For those growing up in Cleveland, the news is almost too good to be true. Although there has always been a certain Midwest vulnerability that goes hand in hand with this classic Lake Erie city, especially when it comes to the food scene, the pendulum is swinging towards delicious in Downtown Cleveland these days. With a myriad of ethnicities and techniques, and anchored by the West Side Market and old style traditions of families throughout the region, Travel and Leisure Magazine recently voted Cleveland number seven in the nation for its culinary scene. And that is some delicious news to swallow for foodies in the area.
The Midwest Mystique
Clevelanders are known for pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, and there is perhaps no more illuminating place to do so than in the restaurant business. The independent restaurant scene is thriving, and its prowess is creating positive economic change for the city. With chef-driven innovations and a never say die attitude, Cleveland restaurants and their owners have weathered the normal ups and downs of the business, a worldwide pandemic, and the crisis of a disappearing workforce. And they are coming out on top.
Travel and Leisure Magazine ranked the city seventh in the nation in terms of its restaurant scene. “This Midwestern city has a severely underrated albeit eclectic food scene fueled by nearby farms, local producers, and trailblazing chefs. Moreover, it’s safe to say Cleveland’s culinary scene pays homage to the 100-plus diverse ethnicities that make up the city. For a taste of Cleveland’s best eats, head straight to West Side Market, an indoor-outdoor market that offers something for everyone.” Indeed the West Side Market has been a beacon in the city since it opened its doors in 1912, and is an important stopping point on any tour of Cleveland.
The food scene in Cleveland echoes the diversity of its people, and from Slavic Village to Asia Town, old world recipes and traditions delight peoples’ palates. There is also an impressive showing from Black-owned and Black-led restaurants in the region. Cleveland leans into its cultural and culinary roots, but takes it one step further with its willingness to innovate and create.
Myra Orenstein, acting executive director of Cleveland Independents, which represents more than 90 locally owned and operated independent restaurants in northeast Ohio, said “Perhaps what separates the new Cleveland from these cities struggling to reinvent their economies is the independent restaurant scene. I’d say we’re a good 10 years ahead of Detroit and other cities in this region and it’s all because of the independent restaurant operators.”
And the bar continues to be raised on restaurants and their signature dishes. “There’s a depth of creativity with food in Cleveland today that didn’t exist 15 years ago and the depth of appreciation by the customer has grown right along with it”, said Chef Zack Bruell.
Despite the lingering supply chain issues, skyrocketing costs of food, and the seemingly endless labor shortage, Cleveland’s restaurant scene is flourishing in 2023. Old and new names are being combined to put together an eclectic mix of restaurants to fulfill every foodie’s dreams. This is a city where the old becomes new again. Chef Rocco Whalen opened Fahrenheit in Tremont 21 years ago, but the new Sherwin Williams building opening downtown convinced him to take his talents to the old Johnny Q’s Steakhouse, which he renovated for a whole new look. The new Fahrenheit restaurant opened just last week to rave reviews.
“We’ve always done Asian, we’ve always done Mediterranean, but now with the kitchen equipped with live-fire power and these chefs, we’re in such a better place,” adds Whalen.
Jill Vedaa and Jessica Parkison are also busy in the Cleveland scene making the old new again. With their very successful Salt restaurant in place, they have moved their game east of the river to the old Felice Urban Café in the Larchmere neighborhood. With a beautiful garden and classic old building charm, their new restaurant Poppy features some old Salt favorites along with some new offerings, and opened on International Women’s Day in March. Vedaa and Parkison are also taking on the old Spice Kitchen and Bar Space on Detroit Avenue in Gordon Square with their new restaurant called Eveyln. They will specialize in Spanish-themed food like paella and tapas.
Banter by Matthew Stipe has also returned to Gordon Square, a few blocks from the original home, taking over the Minh Anh space and featuring a sausage and poutine bar. With more indoor and outdoor space, there is more room to delight its customers. The restaurant closed in 2020, but true to his word it has come back, as Stipe has ensured its resurgence.
And don’t think for a second that the foodie world is not noticing what is going on in Cleveland. For all the renovations and the new dishes on the Cleveland food scene, Cleveland chefs are getting noticed, with three recently named semi-finalists for the 2023 James Beard Awards. For the second year in a row, Brandon Chrostowski of EDWINS Leadership and Restaurant Institute is a semi-finalist for Outstanding Restaurateur. Chefs Allie La Valle-Umansky and Jeremy Umansky of Larder Delicatessen and Bakery are semi-finalists for Best Chef: Great Lakes.
At number seven in the country, the chefs and restaurants making up the Cleveland food scene have proven their creativity and resilience in an ever-changing world. By returning to their cultural roots and striving to make the old new again, the restaurant world is alive and well and making a positive impact on the city’s economy. With a keen reverence for the past and a willingness to innovate into the future, Cleveland’s food scene continues to delight.