I’m only an hour deep into Cleveland before Elmer and the self-described “Restaurant Queen,” two retired West Side locals sharing the bar with me at Spice Kitchen & Bar, dictate a week’s worth of artisanal dining experiences, beginning with Luxe Kitchen & Lounge, Latitude 41°n, and the new Astoria Café & Market. And that’s just on the next few blocks.
“Things have changed,” Elmer starts thoughtfully. “I remember when the river was on fire—” “No one cares!” interrupts the Restaurant Queen, cutting short her husband’s reminiscence of Cleveland’s not-so-distant past as one big Superfund site. “There’s so little time, and so much to eat,” she declares, spontaneously testifying to the culinary thrill currently gripping everyday Clevelanders.
The Rust Belt has been oxidizing for decades, and is now in the middle of a postindustrial reinvention as a center for technological innovation, green reinvention, and millennial start-ups. Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee—cities that once thrived making things—are repositioning themselves as idea makers. But Cleveland’s turnaround might be the most savory, cooked up by a band of homegrown chefs and brewers who drew on the deep but deeply undervalued food traditions of the city and championed them just as phrases like “housemade charcuterie” and “farm to table” were becoming ubiquitous.
“It’s never going to be New York, LA, San Francisco, even Chicago, but I’d put the chefs in Cleveland head to head with any of them,” says Michael Symon, who, as the meat-loving cohost of ABC’s The Chew, is Cleveland’s most famous chef. If no one took his “gritty, blue-collar town that loves food” seriously, then the oversight has only bonded the locals. “We’re probably a little defensive and have a slight Napoleon complex, but Clevelanders are proud and love their city and the people in it and what it represents. We wear our emotions on our sleeves a little bit.”
Outside Spice Kitchen on a gentrifying stretch of Detroit Avenue west of downtown, a bicyclist blurs past wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase “Cleveland Against the World.” The city that earned its underdog status the hard way wears it like a badge of honor now.
They didn’t always. Here’s the brief need-to-know prologue: In the 19th century, industry exploded here. Cleveland’s location on Lake Erie at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River made it a convenient landing for ore freighted from the Upper Midwest. The Ohio and Erie canals, and growing rail routes, connected it to parts beyond, giving rise to the unofficial city motto, “Best location in the nation.” Textile mills mushroomed. The stacks of steel mills and oil refineries, stoked by immigrant Slovenes, Slovaks, Italians, and migrant African Americans, sprouted along the river banks like iron weeds. John D. Rockefeller established the behemoth Standard Oil Company in Cleveland. With globalization, mills closed, plants shed jobs. To add insult to injury, the Cuyahoga River—or, more precisely, an oil slick upon it—caught fire in 1969, making “the mistake by the lake” the butt of jokes for decades, right up to 2010, when Forbes “honored” Cleveland with the top spot in its ranking of America’s Most Miserable Cities. That same year, what in 1930 was the fifth largest city in the nation had fallen to No. 45.
But through the last decades of the 20th century, Cleveland’s medicine and education sectors, driven by the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, kept the city from falling as low as bankrupted Detroit did. The economy perked along, allowing for such cultural institutions as the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland Orchestra to keep thriving, and the West Side Market (est. 1912) to continue selling homemade kielbasa and baklava, as well as fresh meat and produce from around the region. The bones of a strong culture and economy remained and, as of this year, according to Destination Cleveland, the convention and visitors bureau for Cuyahoga County, 77 percent of Clevelanders said they would recommend their city as a place to visit or to host a business conference, up 43 percent from 2012.
Many credit the 2014 return of Lebron James with the city’s renaissance, but if you ask the likes of Elmer and the Restaurant Queen, the credit should go to another prodigal son of Northeast Ohio: Michael Symon.
In 1996, when Symon left Manhattan, where he had worked after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, to open a restaurant in Cleveland, “my New York friends thought I was crazy,” he laughs. But he knew better. He knew the green markets that popped up regularly on neighborhood street corners. He’d grown up trailing his grandfather, a Ruthenian pipe-fitter, around the West Side Market, eating the scrap cuts from butchers, house-made sausage, and locally smoked bacon. “What’s trendy now has been in Cleveland forever, just not on a fine-dining level,” says Symon. “Among the things that make Cleveland unique is a 100-year tradition the rest of the country didn’t know was cool yet.”
At Lola, the restaurant he opened upon his return (originally in Tremont before its relocation to East 4th Street), Symon married his culinary training to humble foods, stuffing locally beloved pierogi, for example, with less familiar beef cheeks. And he hired well, training the next generation of chefs who learned, moved on, opened their own places, and spread the Midwestern gospel. “Suddenly, there was a great culinary renaissance,” says Symon.
One of his hires was a burly former high school wrestler turned intensely focused chef named Jonathon Sawyer, who in 2015 would win a James Beard Award. Originally from suburban Cleveland, Sawyer was working in New York for chef Charlie Palmer when he decided to move home after learning he was going to have his first child. He worked at three Symon restaurants before opening his own, Greenhouse Tavern—right next door to Lola—almost 10 years ago. Ohio’s first green-certified restaurant, Greenhouse serves 100-percent Ohio-raised beef, enlists employees to join vinegar-making and foraging teams, and showcases vintage Ohio-made bicycles that dangle from the ceiling above us over lunch.
Inevitably, in Cleveland, which has felt the burn of being branded a loser in football, baseball, and—until LeBron came back to deliver the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 2016—basketball, our talk turns from pea tartare to sports. “If you look at the last 10 years, but for the Cavs, there wasn’t much to root for, except for the chefs winning awards,” says Sawyer, sipping a 70-year-old pu-erh tea. Locals could “check in at a restaurant on their social media of choice and be part of this next generation of winners.”
“People looked up to these guys,” says Douglas Trattner, dining editor at Cleveland Scene magazine and coauthor of three cookbooks with Michael Symon. “They didn’t let us down the way other people did.”
Michael Ruhlman, the prominent food writer and Cleveland native, puts it another way: “Cleveland has such a chip on its shoulder and has been so down on itself for so long that it had this inferiority complex,” he says. “Suddenly, when national headlines were proclaiming the food, of course they’re going to embrace it and be proud of it.”
When television news networks need live shots of Clevelanders—celebrating post–NBA championship, say, or reveling during the 2016 Republican National Convention—they go straight to East 4th Street. Both Lola and the Greenhouse Tavern reside on the pedestrian-only lane pinched by the patios of restaurants that followed Lola’s lead. Alert developers took notice and began converting the downtown’s inventory of vacant but historic office buildings into condos. The city center now boasts a 97 percent occupancy rate, driven largely by a 77 percent increase in millennials since 2000.
“Restaurants change neighborhoods,” insists Zack Bruell, a dapper chef and restaurateur with a Fuller Brush mustache and a passion for the shrimp-stuffed peppers that we’re sharing at his riverside Alley Cat Oyster Bar a mile west of East 4th. It’s one of 10 restaurants he has opened across the city since 2004. “The formula for restaurants is such that it’s high risk, low return,” he continues. “So the only way to survive is if your rent is reasonable. For it to be reasonable, you have to go into an area where the rent isn’t stupid high.”
Like Symon, he started in Tremont, a blue-collar neighborhood with lax zoning laws where in another era factory hands at neighborhood bars could spy the plants in the river valley below. Now, in addition to restaurants, the neighborhood has fair-trade-focused boutiques, art galleries, and a trendy cocktail den called The Spotted Owl.
Drinking, of course, aids and abets eating, and Cleveland’s appetizing urban renewal cannot be discussed without mention of the city’s microbrew scene, which began in 1986 with the founding of Great Lakes Brewing, Ohio’s first craft brewer, located down the block from the West Side Market in the Ohio City neighborhood. Back then, according to Joe Crea, former food critic for The Cleveland Plain Dealer, “It was a great place to get your ass kicked.”
It was still that way 25 years ago when Sam McNulty, a Clevelander who studied urban planning in college, came to the “super sketchy” area to work with a local community development group confident that the venerable West Side Market could be the neighborhood’s engine again. He recalls vendors running to their cars and beating it for the suburbs at the close of business and traffic so dead in 2005 that he and a buddy would toss a football in the middle of now-teeming 25th Street on a Saturday night. “There were two homeless guys and a prostitute and I knew them all by name,” he recalls.
Now, McNulty, frequently cited as the godfather of the now-bustling neighborhood, owns a “brew campus” made up of the microbrewery Market Garden Brewing; Nano Brew, which produces 20-gallon batches (“it’s our test kitchen”); and a new brewhouse that produces 1,000 gallons a week for broader distribution. New condos line 25th Street, and new restaurants are sneaking up intersecting Lorain Avenue. “The plan was always to improve the neighborhood. As the neighborhood goes, so does small business.”
It’s a cliché for restaurant staff to thank patrons for dining with them. But Julian Bruell offers a more generous salute. “Thanks for coming to Cleveland,” he says.
Zack Bruell’s twentysomething son has just returned home from New York, where he graduated from Cornell University before managing the Michelin-starred Jean-Georges in Manhattan and the hip Brooklyn joint Sauvage. Duly seasoned by those intense, 90-hour-a-week jobs, he came back to oversee the service at his father’s portfolio of restaurants and help open Collision Bend Brewing Company, a new 300-seat microbrewery and restaurant on the river where the staff can serve up to 1,800 people on a Saturday night. Freighters passing within feet of the patio stop conversation in the warehouse space where, here and there, TVs bolt the brick walls. “I wanted fewer TVs, but I lost that battle,” he shrugs. “People love sports here.”
But they also love food, he insists, and the new culinary culture that drew him back has helped drive tourism in Cleveland, where visits have grown by close to an average of 700,000 per year since 2009, reaching a high of 17.6 million in 2015, a year in which visitors spent $8.1 billion on hotels, attractions, and, in the trickle-down economics of tourism, restaurants, encouraging the next generation of Cleveland chefs to stay put.
“I saw what was happening here, and I was anxious to get in as early as possible,” says chef Brett Sawyer (no relation to Jonathon). After honing his skills at such high-end Chicago restaurants as Publican, he returned to his native northeast Ohio in 2013 to work with Jonathon Sawyer, and in 2016 he opened The Plum Café & Kitchen in Ohio City.
The Plum epitomizes the Cleveland brand of refined dining without pretension. There’s an NBA Fastbreak pinball game in the front room of the former antiques warehouse and a couple of mounted deer heads in the back, just a salting of cheek in an otherwise spare set of rooms that cede attention to the creativity of the cooks: a brick of beef tartare spiked with kimchi and chopped peanuts, translucent cucumber and green tomato slices fanned over pistachios and olives, and a plump 45-degree-smoked egg yolk over sautéed mushrooms that oozes at fork fall.
Apparently, the appeal of Cleveland extends beyond boomerangs (a local term for people who return home after obtaining skills and experience elsewhere—call it reverse brain drain). Jesse Mason and Helen Qin, the husband-and-wife team behind Mason’s Creamery, moved to Cleveland from California in 2013 and opened a mobile ice cream business, carting their curious flavors (think sweet potato pie and roasted banana) from event to event before anchoring their operation into a 60-year-old soft-serve shop just a few blocks from The Plum.
“It was good timing in that Cleveland was on the upswing,” says Qin. “For a really long time, Cleveland had a very negative image about itself and about the way it was perceived. And people are starting to say, ‘Hey, this is a fun city where you can do things, do things cheaply, and make things happen.’”
Cleveland, fandom suggests, was ready for taro root ice cream and kimchi-spiked tartare. Like the rest of the country, its tastes had matured.
“Years ago, a chef who wanted to cook what they cared about had to go to New York or Chicago,” says Ruhlman. “Now, because the entire country is entranced by food and chefs and wanting to put themselves in the hands of the chefs, they can come back here and cook the food that they love.”
But the chefs say it’s more than just a national trend, and point to something unique about Cleveland: a preexisting ethnic food tradition that puts the city ahead of the curve. “Cleveland engaged around this culinary revolution by enhancing the Eastern European background of our food,” says Ben Bebenroth, the chef-owner of Spice Kitchen & Bar. At his new restaurant, Mabel’s BBQ, Symon expresses that notion on the plate with a braised sausage and sauerkraut dish called This Is Cleveland. “That’s my childhood on a plate,” he says. “It’s middle-class Midwestern, but they call it choucroute garnie in France.”
Whatever you want to call it, the locals are eating it up.