Only in heaven are there perfect restaurants, where every guest is a VIP and every meal is a five-star feast. Here on earth, the realities of traveling chefs, hung-over servers, and shoddy management can disrupt the reverie of a faultless meal. That said, the best chefs and restaurateurs work tirelessly to battle the inertia of complacency. For something approaching perfection, book a table at L'Albatros. With alarming consistency, this University Circle jewel produces the kind of evenings from which lasting memories are molded. From that initial greeting to the delivery of your coat, every step in this choreographed production is thoughtful and deliberate, and designed to make us feel special. Chef-owner Zack Bruell filled a desperate need for French bistro fare with this spot — or at least a modern interpretation thereof. Dense pâté, garlicky escargot, skate wing in brown butter, pied de cochon ... and don't get us started on the cheese! "You're only as good as your last meal," admits Bruell, a warning to himself as much as to others.
11401 Bellflower Rd., 216-791-7880, albatrosbrasserie.com
"With a lot of diners," explains Moxie owner Brad Friedlander, "it's not how good you are, but what's new. After 10 or 12 years, you're considered old." Considering that Moxie is approaching 13, Friedlander decided to shake things up, reformatting the menu and the Beachwood bistro's definition of "regional American." Changes were not made lightly, admits Friedlander of his decision to unveil a new menu of small, medium, and large plates. "Based on our research, this is what our customers want." What has not changed is the pedigree of ingredients and level of culinary mastery. Chef-partner Jonathan Bennett continues to whip up perfect dishes that, regardless of their ethnic origins, contain an all-American sense of pleasure. Tempura mushrooms with ponzu crème fraîche, roasted Shishito peppers with sea salt and lime, Korean-style short ribs with grilled housemade kimchee, pasta with sweet peas and pancetta ... We don't care where these dishes come from; just make sure they keep on coming.
3355 Richmond Rd., Beachwood, 216-831-5599,
One of a Clevelander's greatest joys is an overloaded sandwich of warm-and-rosy corned beef piled into a pocket of soft rye. Still, improperly prepared, said sandwich can become a major bummer: too salty, too dry, too fatty, too cold, too small, too pricey ... too bad. Slyman's always, always gets it right. An unrelenting stream of customers means the slicer never sleeps, ensuring fresh, hot, buttery beef. By stacking multiple briskets on the slicer at once, employees generate sandwiches that contain an ideal mix of lean and fat-gilded meat. Heavy, tall, and fairly priced, these sandwiches are rightly billed as Cleveland's best. Ever cheerful and always chipper, proprietor Freddie Slyman is proof that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. "We have a friendly, light-hearted atmosphere where everybody knows your name and smiles are free," Slyman says.
3106 St. Clair Ave., 216-621-3760, slymans.com
Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Ask many out-of-towners what comes to mind when they think of Cleveland, and they'll immediately shout out pints of Great Lakes' beloved beers: Dortmunder Gold Lager, Edmund Fitzgerald Porter, Burning River Pale Ale, and their other frosted-head brethren. And why not? Since its 1988 opening, Great Lakes Brewing Company has grown into a model of quality, consistency, and brand identity, carrying its hometown banner with a side of pretzel chicken. It is also a paradigm of social consciousness, aiming for an operation that sips energy while releasing as little waste as possible. From growing their own veggies to fueling the company van with spent fryer grease, Great Lakes is a neighbor we can all be proud of.
2516 Market Ave., 216-771-4404, greatlakesbrewing.com
"I live, breath, cook, love, and respect Cleveland — and especially Tremont," announces Rocco Whalen, one of the city's most passionate chefs and ardent supporters. Opening Fahrenheit in 2002, Whalen became every bit as central to the Tremont food scene as Michael Symon (though still without his own street sign). Boisterous, as all bistros should be, this nine-year-old mainstay seems to get better with each passing year. The chef's bold American cuisine never fails to impress, in terms of ingredients, preparation, and presentation. Many of Fahrenheit's dishes have become classics that Whalen is near-powerless to pull from his menu: Vietnamese chicken spring rolls, bacon-wrapped chorizo-stuffed dates, Kobe beef short ribs, and coffee-crusted pork tenderloin, to name but a few. But it may be Whalen's fly pies that have drawn the most buzz over the years. Crisp and chewy with a hint of sweetness, the pitch-perfect pizzas are proof that Whalen loves Clevelanders as much as Cleveland itself.
2417 Professor Ave., 216-781-8858, fahrenheittremont.com
Having a robust Asian community bestows upon a town certain benefits, not the least of which is dim sum. We're not talking about a small selection of items available off the regular menu, but the full-on brunch experience. Large enough to accommodate crowds that near 300, Li Wah feels like the epicenter of Cleveland come Sunday noon, when families of every demographic sip tea and snack on Asian delicacies — spring rolls, barbecue pork buns, shrimp shumai, turnip cakes, golden roast duck, and warm custard tarts, among countless others. If there is a more enjoyable, more diverse, more affordable, and more delicious way to spend a Sunday in Cleveland, we have yet to stumble upon it.
2999 Payne Ave., 216-696-6556, liwahrestaurant.com
The closest thing Cleveland has to an Algonquin Round Table is Nighttown, a New York-style supper club that attracts a most deliciously diverse clientele. Named by Down Beat magazine as one of the world's "100 Great Jazz Clubs," Nighttown draws the serious music fans, for sure. But there is far more to the joint than hot licks and cool chords. The menu is decidedly old-school but well-executed, with dishes like whole artichokes, roast duck, trout amandine, and Dublin Lawyer ruling the roost. The comfortably appointed dining rooms, bar, and patio burble with conversation as doctors, professors, writers, artists, and students exchange bon mots over bourbon and beer. It's this rare triple identity — as serious restaurant, inspired jazz club, and especially as living room to an intellectual community — that makes people continue to flock to the top of "the Hill."
12387 Cedar Rd., 216-795-0550,