When the doors open, we see supersized old black-and-white pictures of people eating and a long table with little cardboard ovens stacked seven tall, six deep and 20 wide.
Beyond the table stands the door to the Silver Grille, a relic of a bygone era. Long before mall food courts, a shopping trip to the big department store in the city meant sitting down for lunch.
As a 6-year-old in the 1980s, I was obsessed with the Terminal Tower. Cleveland seemed like the biggest city in the world. Its downtown stretched in all directions for what had to be miles. At its center was the tallest building I could possibly imagine.
We're here for the Then and Now Sunday brunch, which is hosted by the Horseshoe Cleveland seven floors below us, and catered by the Ritz-Carlton, Cleveland. Restored by the Ritz in 2003, the Silver Grille reopened to host weddings and special events such as this.
Really, we're here for those cardboard ovens. Although the Silver Grille itself, in all of its art deco glory, brings a hefty dose of nostalgia with green walls, floor-to-ceiling columns accentuated with purple lights and even the original 1931 metal chairs with green cushions. The marble goldfish pond still dominates the middle of the dining room — sans goldfish.
The air-conditioning is on blast, a respite from the July air, and some of the buffet food suffers from the cold. But it doesn't matter. We're really here to reminisce about time spent with family and friends.
My mom shopped at Higbee's downtown and ate lunch at the Silver Grille two to three times a year in the '60s with her mom and dad, her little sister and various aunts, uncles and cousins. Trips downtown happened less frequently after the opening of the Higbee's at Severance Center in Cleveland Heights.
My grandmother, who we call Bubby, would have been more than overjoyed to join us today, but she's back in Florida. On her visit this summer, she was amazed at how different Cleveland looks and feels than it did just 10 years ago.
As we sip coffee and orange juice, my mom recalls horseplaying with her sister in the roomy lounge of the ladies' restroom. She remembers the rope lines that corralled people into groups of two, four or six for easy seating when a table became available. And she recalls the creamed chicken served inside the cardboard ovens.
"It was a special treat," she says.
I was born in Northeast Ohio, but spent my first 12 years in Brownsville, Texas, a border city of less than 100,000.
We'd visit Cleveland often. Vacations meant Bubby taking me to the art museum, the natural history museum and the children's museum — all of which I thought were part of Cleveland's endless downtown. She'd take me on the Rapid to Higbee's or the then-brand-new Galleria. As a kid, I didn't know that just two years before I was born, the city hit rock bottom and defaulted. I didn't know that its best times were decades before.
I have solid recollections of lunches at the Hobnail Room, the restaurant inside the Severance Center Higbee's. My two memories of the Silver Grille as a child are the view out the 10th-floor window of the streets below and the cardboard oven.
I took the memento from the big building in Cleveland back to Texas, where it would sit on my dresser alongside Legos, Transformers or G.I. Joes — rarefied territory for a 6-year-old. The oven became an especially important souvenir, since no matter how hard Bubby searched, she could never find a toy Terminal Tower for her far-flung grandson.
By 1993, when we moved back to Cleveland, the Silver Grille had been closed for four years. The downtown Higbee's became Dillard's and then closed.
When I was in high school in the eastern suburbs, I visited downtown for baseball, basketball or football games — maybe a concert — and that was it. With the independence of my early 20s, trips downtown extended to the Flats, which was already on its way out — again.
But as downtown Cleveland re-emerged in the late 2000s, I found myself there more often. Now I work there.
I can't walk from our offices in the Theater District to the 5th Street Arcades without pausing for a moment as a construction worker maneuvers a forklift heavy with cinder blocks into a once-abandoned building — soon to be Euclid Avenue's next apartment complex and hotel.
To me, the Horseshoe is part of this new downtown. Without the casino's play on the nostalgia of its home, I may have not been able to see the Silver Grille again.
You may not like the casino. You may have moral issues with gambling. You may argue that it's not the economic generator it was promised to be. You may be asking about the status of Phase 2.
But from the Higbee Building's 10th floor, as I relive the nostalgia of the Silver Grille, downtown Cleveland is starting to look like the sprawling, glitzy metropolis on the lake that 6-year-old me thought it was all along.