio City had published some sort of secret manual that restaurant operators had to adhere to just to open their doors, along come Nolan Konkoski and Molly Smith with designs of their own. SoHo doesn't really fit the mold established by its brethren, and for that we couldn't be more pleased. No farm-to-table American bistro this, SoHo instead heads south to Low Country land and returns with lip-smacking, finger-licking, toe-tapping feasts of creamy shrimp and grits, mahogany fried chicken and aromatic, seafood-rich boils. Not much larger than the parlor of a quaint Victorian, this restaurant is agreeably intimate and hospitable — just like the folks who run it. A top-notch American whiskey selection is the gravy on the country-fried steak.