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Try to Pick the Perfect Cleveland Winter Day 

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY LUSTER KABOOM
  • Illustration by Luster Kaboom

It's wintertime in Cleveland and, you know what... That's just perfect. Sure, the cold, the darkness, the wind, the snow will be around but you are not going to let it get you down. You're going to conquer the season. You're going to embrace it, taking Old Man Winter's hand and saying, "Let's go, you pasty grump. There's fun to be had. Grab your mittens and don't waste a second."

But the city is full of options, and you have to know what to do and what to avoid. Because your enthusiasm can quickly fade if you err in your decision making.

So your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to have the perfect winter day. There are pitfalls and roadblocks lurking around every corner, so be careful and choose wisely. Succeed and you'll come out the other end with a smile. Fail, and well...

Start by choosing one of the options below to kick off the day, then follow the instructions underneath to follow along through page numbers of the "book."

You slept in, and boy did you sleep like a rock. There's no work in sight today and the whole day stretches before you. Do you...

Head out on a beautiful, snowy hike. (Turn to page 2)

Hit Brandywine for some tubing. (Turn to page 3)

Head to the Christmas Story house. (Turn to page 4)

Hit the toboggan chutes in the Metroparks. (Turn to page 5)

(2) Long walks amid stunning scenes of Northeast Ohio's natural splendor are not reserved for days with temperatures that start with a 5 or higher. Those same walks you enjoy in the fall simply because they look different than they do in summer are also walks you enjoy in the winter because the barren treetops and snow-covered landscape are entirely new ones compared to the same trails surrounded by the oranges and yellows and reds of autumn. Plus, there's less traffic out here in winter, all the better to enjoy some peaceful serenity. Whether you're in the Rocky River Reservation, the Chapin Forest Reservation, making the trek along the Salt Run Trail in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park or somewhere else, this is ideal for clearing the mind and getting those steps. A couple of hours of this and you've now worked up an appetite. Piping hot soup sounds good. Do you...

Head to Mason's for ramen. (Turn to page 12)

Head to Asiatown for pho. (Turn to page 18)

(3) Your instinct is to cuddle up on the couch with a blanket and immerse yourself in the warm glow of the TV but you will not be defeated by winter. You won't merely fight, you'll win, by tubing down at the Polar Blast Tubing Park at Brandywine, channeling your inner ten-year-old self, and getting three hours of recreational wintertime fun in for just $25. Sweaty and tired at the end, it's time to get some calories into your body. Do you...

Focus on some refreshing adult beverages at Market Garden Brewery. (Turn to page 9)

Opt for some soul-satisfying grub at Irie Jamaican. (Turn to page 13)

(4) Ah, the Christmas Story House. You've meant to go all these years and just never quite made it. But here you are on the south side of the south side this little slice of Cleveland and Christmas cinematic history has won you over. After posing for a pic in the cupboard beneath the kitchen sink and with the famous leg lamp you're bursting with winter spirit. Now it's time for some breakfast. Do you...

Head across the street to the Rowley Inn. (Turn to page 6)

Head to Larchmere for Big Al's. (Turn to page 7)

(5) Down in Strongsville you speed down a frozen path over and over with pals, flying into the face of the bitter winter wind at some 50 mph. The eyes water, the snot freezes, the smile beams. After a couple of hours the crew is exhausted but happy. Now it's time for some post-toboggan beverages and a snack. Do you...

Head to Fat Heads. (Turn to page 8)

Head to Market Garden. (Turn to page 9)

(6) You enter the Rowley Inn and you immediately feel at home. If home was a place where third-shifters mix with suburban visitors and local neighborhood folks nursing shots over plates of eggs or solidly constructed burgers, that is. You take a seat at the bar and order up a satisfying breakfast. This place... this place is a treasure. Good food, good people, cheap prices, and booze that starts flowing at the breakfast hour. Sipping a fine domestic lager as you finish your meal, the guy next to you — Mark is his name, salt of the Earth — offers to buy you a shot. Do you...

Accept the shot. (Turn to page 11)

Politely decline and keep to your plans to meet some friends to go toboggan. (Turn to page 4)

(7) If there's a better way to tackle the first meal of the day than the corned beef hash and a side of grits at Big Al's, no one's shared you in on the secret. You nestle into a booth and take in the friendly conversations happening all around you in this Larchmere diner. The corned beef hash and grits don't let you down. They never do. A couple of cups of coffee fill the tank. Now you're itching for the next stop. Do you...

Head to the IX Center for the home and garden expo. (Turn to page 10)

Head down to the newly opened Topgolf location to hit some balls. (Turn to page 15)

(8) You enter the emporium of beer and headwiches. Fat Head's massive new brewery and production facility in Middleburg Heights is buzzy and busy, tables filled everywhere you look, glasses filled everywhere you look with some of the finest craft beers made right here in Northeast Ohio. There are dozens of options on tap but you've been thinking about a Holly Jolly all week and boy does it hit the spot. Some whole smokehouse wings appear, and that's not a bad thing at all. With your energy levels replenished back to working order, it's time to mosey on to something else. The group's splitting up. Do you....

Join the crew heading to the IX Center for the expo of boats or whatever. (Turn to page 10)

Join the crew heading to the zoo for the winter lights festival. (Turn to page 14)

(9) Festivus is the reason for the season, and once that potent elixir is in the rearview there's always lower-ABV options, including one of the best wheat beers you'll ever have. The heart of Ohio City is throbbing with visitors and Market Garden is awash in energy. You dip outside to stand around the fire on the patio, taking in the festive scenes of holiday shoppers and market visitors. You settle up and proprietor Sam McNulty asks, "One more?" You know better than to go down that path, as fun as it would be. You're in the mood for some hoops. Do you...

Head to the Q for a Cavs game. (Turn to page 16)

Head to the Wolstein Center for some CSU action. (Turn to page 17)

(10) You head down Route 237 and as you pull up, you can't help but bop your head along to the jingle. Come on down to the... IX... Indoor.... Amuuuuusement Park. Classic. Anyway, you're not here for that but instead for some winter-time expo that sets your mind in a summertime mood. The motorocycle show. The RV show. The home and garden show. It's always something, and today it's just the ticket. Browsing the finest offerings in Cleveland's finest indoor exposition center has you positively gleeful. And it's that wave that sparks a thought as you eye the indoor ferris wheel. Sure does put a damper on these festivities that it's not running. Seeing that thing circling sure would be nice. So you find an electrical box, jimmy it open, hit a couple of switches. Whirr. Whirr. Whirr. It clangs to life after an asthmatic start, and before a nearby security guard can intervene you're in a seat and heading higher and imagining a warm summer carnival. But something goes wrong. When you're sitting at the apex the machine comes to an abrupt and unpleasant halt. Promises of help and rescue arrive via megaphones below but the help and rescue never do, as everyone gets distracted by the waterskiing squirrel. Your death is the first edit in the year 2020 to the IX Center's Wikipedia page, which still somehow doesn't include an entry about the jingle, a fact you mourn from your perch in the afterlife.

Better luck next time. Try again by restarting on page 1.

(11) "Mark," you say, "that is mighty generous of you." And with that he orders up two Jamesons and you cheer the gesture. "To your eternal kindness, and to this place," you say. That tastes mighty good. And Mark turns out to be a lively conversationalist. One more, this time on me, you offer. "You won't hear me turn that down," Mark says. Two shots become four, morning turns to afternoon, strangers become friends, you eat lunch, you tell your pals to come to the Rowley after they're done tobogganing. They do. Glasses are raised, memories are made. Not everything has to be outdoorsy and exciting. Activities can wait for another day.

Congratulations, you chose a perfect winter day. To land on one of the other ideal scenarios, restart the journey on page 1.

(12) For the second winter in a row Mason's Creamery has transformed into Mason's Ramen central, and between the cute-as-hell building and flavorful bowls of noodles and pork, you can see why the crowds arrive en mass. With these wind chills few things satisfy like a bowl of ramen, and thus fortified you ponder your next move. Do you...

Stick to the indoors and catch a Cavs game. (Turn to page 16)

Head back into the outdoors and ice skate at Wade Oval. (Turn to page 21)

(13) Chef Omar McKay offers diners heaping plates of fiery jerk chicken, supple braised oxtails and sweet shrimp curry alongside the customary warm cabbage slaw, rice and beans at both outposts of Irie Jamaican Kitchen. Whether you end up at the one on East 185th or the new location in Old Brooklyn, the same delightful, entrancing Jamaican cuisine awaits. And when it comes to culinary antidotes to the cold season, it's what the doctor ordered. Time for diversionary fun. Do you...

Head to Nela Park to catch the annual Christmas light display. (Turn to page 22)

Catch Mike Polk's weekly show at Hilarities. (Turn to page 27)

(14) The zoo is a wonderful place, and this year the Metroparks has bedazzled the landscape with the Wild Winter Lights festival, its first holiday light celebration since 2004, brought back, undoubtedly, to capitalize on the momentum created by the popular Asian Lantern Festival during the summer. You take it all in before being accosted by a TV news reporter shoving a microphone in your face. "Hi, do you care to share your thoughts about the zoo's importance to the city?" Sure, you say. The zoo, and the Metroparks as a whole, are clearly important to the city and the region. We have to be careful, though, about giving the wholesale benefit of the doubt to Metroparks leadership. They have to be good stewards of public money, and giving CEO Brian Zimmerman substantial raises every year sometimes feels like they are lacking in that area. You just want to make informed decisions, and the public should really take some more time to educate themselves before blindly defending the Metroparks. "Um, thanks," the TV reporter says. You know none of that will be used on air. Bemoaning the lack of accountability reporting on local issues, you decide you need to do something to take your mind off the whole mess. Do you...

Head to Nela Park for more Christmas lights festivities. (Turn to page 22)

Head to Porco's for a tiki cocktail. (Turn to page 25)

Head to Brite Winter. (Turn to page 26)

(15) It's a wonder what men and women are capable of, you think as you enter the stadium of Top Golf, newly opened down in Independence. Microchipped golf balls. The mind boggles. With heated stalls it doesn't much matter what nasty single digits the temperature is climbing down toward — here, it's always golf weather. You whack around some balls at different targets with varying degrees of success and accuracy while promising yourself to hit the links more this summer. This Top Golf thing sure is fun, but there are other adventures to be had this day. Hey, it's downright pleasant outside right now. Let's go ice skating. Do you...

Head to Public Square. (Turn to page 19)

Head to Wade Oval. (Turn to page 21)

(16) You scored some last-minute free tickets to the Cavs game, which isn't hard to do these days. Boy these fellas suck. But it's basketball, and you love basketball, and while this team isn't going to win many games, it's nice to see basketball live. You think this for awhile but today, right now, the Cavaliers are down by 65 points in the third quarter with the opposing team looking to be en route to some sort of single-game scoring record. The only thing worse is the guy next to you who's trying to argue the arena renovations were worth every damn penny of taxpayer money and Dan Gilbert is a saint. The Diff is looking mighty ugly, the guy next to you is asking how you'd feel if Dan moved the team, because he'd really do that, ya know. Do you...

Shove off early and hit the ice skating rink at Public Square. (Turn to page 19)

Stick around for the full fourth quarter then meet some friends at Tina's. (Turn to page 23)

Shove off and hit the Spotted Owl for a drink. (Turn to page 24)

(17) I should really do this more, you think to yourself as you waltz into the Wolstein Center with your $8 ticket to enjoy the $1 happy hour beers prior to tip off. Horizon League Basketball, can't beat it. You may not know any of the players, but this is honest to goodness college hoops and you root on your Vikings with pride. Afterward, hunger pangs hit. Do you...

Head to the Parkview for Nashville hot chicken. (Turn to page 20)

Head to Irie Jamaican. (Turn to page 13)

(18) You walk into Pho Lee, a recent addition to AsiaTown, where bowlfuls of piping hot pho await. But you pivot, because you spot the bun bo hue on the menu, and this meatier, spicier brew is more appropriate for winter. Slicked with chili oil and stocked with beef, a pork roll, some tendon and accompanied by an exceptionally fresh garnish plate, it more than does the trick. Now that your belly is warm and full, it's time to conquer this day some more. Next up...

Head to the zoo for the winter lights festival. (Turn to page 14)

Head to the IX center for the RV expo, or something. (Turn to page 10)

(19) Public Square is resplendent in holiday decorations and it surely is something. Forking over $10 for skate rental, you enter the rink, which is tiny compared to other rinks but has the benefit of being seated squarely amongst devastatingly beautiful downtown skyline views. You gracefully circle the rink, displaying your best moves, somehow managing to avoid making a public spectacle by faceplanting in front of strangers. Assured in your skill, brimming with winter cheer, you return the skates only to find yourself completely blocked in on the square by vehicles illegally parked on sidewalks. There's no way out. You become despondent, even more so when you consider what a frightly end inevitably awaits as you freeze to death, emergency crews unable to puncture the SUV blockade. But it's not the cold that gets you; it's the sight of the jersey barriers. Still there, you say to yourself. So ugly. So unnecessary. You try to think of something else but as your brain contemplates the inaction of Mayor Jackson it can simply not focus on anything else, and you quickly succumb to a breakdown as an image of the concrete barriers is the last thing you see before your eyes close forever.

Better luck next time. Try again by restarting on page 1.

(20) The Parkview has always been one of Cleveland's best bars and it only got better after Chow Chow closed in Lakewood and that business partnered up with the Parkview. That Nashville hot chicken sandwich you loved so much came along for the ride, and that's good news today because you're on a mission for that fiery, crunchy piece of heaven because it's cold and you want to be blasted with some intense heat. A bit sweaty, in a good way, you think it's time to soothe that pleasant ache on your tongue with a cocktail. Do you...

Head to the Spotted Owl. (Turn to page 24)

Head to Porco's. (Turn to page 25)

(21) The Wade Oval ice skating rink has a big leg up on the Public Square one both because it's far cheaper, along with available discounts tied to admission to most of the museums in the area, and because the rink is bigger. You feel pretty good about making the right decision to head out here to University Circle, where families and revelers have gathered to glide around, some more elegantly than others, amidst the snow-covered trees and pleasant air. After a carefree hour that leaves you feeling like a kid again, it's time to keep the party going. A text pops up on your phone with two options for the next move. Do you...

Head down to Brite Winter. (Turn to page 26)

Head to Mike Polk's weekly show at Hilarities. (Turn to page 27)

(22) You are pleased as your mother's rum-heavy punch to be enjoying one of Cleveland's most treasured holiday traditions. For the 95th year, Nela Park in East Cleveland is a veritable winter wonderland of lights. More than 500,000 of them from General Electric, to be exact. The Christmas lights have drawn crowds for nearly a century and they never fail to delight. You could just stay here until the end of time, you muse while admiring the display, which you unfortunately will do because a blizzard has arrived and East Cleveland has failed to pay for the repair or service of any snow plows. You are stranded forever. East Cleveland is later found liable for your death in a civil trial but never pays a dime in damages.

Better luck next time. Try again by restarting on page 1.

(23) Even before you walk through the doors you can hear the lyrics of "Africa" being belted out and you know it's going to be a good night. Once inside you're handling budget bottles of domestic lager and perusing through the seemingly endless musical canon from which you'll select the perfect song with which to serenade your fellow stars. It's karaoke all the time here at Tina's, and during the winter it can feel like you walked into the middle of someone's office party on any given night, except that's how it also feels the rest of the year, but there's something about belting out tunes in windowless room that feels like a Soviet-era bunker with the hard winter behind those concrete walls kept at bay by good tidings, good cheer, and alcohol-enhanced vocal ranges. Before you know it you're dancing and dueting and raising shots to the season, to these people, to Little Lou and all the rest and all is right with the world.

Congratulations, you chose a dynamite Cleveland winter adventure. To restart and find one of the other optimal outcomes, go back to page 1.

(24) There are few cozier saloons in Cleveland than the Spotted Owl, Will Hollingsworth's semi-subterranean cocktail oasis in the first level of the Tremont Places Lofts, which took over the old and abandoned Union Gospel Press buildings that date back to the 1850s. With an ever-changing cocktail menu conjured out of the deep and troubled recesses of Hollingsworth's evil-genius brain, there's never a bad month to stop by, but the winter months bring about festive decorations and alluring seasonal winter cocktails that are sure to brighten your spirits and cheeks. And brightening your spirits and cheeks is your selection doing, right until Porco owner Stefan Was barrels through the door and unleashes a barrage of cocktail tiki umbrellas into the room, each of them tinged at the tip with a deadly poison Was procured on a Pacific island. The scent of the toasted marshmallow from your beverage lingers at your nose as you feel a prick in your neck and you fall, ending up on the floor eye-to-eye with Hollingsworth, whose eyes are closing slowly like yours. "Man, the next menu was going to be freaking awesome, you have no idea, just no idea," he says before the light goes out forever.

Better luck next time. Try again by restarting on page 1.

(25) There are few more exotic adventures amidst the frigid temps and slushy commutes than walking through the doors to a Polenesian fever dream at Porco in Ohio City. It's tiki heaven, and you can close your eyes and almost imagine being thousands of miles away from the dreary sky and those 5 p.m. sunsets, not that the sun's anywhere to be seen in the first place. Reinvigorated in both body and soul with a fogcutter in hand, you think winter ain't that bad at all, not as long as places like Porco exist. But the continued existence of Porco and its owner Stefan Was is something that Spotted Owl owner Will Hollingsworth can't stand. After a late-night viewing of Avengers: Age of Ultron the previous month, Hollingsworth got an idea: He'd detonate small explosives under Porco and use three stolen blimps to lift the bar from its near-west side home, carry it over Lake Erie and drop it to the bottom of the water to never return. You take the last sip of your drink and put it on the counter. It begins shaking. The whole room starts shaking. You're soon heading up into that infernal gray sky. You lock eyes with Was. He doesn't even react. He knows the gig is up. "Will really got me this time," he says. "Bastard." You share your compliments of his cocktail with him, shouting so as to be heard over Hollingsworth's maniacal cackling from the pilot seat of one of the blimps outside. When you begin falling, you think: That really was one tasty drink. Worth it.

Better luck next time. Try again by restarting on page 1.

(26) There are music festivals, and then there are music festivals held outdoors in the dead of February in the middle of Cleveland next to a river. With epic bridge views and a couple dozen bands on tap at assorted stages across the Flats, Brite Winter is, to put it simply, quite Cleveland. There's an energy here you don't find anywhere else, with attendees — some of whom know the bands, many of whom don't — huddled around open fires with a cold beverage in hand, communing with Cleveland and communing with the music, which takes on a timeless, majestic feel when it's coming from the main stage on Elm Avenue. You take it all in — the music, the art installations, the happenstance meetups and breathy air — and you realize this is a perfect moment in a perfect day.

Congratulations, you chose a great Cleveland winter adventure. To find the other optimal outcomes, restart the journey on page 1.

(27) Mike Polk's weekly show in the cabaret theater room at Hilarities is far more entertaining than the $5 admission price would suggest. You never know what you're going to be in store for except that it's bound to be whacky and funny. This you agree with as you enjoy some skits before Polk asks the audience for volunteers to help with a game. You raise your hand. It's damn near zero degrees outside but the warmth of the room has become infectious, the laughter uproarious, and you want to immerse yourself in this glorious experience. You walk up and after thanking you, Polk shakes your hand and says, "You're one of us now." And that's the last thing you remember until something slices through your consciousness weeks, maybe months later as your mind comes clear for just a second. You're on stage. You're one of Polk's seventeen co-hosts. This is a cult. You have to escape. You throw on your jacket, a WKYC windbreaker — Did Channel 3 hire you as an anchor sometime in the interim? — and catch the first flight to Morocco, never to see or speak to your friends or family ever again.

Better luck next time. Try again by restarting on page 1.

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