Uptown Funk: Is the University Circle Neighborhood Attracting The Right Restaurants?
That’s not news: much has been reported about the $200 million development’s unsteady epicurean start, with the last two years seeing the closing of the locally owned Coquette Patisserie, Happy Dog at Euclid Tavern, slightly farther afield Trentina and Ninja City, which relocated to Gordon Square. Dotted with national fast-casual chains such as Qdoba and Jimmy John’s, Uptown lacks an innovative regional identity to mirror the vibrant example offered by MOCA Cleveland and the Cleveland Institute of Art.
Still, the area has welcomed two new restaurants: Tacologist, a Mexican restaurant from the owners of Tres Potrillos, opened in the former Corner Alley space in early June, and Burger IM opened in mid-May.
“Frankly, if there’s been something that’s been learned by our restaurateurs, it’s to not replicate something that’s been done somewhere else,” says Chris Ronayne, the president of University Circle Inc.
But if that’s true, are these really the right kinds of restaurants to open? Tacologist, while inventive in a design concept that incorporates chemistry imagery, has a menu that’s pretty much cut-and-copy from the city’s multitude of taco emporiums. Burger IM is yet another national fast-casual offering, set to cater to students and perhaps workday professionals but not much else.
Ninja City co-owner and chef Bac Nguyen says the makeup of Uptown, a mix of college students and people popping in for a night out as opposed to neighborhood regulars, isn’t conducive to operating a successful restaurant. In his case, the inability to partner with Case Western Reserve University on student meal plans limited the probability of students becoming regular customers.
“We weren’t expecting to live only on student money,” Nguyen says. “But by year two, it was student dollars keeping us in business. They have completely different budgets.”
Plus, rent was steep. As the end of the Uptown lease neared and the other location became available, Nguyen says the lower rent was “not insignificant” for what is “a better piece of real estate” for Ninja City.
Still Ronayne remains optimistic for a revival. To him, Tacologist is the kind of place that can cater to whomever decides to spend their night — and money — in Uptown. He sees promise in the group of locally owned restaurants that remain in Uptown, such as Piccadilly Artisan Creamery, Kenko and the soon-to-open Hell’s Chicken.
Ronayne cites a growing residential population, saying that close to 1,000 residential units have been developed in the neighborhood over the last 10 years. When that vision is fully realized, he believes, Clevelanders will come. “We’re out there for the complete community,” he says.
food & drink
8:00 AM EST
July 11, 2019