Cleveland barely registered a blip on the radar until the influx of “Rust Belt Renaissance” stories started hitting national headlines. I’m not trying to be contrarian here. The coverage was deserved to an extent. There’s plenty to love about Cleveland. The West Side Market, cultural neighborhoods, and a gritty attitude that’s palpable in cities across the Rust Belt.
The rah-rah coverage hit a bit of a snag, though, when 12-year-old Tamir Rice was gunned down by an officer who had previously been rejected from suburban precincts. About a year after that, the Republican National Convention came to town. This was to be the icing on the cake of Cleveland’s comeback, but it wasn’t the seemingly unoffensive Jeb! coming to town–it was Trump.
Now Cleveland’s at a bit of a crossroads. Neighborhoods are changing (or even being created) as suburban exiles funnel into the city, clashing with long-term residents who have been around too long to buy into the cheerleading hype. Roads are crumbling, cyclists aren’t prioritized, and public transport is poorly funded, they’ll (rightly) complain.
On the other hand, as someone who lived in the city for five years, Cleveland is like family–you can’t help but love it. And for a traveler who doesn’t need to get invested in the local politics of it all, it’s a wonderful place to visit. After all, this is the region that, for better or worse, made the United States what it is today.
WHERE TO GO
No neighborhood is changing as fast as Downtown, probably because it wasn’t even really considered a neighborhood until about a decade ago when long-empty department stores were converted into apartments. Now the population in the city center is well over 10,000 and a sustainable 20,000 residents seems to be within reach.
Downtown is the place to begin any trip. It’s the transportation hub with access to rail, local buses, and bus rapid transit, and a majority of the hotels in Cleveland are based here. Everything you could possibly want is within walking distance or a short bike ride away, now possible for visitors thanks to the UH Bikes’ bike share program.
I lived in this neighborhood for about four years, so I could talk for days on what I recommend. Instead, I’m going to blow through it quickly, distilling things down to my favorites.
Grab a burger at Johnny’s Little Bar or pizza at Gillespie’s Map Room where you can find a nice selection of local craft beers to choose from as well. Presto is great for a quick sandwich during lunchtime. It’s also an excuse to check out The Arcade and its grand late 19th Century architecture. Tea House Noodles just around the corner on East 6th was a once-a-week visit during my years downtown. Stay caffeinated for all the eating with a vanilla latte at Erie Island Coffee Co. or try some beans from around the world with a pour over brew at Pour Cleveland.
For something more substantial, say, a dinner option, camp yourself out at East Fourth–the city’s only pedestrian thoroughfare. The Greenhouse Tavern (roasted pig head!) and Saigon (pho on pho on pho) are two of my favorites. A name you might recognize, Chef Michael Symon, also owns two joints here–Lola and Mabel’s BBQ.
With a full belly, finish things off with either some craft beer at Butcher and the Brewer or put on a blazer and grab a cocktail at the underground Society Lounge.
This neighborhood just over the Cuyahoga River from Downtown comes up next because I lived here for a year and it’s probably my favorite part of town. Suburban elders like to tell stories about how their parents would have never let them go to Ohio City when they were a kid. Now? It’s the cool neighborhood attracting new residents and a late-night crowd.
First thing’s first, go to the West Side Market. I’m not just being a homer when I say this is one of the finest culinary institutions in the United States. Chefs and other respected personalities are beating the drum, too.
Clevelanders come here for their shopping, but you can come to be gluttonous. While I could probably find something to munch on at every stand, I’ll suggest Crêpes de Luxe for breakfast and a falafel from Maha’s for lunch. If for some reason you are doing any cooking while in town, the ground chicken chorizo from Dionne’s Meats is hands down some of the most flavorful, damn delicious stuff I’ve ever put in a taco.
Elsewhere in the neighborhood, you’ve got the Lebanese family-owned Nate’s Deli (more falafel!), Bar Cento (squid ink pasta!), and Momocho (mod-Mex with the best guacamole). Ohio City Burrito (think Chipotle, but better and sans E. coli) and Banana Blossom (Thai food) were also regular staples of my diet.
When it comes to booze, craft beer joints just keep popping up. Great Lakes Brewing is the most established, doing business before craft beer was a cool thing to do. Market Garden Brewery came next and then it was just one right after the other. Nano Brew, Brick and Barrel, Forest City Brewery, Hansa, and Platform Beer Company are all short walks from one another. We’re not even talking about the wine bars (Market Avenue Wine Bar) or the classy Velvet Tango Room (cocktails).
Suffice it to say that you can get lit in Ohio City if that’s your bag.
Just southeast of Ohio City, Tremont is probably the most obviously ethnic neighborhood with all sorts of European cultures mixing with more recent Mexican and Central American immigrants–all evidenced by the names of the churches. It also holds the distinction of having three of my favorite restaurants–Grumpy’s Cafe, Edison’s Pub, and Barrio.
First, Edison’s is a no thrills bar with some indoor seating, a pool table, darts, and a decent back patio when the weather’s nice. The pizza, specifically the BBQ Chicken, is the best pizza in the world and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.
Barrio is a Mexican taco joint with a checklist of ingredients you can add to your taco (or they have suggestions if you’re feeling indecisive). Reservations are usually a must during lunch and dinner hours.
Last but certainly not least, Grumpy’s was my regular breakfast spot for either the breakfast tacos (chorizo and guacamole) or the breakfast burrito (chorizo on chorizo on chorizo!). It might be what I miss most about Cleveland.
This lakeside neighborhood is increasingly becoming an enticing relocation option with its improved access to Lake Erie by way of new bike paths and traffic calming. You also won’t be hard up for some good eats, starting with Luxe Kitchen & Lounge (I’m a fan of the carbonara with an egg on top), Stone Mad Pub has a great patio off the main street (Detroit Ave.) and into the residential part of the neighborhood, Toast and Spice Kitchen & Bar are two relatively newer additions that have proven successful for a nice dinner, and Latitude 41 is a great breakfast/brunch option.
My go to, though, has always been Happy Dog, where you can choose from an absurd array of toppings (chorizo chili!) to go on your hot dog. It started off with an exclusive hipster vibe, but it seems to me that it’s been changing over the years to become a favorite of just about every type of crowd–from the mohawk-sporting punk to the suburban family. Now you can even catch the Cleveland Orchestra’s strings section playing a live show here. That is, when DJ Kishka isn’t spinning those hot Polish beats.
If you come in the summer, Edgewater Live at Cleveland Metroparks’ Edgewater Park is essential to see. Like any other victim of cold, gray winters, Clevelanders come out in droves for the sun. It just so happens that at Edgewater Live, the live music and food trucks follow.
UNIVERSITY CIRCLE/LITTLE ITALY
University Circle is the larger, all-encompassing neighborhood with Case Western Reserve University as its anchor and Little Italy is the micro-neighborhood within. Go to the area surrounding Case Western for the scenic campus walking, botanical gardens, and museums, but then turn toward Little Italy when it’s time to eat. (To be fair, one of my favorite Cleveland meals comes from the French-styled brasserie, L’Albatros, in University Circle. It was my first time with pork belly and most assuredly not my last.)
Little Italy might very well be the best corner of the city for anyone with a grumbling stomach. You really can’t go wrong in this area, but I’d like to reserve space for my favorite–La Dolce Vita, so named after the classic Italian film. Every meal I’ve ever had here has been memorable and most meals are usually accompanied by some form of operatic singing by the waiting staff.
If you come for lunch and are looking for a post-meal walk, go east up the hill on Mayfield Rd. (the main street of Little Italy) and go for a jaunt around scenic Lake View Cemetery where famous Cleveland from John D. Rockefeller to President James A. Garfield are laid to rest.
This area within the Buckeye-Shaker neighborhood is important in the city’s history, because (if memory serves) it was the first European-style square surrounded by a train station in the U.S. The Van Sweringen brothers were railroad barons whose grand project was to create a rail line stretching east through the city and into the city’s first wealthy suburbs.
Shaker Square itself is still within the City of Cleveland even though the brothers originally intended for it to be in the suburb, Shaker Heights. Basically, it came down to who was willing to work with the brothers.
My favorites on the Square are Michael’s Diner for, as you can imagine, 1950s Americana diner flair (and train watching) and camping out with a coffee at Dewey’s Coffee House. From there I’ll usually turn north up to Larchmere, which is a neighborhood more Clevelanders should be exploring.
A good time to check out Larchmere is during Larchmere PorchFest where local bands rock out from the sidewalks and, of course, porches. Felice Urban Cafe is probably my favorite establishment in this area, but that might change with Barroco, a Colombian arepa joint from inner-ring suburb Lakewood, announcing plans to open in the neighborhood.
Collinwood is an old Irish immigrant neighborhood that has been doing everything it can to cling onto the coattails of Cleveland’s neighborhood resurgence despite being rather disconnected from the city. The interstate highway literally cut the neighborhood in half, infamously so, and public transport from other parts of the city is rather bleak.
That said, it’s worth the effort to get here. Catch a show at Beachland Ballroom & Tavern (where The Black Keys used to rock all those years ago) and enjoy any number of the new coffee shops and restaurants that seem to pop up on a regular basis (I honestly can’t keep track). Something that isn’t new, but a reliable favorite, is the Grovewood Lounge & Grille. This is almost a mile removed from the main road (Waterloo), but is worth the short trek for classic American fare in a restaurant that would fit right in with the classic American establishment of the 50s or even a few decades earlier.
If you’re arriving by plane, the international airport is connected by rail to Downtown. In fact, Cleveland doesn’t get the credit it deserves for being a city that you can get around car-free, especially as a visitor. Don’t get me wrong–this is still an American city where public transport is incredibly frustrating for residents, drastically underfunded compared to auto transport, and not nearly as extensive as it ought to be.
But again, for a visitor, getting a 24-hour pass from Cleveland RTA is the way to go. Though truth be told you could walk Downtown-Ohio City-Tremont with agreeable weather. If you add Detroit-Shoreway, then you’ll start looking for public transport or a bike. Then as you head east to University Circle, Larchmere, and Shaker Square, you’ll definitely want a bike or transit pass.
I’ve been away from Cleveland long enough that I can compile something of a wish list. First off, I’d like to spend more time with the restaurants in Larchmere and Shaker Square before making a long overdue return to Collinwood just to see what’s new. Though I lived right by it, I never spent enough time with an Old Fashioned at Velvet Tango Room.
Otherwise, there are some new breweries in town that I’vet yet to indulge. I’m looking at you, Collision Bend Brewing.
BEFORE YOU GO
An obvious plug is to tell you to read Rust Belt Chic: The Cleveland Anthology, because I contributed a chapter to the book. Nevertheless, it’s an excellent compilation of Cleveland stories told by current and former Clevelanders. The book lead to the creation of Belt Magazine, an independent journalism venture to cover the Rust Belt, and a number of other similar literary publications highlighting other cities in the Rust Belt.
I’d also suggest grabbing some Harvey Pekar graphic novels and watching American Splendor for a look into the lower/middle-class Cleveland psyche.