Up With Downtown

With restaurants booming in the 'burbs, downtown eateries need to cook up a survival plan.

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The Human Stain
Sign of the times: The stalwart Watermark closed its - doors last month. - Walter  Novak
Sign of the times: The stalwart Watermark closed its doors last month.
Downtown's independent restaurateurs feel like they're getting the shaft. Business is down, revenues are down, and, at least during the week, their dinner hours have all the bustle of a Bombay burger joint. "There's no question that things are worse than they were two or three years ago," says Rick Cassara, partner in Public Square's John Q's Steakhouse. "You can't help but worry about it."

And worry they do, placing the blame on everything from a weak national economy to the paucity of cheap downtown parking spaces. "There aren't enough diners, there aren't enough employees, and the city isn't aggressive enough in attracting the out-of-town visitor," says Marlin Kaplan, chef-owner of One Walnut. "I'm very concerned that this year is going to be a tough row for us to hoe."

The relatively recent demise of two downtown dining rooms, each backed by deep corporate pockets, lends credence to Kaplan's concerns. This spring, the Hyatt-Regency dropped dinner service at its upscale restaurant, 1890 in the Arcade, citing a lack of business, and in the summer, Chicago-based Restaurant Development Group pulled the plug on Nick & Tony's Italian Chophouse, in the National City Center Building. Add to this the almost-complete collapse of the Flats' east-bank dining scene, including last month's demise of the stalwart Watermark, and the writing on the wall seems to read, "Out of Business."

The influx of trendy chains into the upscale suburbs just rubs sel de mer into the sore spot. In Woodmere, for example, the newly expanded and renovated "Eton, Chagrin Boulevard" shopping mall (formerly the Eton Collection) is welcoming Mitchell's Fish Market, Bravo! Italian Kitchen, Pancho Villa Taqueria, and Fleming's Prime Steak House. In Lyndhurst, Brio Tuscan Grill, The Cheesecake Factory, Stir Crazy, California Pizza Kitchen, and Claddagh Irish Pub have opened or will open in Legacy Village. And Crocker Park, the "lifestyle center" opening in Westlake next year, will host as many as 20 new restaurants, including locally grown Hyde Park Group's Hyde Park Steakhouse and Blake's Seafood Grille.

"There must be 4,000 new seats out there," Kaplan marvels. "All of them will be busy, and people will have one less reason to drive downtown. You can't tell me that's not going to have an effect on us."

But if the culprits -- too few diners and too much competition -- seem clear enough, the solutions are less so. And while most of the restaurateurs to whom we spoke were acutely aware of the problems, few had detailed plans to combat them. In fact, when we asked what the city could do to improve the business climate, the single most frequent answer -- build a new convention center -- seemed downright pie-in-the-sky.

But if the now-tabled proposal for a new convention center isn't likely to save downtown's dining scene, what might? Obviously, it's a complex question, with no single answer. But after several months of exploring the topic with restaurateurs, business leaders, and downtown advocates, we have a few suggestions. Some of them require the city to take action; others are aimed at the restaurateurs themselves.

Make parking a pleasure

What does The Cheesecake Factory have that most downtown restaurants don't -- besides a 200-item menu and three-hour waits, that is? Free parking is what. In fact, city officials from Philadelphia to Akron have discovered that the offer of free parking, either at meters or in city-owned lots, goes a long way toward leveling the playing field between downtown and suburban businesses.

Even without the city's much-needed action in this arena, though, restaurants can take the initiative by offering free, or at least inexpensive, parking. For example, valet parking at upscale Sans Souci, in the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel, is only $3; around the corner, at casual Fat Fish Blue, self-parking in a next-door garage is a mere $2.

Clean it up

Speaking of Philadelphia, the website for Center City District (a private-sector-sponsored, quasi-governmental organization that manages public downtown space) proudly reports that all downtown Philly sidewalks are manually or mechanically swept by uniformed cleaners at least three times daily. Meanwhile, on Cleveland's Public Square, litter blows by like tumbleweed in Tucson. Surely regular sweeping of downtown's sidewalks isn't too much to expect from the city's Service Department, and downtown merchants and restaurant operators should band together to say so.

Take a ride

Along Chicago's Miracle Mile, at least 60 percent of the Michigan Avenue traffic is cabs, and flagging one down is as easy as stepping onto the sidewalk. In fact, during a recent four-day visit, we must have grabbed a cab at least six times to travel between our hotel and various dining venues. On the other hand, in all our years in Cleveland, we've taken a taxi exactly once. Our problem: We can never find a taxi when we need one.

Restaurateurs rightly note that getting suburbanites to come downtown is one thing; getting them to stay downtown is another. But why wouldn't we stick around, if we could park once and then count on finding a taxi to take us from Playhouse Square to Vivo, say, or from the Jake to the Warehouse District? It's clearly in downtown business owners' best interests to promote safe, clean cab service.

Increase the perception of safety

Wouldn't it be great to see more uniformed officers on foot, bicycle, or horseback on downtown's streets? Both as a deterrent to crime and as goodwill ambassadors, their routine presence would go a long way toward encouraging suburbanites to venture downtown, or tourists to make the walk from the Ritz, say, to Pickwick & Frolic.

Build neighborhoods

Drawing suburbanites into downtown is good; developing a large residential population is better. Just ask Tom Yablonsky, head of both the Historic Warehouse District Development Corp. and the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Development Corp. "A restaurant is not an island," he's quick to point out, noting that the most successful spots exist in a context of housing, business, and retail activities. "To the extent that downtown becomes a series of neighborhoods, through mixed-use development," he says, downtown restaurants "will succeed."

Build bridges

Yablonsky also points out that restaurants can profit from playing nicely with other downtown attractions, taking steps to partner up with theaters, museums, and galleries, for example, for tours, festivals, and other joint-marketing ventures. Just imagine restaurant owners becoming part of the next downtown art walk, piggybacking onto the International Film Festival, or tying into a MoCA event or Sparx in the City happening. Restaurant owners could also consider creating and promoting dinner-and-theater packages; and remember, there are a lot more theaters in the area than just the ones on Playhouse Square. Or they could organize a series of "progressive dinners," with transportation via Lolly the Trolley, to give guests a taste of various downtown dining venues, at one set price. The options are endless.

And while they're at it, savvy restaurateurs will support public funding for the arts at all levels. A rising tide, after all, lifts all boats.

Use it or lose it

We've heard nothing but praise for the one-year-old Downtown Merchants Association and its innovative ShopCleveland card, which provides discounts, specials, and rebates for Cleveland shoppers at an assortment of downtown establishments. Naturally, the card is free to shoppers; even better, participation is free to downtown merchants. In return, merchants get the benefits of a professionally maintained web presence (www.shopcleveland.org) where they can list their special offers, as well as their addresses, phone numbers, hours, and a link to their own websites, if they have one.

Sounds like a pretty sweet deal and an easy way to attract new diners. Yet a glance at the website shows that only 22 of the 75 or so downtown eateries have signed on. More mysterious still, only a handful of those actually offer any specials!

DMA president and downtown merchant Michael Lang bemoans the lack of restaurant participation and notes that the restaurateurs are overlooking a cheap-and-easy marketing opportunity. "It's most frustrating," he says. "We need to get the word out."

Give diners something different

One of the keys to attracting regional diners is giving them something they can't get at home. For example, Sans Souci (in the Renaissance Cleveland Hotel) has been very successful with its series of seasonal promotions -- special menus that focus on particular crowd-pleasing ingredients (such as lobster) or particularly popular cuisines (such as the foods of Tuscany). As a result, local residents, not hotel guests, make up more than 80 percent of the restaurant's clientele.

Similarly, by introducing a prix-fixe-only dinner menu at One Walnut, Marlin Kaplan is taking an equally creative approach. So far, the restaurant is the only one in the region to go with the fixed-price concept, and it doesn't hurt that those prices represent a good value for upscale dining. "It's a bold move," Kaplan says, "but one we think our guests will appreciate."

Band together

There's no shortage of groups that claim to advocate for downtown restaurants, ranging from the Downtown Merchants Association to the Convention and Visitors Bureau to the Greater Cleveland Restaurant Association, and most downtown restaurateurs belong to one or more of them. But within each of these groups, there are various constituencies, each with its own special interests. Could downtown restaurateurs promote their agenda more effectively with an organization of their own, complete with a president who could work solely on issues that affect the downtown dining scene? It's worth considering.

At day's end, of course, whether or not downtown returns to anything approaching its mid-20th century vibrancy will depend entirely on whether the residents of Greater Cleveland give a damn. If we do, we need to make it a point to visit downtown restaurants, shops, and galleries, and to spend both time and money there. And if we don't, all the convention centers, cheap parking, and special promotions in the world won't bring our downtown back to life.

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