The best food in Cleveland speaks for itself.
When you sit down at one of the 25 restaurants on this list, you probably aren’t going to be served a small sculpture on a large plate. Rather, you’ll be served vegetables grown — or foraged — within an hour’s drive of downtown. You’ll be served meat from an animal who spent its entire life in Ohio. You’ll be served a pickle, pizza crust or soup dumpling that someone spent much of their life learning how to perfect.
“I’d rather have something be ugly and taste really good than be pretty and taste awful,” says Brett Sawyer, head chef of The Plum in Ohio City.
Sawyer, like Jill Vedaa at Lakewood’s Salt and the trio of chefs behind Larder Delicatessen and Bakery — which was nominated by the James Beard Foundation as a semifinalist for Best New Restaurant in America — is one of an emerging wave of chefs who have redefined what it means to eat well in Cleveland.
The cuisines differ, but there are lines you can draw from New American spots such as The Plum and Salt to Balaton’s Old World Hungarian meals and the house-made Ethiopian cheeses at Empress Taytu. The chefs leading this wave stick to making simple, uncomplicated meals and excel at marrying high-quality, meticulously sourced ingredients with inspired techniques.
“We wanted our food to be accessible,” says chef Jeremy Umansky of Larder, whose grandmother was a kosher caterer at East Side synagogues for decades. “We want you to flash back to something your grandmother made, or your mother made, or your grandfather or dad. Food memories are extremely powerful, and we wanted to be able to invoke that.”
At the beginning of the decade, South Carolina chef Sean Brock garnered national media attention for his commitment to old Southern recipes and working with heirloom ingredients raised by small farmers. While that same farm-to-table philosophy has been rooted in Cleveland’s culinary DNA for just as long, now the James Beard Foundation and Bon Appetit are finally turning their eyes toward our chefs, who despite lack of exposure, have been creating meals that hang with the best in New York City and Los Angeles.
“My garlic comes from Hudson,” says Marc-Aurele Buholzer of Vero Pizza Napoletana, whose Neapolitan pies put many of Brooklyn’s best to shame. “The guy fertilizes his fields from the alpaca manure from his neighbor. I honestly believe that when you start working directly with food producers, you get the best stuff.”
The year hasn’t been without its hiccups. Trentina, Jonathon Sawyer’s modern Italian restaurant, quietly closed in January. The Ohio City Galley food court has yet to find its groove and the pace of new openings remains slow.
Nevertheless, Cleveland food feels exciting, and this new wave of young chefs, many of whom are bringing with them big city experience, are eagerly redefining what it means to make good food in the Rust Belt.
“When it comes down to it at the end of the day, it’s about what we can do in our community,” says Umansky. “If being the best in the nation is part of that, it’s just an added bonus.”
Click here to read the full list of 25 Best Restaurants.
Click here to see the list of 2019 Silver Spoon Award Winners, as selected by the Cleveland Magazine readers.