"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.
Mabel’s BBQ | Downtown
The folks waiting in line for a seat at Mabel’s BBQ are there not in hopes of catching a glimpse of high-profile chef, owner and Cleveland native Michael Symon (sorry), but rather to score some of the best barbecue in the state. At this shrine to low and slow, prime meats like pork ribs, beef brisket, pork belly and giant beef ribs arrive at the table fast, smoky and delicious. Just steps from Symon’s flagship eatery Lola Bistro, Mabel’s ushers in “Cleveland-style barbecue,” a hybrid of Texas-style smoking and Midwestern sensibilities. Beef, pork and lamb ribs are smoked over local fruitwoods. Brisket is rubbed with pastrami spices. Polish kielbasa stands in for Texas hot links. And Bertman Original Ball Park Mustard finds its way into the BBQ sauce.
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. When you combine fearlessness with culinary depth, you end up with a restaurant that routinely destroys boundaries, births trends and brings everybody along for the gut-pleasing ride.
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.
Arcadian Food and Drink | Gordon Square
One of the hottest neighborhoods in terms of new restaurants is Detroit Shoreway, particularly in and around the Gordon Square Arts District. When Arcadian opened its doors after a long three-year slog to the finish line, neighbors could not believe their eyes. This model of architectural wonder is modern, minimal and fresh as the driven snow. Sure, there are chef-driven items like caviar tastings, seafood towers and beef cheek bourguignon, but there also is amazing pizza and fried chicken.
The Flying Fig | Ohio City
Long before "farm-to-table" was a trite catchphrase, and the local farmers market 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.
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 three 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. But all that is ancient history now that Nowak leads Black Pig, which moved and improved from its spot on West 25th to the former Light Bistro (and Parker's) 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.
SoHo Kitchen and Bar | 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.
L'Albatros | University Circle
We could very easily have included most of Zack Bruell's restaurants on this list because the guy seems to hit a homerun every time he picks up a bat. But more than any other Bruell spot, L'Albatros manages to make diners feel special in ways that other restaurants do not. In short, it's a special-occasion restaurant that needn't be reserved for special occasions. We love the out-of-the-way locale, the history-dripping old carriage house, and that romance-inducing magic-garden patio. But without stellar food and service, all of the former would be mere window dressing. Grab the lengthy one-page menu, point your finger at some French words and phrases, and know that whatever the kitchen sends out will knock your socks off.
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.