Cleveland’s food scene has it all.
Here, you can find poutine, barbecue and a tasting menu from one particular northern Italian region. You can eat a lobster roll with green goddess dressing or sample freshly shucked oysters in a downtown grocery store. Find fried chicken in a nearly historic bowling alley. Slurp down spicy charred octopus ramen. Use your hands to devour a traveling chef’s Filipino feast in a basement cocktail bar. Order off a vegan, paleo-friendly, non-genetically-modified-organism menu. There’s top-dollar steak, sushi and more farm-to-table concepts than you can count.
With all that going on, Cleveland’s food scene is red meat. “Hot new dining city: Cleveland?” gasped the Los Angeles Times. In a 36-hour visitors guide, The New York Times referenced our shiniest joints, such as the Hilton Cleveland Downtown’s Bar 32, as well as standbys such as the West Side Market and Great Lakes Brewing Co.
Cleveland has arrived.
But underneath that attention, we’re unprepared. In an otherwise cheery list published before the Republican National Convention, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema cast a harsh light on our service industry, calling it “low-energy.” He was “charmed” by Mason’s Creamery, swooned over Mabel’s BBQ and said that Flying Fig owner Karen Small “seemed to be the equivalent of Alice Waters.” And yet …
“With a few exceptions, if I read the menu, I wouldn’t think I was in the Midwest, let alone Cleveland,” Sietsema says in an interview with Cleveland Magazine.
For all the surefire things he ate and drank while visiting, something was missing.
“There wasn’t a great sense of the region there,” he says. “And this despite the fact that you have some great farms in the area and some great food halls in town.”
In trying to have it all, our food scene is now a jumble. “It’s not as if the basic ingredients are missing, it’s what happens to them,” says Sietsema. “There doesn’t seem to be a celebration of food in an area that wants it.”
Every city is scrambling for an economic boost, and an interesting, identifiable food scene is as much an asset as affordable housing. But we’ve shown up to a party that prioritizes branding, identity and authenticity without a coherent sense of ourselves.
“Obviously, there’s all this cool stuff that’s going on in Cleveland. You have marquee names, you’ve got markets,” says Bon Appetit deputy editor Andrew Knowlton. “I do wonder about why, in the past, say, 10 years, Charleston and Nashville and to a lesser extent Pittsburgh all of a sudden became a focal point for food?”
Charleston capitalized on seafood and Low Country vibes. “They kind of rode the Southern renaissance,” says Knowlton. “[Nashville] piggybacked on the love of Americana and honkytonk and blue jeans and chambray shirts and cowboy hats.”
In Pittsburgh, Knowlton says, the burgeoning dining scene is giving life to old buildings through restaurant concepts. Cleveland, Knowlton adds, possesses the same marketable Rust Belt grittiness. But we have only recently begun to capitalize on our history with spots such as the downtown Heinen’s Fine Foods.
Melissa McCart, former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette restaurant critic and current Newsday critic, saw Pittsburgh evolve over four years there. She points to walkability — a feature that has spiked demand for housing near the Ohio City and downtown restaurant districts, but is in short supply elsewhere.
“I feel like there are restaurant corridors in Pittsburgh. It’s easy to get around,” says McCart. “I found that in Cleveland. I went to the West Side Market, and I know that whole area has a lot, but outside of there, places that I wanted to go to were destinations that were standalone.”
Building physical density could provide a structure for a food identity that resonates nationally. McCart speaks fondly of our markets and our beer, wine and cocktails. And Cleveland’s unpretentious approach to cooking and eating struck her. But our civic plate presentation could use some work.
“I feel like Cleveland could use some narratives for people to understand how the city works,” she says.
It’s no wonder that Michael Symon is using his profile in an attempt to make Cleveland barbecue a thing. Somebody’s got to say that Cleveland food stands for something.
Jonah Oryszak, co-owner of chic New American spot Plum Cafe & Kitchen in Ohio City, is building his restaurant around a similar sentiment. “Does my restaurant move food culture forward?” asks Oryszak. “If you can’t say yes to that question, then you might as well just franchise an Applebee’s because you just want to cash in on complacency.”
Plum’s dishes appear as carefully designed as the restaurant’s subway-tiled interior, and he and chef and co-owner Brett Sawyer regularly retool Plum’s menu.
By presenting dishes such as crispy confit chicken feet in a relaxed environment, Oryszak is attempting to knit a Cleveland asset — our humility and unpretentiousness — with an aesthetic found in more established cities. He is grappling with the question of what, exactly, defines our city.
Veteran Fire Food & Drink executive chef and owner Douglas Katz says Cleveland doesn’t have to shout about its assets. “We should have great respect and great pride in what we have,” he says. With our agricultural muscle and self-reliant tendencies, we could be a leader in truly sustainable dining.
“Grow it in a quality way,” Katz says, “and other people take notice.”
After the Michael Symons, Zack Bruells and Douglas Katzs of the world got Cleveland to this moment, it may be up to the next generation of chefs for our next course.
A younger wave has given Charleston and Nashville an edge, says Knowlton. “Then, all of a sudden, you have people saying, ‘Oh, Cleveland reminds me of how [New York City’s] East Village used to be or [Washington, D.C.’s] Shaw used to be.’ ”
All the elements are here: excellent farms, experimental young chefs and enthusiastic proprietors. Yet they aren’t being connected in identifiable ways.
The story of Cleveland’s restaurant scene is, then, the story of Cleveland in 2016. On the surface, we have the right stuff: new businesses, downtown residents, burgeoning development and a championship outlook. But look closer, and all that feels unified by enthusiastic, yet empty cheerleading. To say that Cleveland has a functioning food scene is not enough. Who we are should be telegraphed through what’s on the plate.
We could capitalize on our Rust Belt grit. We could heed Sietsema’s brutal critique of our service or defend our laid-back vibe. We could define ourselves as the national rebels, the ones who have foodie cred because we just don’t care what you think. But whatever we do, we need to do it well, with cooking that honors Northeast Ohio’s renowned produce, service that respects customers and criticism that’s vested in bettering our dining.
It’s easy to fall back on the same old nervous tic, that Cleveland is just 10 years behind everywhere else. But hanging onto that worn-out adage as a free pass for complacency is setting us back. And our development, our infrastructure, our neighborhoods, our residents, our economy and, yes, what we eat are suffering for it.