My Midwest: Why You Should Visit Cleveland
What’s round on the edges and high in the middle?
O Hi O!
This was probably one of the first riddles I knew as a kid. Sadly, my knowledge of Ohio hadn’t expanded much since then. It was time to fix that.
“This is why I love Cleveland,” says my friend Kathryn as we meet up with her eclectic bunch of friends—musicians, marketers, educators, and even a former Brooklynite who moved here because of the people.
I heard from some that Cleveland is seen differently depending on whom you talk to, that it’s either the last East coast city or the first city of the Midwest. Of course, I think it’s the Midwest, but didn’t realize some of its history. The Connecticut Western Reserve was a portion of land claimed by the colony and state of Connecticut in what is now mostly part of northeastern Ohio. The territory was originally named “New Connecticut” and therefore many of the original inhabitants were from the east coast and it has retained its northeast connection. Some towns and areas of Cleveland were even designed with New England architecture. Demographically and geographically, it’s still more of a Midwest, Great Lakes city, but it was neat to learn about its strong east coast influences and ties.
“Cleveland has this easy-going, laid back vibe,” Kathryn says. “There’s a realness to the people here.”
Kathryn and I met when she was sleeping on my couch. She stayed in my apartment through Airbnb about one year ago. She had a great open spirit and we hit it off as travelers and lovers of the world. She has lived all over but had been living in Cleveland for quite some time now and spoke of it with great passion and enthusiasm that was contagious. I felt like it was how I talked about Chicago to others. I had never really been to Cleveland before except for driving through it and it was on my list of Midwest cities to check out, so thanks to Kathryn, here I am.
Cleveland, like other Midwest, rustbelt cities, is in the midst of a renaissance. The neighborhoods are where it’s at and I was lucky to have friends and locals show me around. I’m always looking for the local ‘hoods with main corridors, places you can stroll and check out local bars and restaurants. Cleveland did not disappoint.
East Fourth Street
This is one of Cleveland’s most popular neighborhoods. Since it’s right downtown, I wondered if it was just for tourists, but I was told that wasn’t the case at all and that locals love it too and it shows as millennials and others have all been moving downtown for the last two to three years. It’s a cute pedestrian-block with lights overhead and plenty of restaurants and bars. And get this: the street is heated in winter. I love that.
I was lucky to eat dinner at the chef’s table in the Greenhouse Tavern run by local boy done good, Jonathon Sawyer who earned Food & Wine magazine’s “Best New Chef for 2010” and Bon Appetit’s “Best New Restaurant 2009.” Not only has he brought the farm-to-plate movement to the forefront in Cleveland, this is the first LEED-certified restaurant in Ohio and nearly everything inside is made of recycled or repurposed materials. We didn’t hold back and ordered some faves: including the crispy chicken wings confit, the “fifth quarter” (quinto quarto in Italian and pertains to the offal or all the other “parts” of the animal such as head, tongue, hoofs and heart), which changes daily depending upon what they’ve butchered. Ours consisted of some smoked trout (one of my favorites) and pickled tongue. We ended with the “kitchen coffee” which the menu describes this way: “if you liked your meal buy the kitchen a round of after-service canned beer.” And when you order it, you can feel the love as all the cooks and chefs bang away on their pots. Try it. It’s fun.
Afterwards, we headed to the rooftop bar for some more grub as we indulged in one of Cleveland’s pastimes, the clambake, possibly another east coast holdover.
Just across the Cuyahoga River and west of downtown, this area has already “up and come.” It’s the home of the bustling West Side Market, Ohio City Farm, one of the nation’s largest contiguous urban farms, a some good local eats and Cleveland’s own brewery district with the Great Lakes Brewing Company, Market Garden Brewery, Nano Brew and Platform Beer Co.
Built in 1912, the West Side Market is the largest indoor/outdoor market in the country. This marketplace was once where turn-of-the-century immigrants found their native foods and spices. Today, it features more than 100 booths with the freshest selection of fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, produce, bakery, ethnic foods and international delicacies.
Just down the street a ways is Happy Dog, a true Cleveland institution. For lunch, I met Amanda from A Dangerous Business and we indulged in some gourmet hot dogs. The crazy menu has more than 50 topping offerings such as a sunny side up fried egg, “everything bagel” cream cheese, and even spaghetti Os (ick!).
I have to say, the dog was good, but I loved all the fun sauces for their crunchy tater tots, from black truffle honey mustard and coffee and ancho bbq sauce to Brazilian chimichurri and “top secret” fry sauce.
This little ‘hood is a gem with a down-to-earth, blue collar vibe. Just off of neighborhood’s landmark epicenter Lincoln Park, there are seemingly hidden galleries, boutiques, pubs and award-wining restaurants such as famed Iron Chef Michael Symon’s Mediterranean Lolita (you may know him from ABC’s The Chew) where Kathryn and I met for dinner and savored some small plates. After we stopped in the 1938 art deco-influenced barroom at Prosperity Social Club which has live music, a great back patio, and an old-fashioned bar bowling machine. It was a sort of dive-bar/hipster hangout, but felt very homey, like a welcoming neighborhood bar.
I didn’t get here, but heard great things about the American Classic James Beard Award-winning eastern European culinary mecca, Sokolowski’s University Inn.
Not a neighborhood per se, this cemetery was a beautiful stop (just not my “final” stop). The 285-acre park like expanse, is like an outdoor sculpture museum filled with lush gardens, rich architecture and tributes to those who made great contributions to the area’s industrial and civic development like James A. Garfield, James D. Rockefeller, Elliot Ness, and 22 Cleveland Mayors.
“Everything has been re-done in the last five years,” said Joe with Cleveland Bike Tours. “It’s a whole new downtown.”
While soaking up the sights in the Cle, I took a bike tour through the heart of downtown and got to see the city through the eyes of a suburb dweller (it may be my first city bke tour given by a person that did not actually live in the city). Regardless, it was a fun and interesting tour past the various sights including what may be the most intimate baseball stadium I’ve ever seen. The Cleveland Indians play at Progressive Field, which you can just walk right into from the street, almost feeling like a minor league ballpark. Joe said it’s great, so I might have to come back for a game.
We rode past all the hits: Playhouse Square, the largest performing arts center in the country after New York’s Lincoln Center, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and even Higbees, the former department store, where part of “A Christmas Story” was filmed where Ralphie first spies his coveted Red Ryder BB Gun. The store is now a Horseshoe Casino.
During my time in The Cle, I was a guest of the trendy and cool Westin Cleveland Downtown, which recently underwent a huge renovation, which shows. The rooms and lobby had a contemporary vibe that I love. I will have to go back to try the restaurant, Urban Farmer, a farm-to-table restaurant, serving local and organically sourced food from the region.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Ohio Tourism and Destination Cleveland. As always all writing and opinions are my own.