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 east side 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 America bistro genre, where the season's best ingredients are coaxed into flavor-forward plates of perfection.
What we recommend: Crispy chicken livers and tandoor roasted pork chop
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.
What we recommend: Cucumbers with chile and vinegar and dried pot beef
Cleveland doesn't often export its concepts; we're more of a borrower. But Chef Rocco Whalen has seeded Charlotte, N.C. 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: that 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.
What we recommend: Vietnamese chicken spring rolls and Kobe beef short ribs
Fat Cats (Tremont)
Have you forgotten about Fat Cats, the Tremont bistro that opened one month after Lola? This joint helped place the neighborhood on the map, and along with Lola kick-started a culinary revolution that later spread throughout the city. Who didn't walk into that 100-year-old house on the end of a dog-eared block in a scrappy urban enclave and get blown away by the entire vibe? It's still there, and it's still one of the sweetest perches in town to enjoy creative small plates, Southern Italian classics and Asian-fusion mash-ups. We adore Fat Cats for its intimate charm, warm-hearted service and unpretentious food. This is what a true Cleveland legend looks like.
What we recommend: Sweet potato fried shrimp and duck breast
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 accoutrements are guaranteed to brighten even the darkest of days.
What we recommend: Chicken cabbage salad and large-size #2
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, décor 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.
What we recommend: Deviled eggs and ramp carbonara
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 chef Noma-San school you with his 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.
What we recommend: Omakase tasting menu
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."
What we recommend: Aunt Gay sandwich and chocolate-banana milkshake
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 earlier this month, 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.
What we recommend: Stuffed cabbage and rice pudding
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.
What we recommend: Corned beef sandwich with a Coke
Tremont Tap House (Tremont)
The Tremont Tap House gets so many of the little things right that they make it all look so damn easy. To prove how easy it ain't, simply walk into any just about any other "gastropub" and start taking notes. The craft beer selection is excellent, with more than enough crowd-pleasers for both the beer geeks and the hop-challenged. Equally important is the draft-dispensing system and its upkeep, both of which deserve props. An ideal mate for the brew, the menu is jam packed with lively, agreeable fare, priced for the everyday budget. It's never a challenge designing the perfect meal here thanks to the delicate ratio of sharable snacky foods to two-fisted sandwiches and larger bistro-style mains. The vibe is West Coast, the service East Coast, and the ownership 100-percent North Coast.
What we recommend: Pork belly nachos and lamb burger