Welcome to Cleveland, the city America loves to poke fun at. Perhaps it’s because Drew Carey is the most famous advocate for Cleveland or because LeBron took his talents to South Beach, or because the Cuyahoga River literally once lit on fire, Cleveland certainly has a reputation for being bullied by its fellow larger, more sun-filled, less industrious cities.
I spent a year of college in Northeast Ohio and after a year of living in flat cornfields with bone-ripping Lake Erie winds, I grew to tremendously appreciate Cleveland for being a very acceptable cosmopolitan oasis with professional sports, and more so today than half a decade ago, with trail-blazing chefs. The locavore and celebrity chef movements, everywhere across the country today, certainly has found Cleveland too.
I first visited Lola Bistro in 2004 when I heard about this exciting young chef, actually from Cleveland, doing some astonishingly bold cooking in this tiny bistro across the Cuyahoga from Downtown, in the warehouse Tremont District. Symon moved Lola from the Tremont to the new East 4th St. district just before I arrived in Ohio in Fall 2007. The original Lola changed to the more casual, small plates oriented Lolita. Since Lola’s move, Symon has been a force on the national restaurant scene, collecting James Beard awards, winning Iron Chefs, and most recently, attempting to breathe life into a struggling network television, food themed daytime talk show, “The Chew.” Symon is the rare celebrity chef who still can actually be seen cooking. He is not, however, immune to the celebrity chef over-expansion problem with a failed restaurant in New York. Today, Symon has Lola, Lolita, three B Spot Burgers across suburban Cleveland, and Roast in a Detroit casino. Symon has found his niche and now thrives.
Food and sports, the holy duo of my life, are what created the nightlife heart of Cleveland, the block of East 4th Street between Euclid and Prospect. It’s a block similar to a miniature Gaslamp District of San Diego, almost desolate in the day, but bumping at night. Strings of lights hang over the pedestrian only street. There’s a House of Blues, Pickwick and Frolic which is a massive center with everything from a champagne bar to a comedy club, and even a bowling alley attempting to bridge the gap between bowling alley and sleek bar.
Yet, it’s the food and the sports that matter here, and created East 4th. The block is right in the shadow of Progressive Field, home of baseball’s Indians. Back in 1994, as Jacobs Field, the stadium was one of the first of the new age, retro but modern, ballparks. Today it is no longer in the top tier, nor is the baseball team (though the Red Sox never should have traded Justin Masterson to the Indians!). The crowds are much thinner than those days, but East 4th still gets foot traffic win or lose, before, and after games. The same with the Cavaliers who play next door at Quicken Loans Arena. The hype is not like it was in the LeBron days when I was in Ohio, but the arena still consistently is sold out.
The sports crowd brings the casual, sports bar influence to the neighborhood. The food of Michael Symon and Greenhouse Tavern’s Jonathan Sawyer brings the big city sophistication to the plates they serve and to the block. At night, there’s a mixture of a few suits and a few Jimenez jerseys to the block. In the day, Greenhouse Tavern and Lola have a business power lunch here and there, but mostly fill with casual hipsters and local residents, often launching start-ups.
Lola is the more ambitious destination restaurant, Greenhouse is the 2012 restaurant with its own rooftop greenhouse and a focus on local and sustainable ingredients. The dishes are far less complicated, but equally as satisfying at Greenhouse, such as the terrific steak tartare I enjoyed once lunch with some impossibly tender grilled snap peas from their garden. I last dined at Lola on my birthday, where it was the only restaurant we could find even open during a massive blizzard with three feet of snow. It was probably the only time you could walk into Lola with no reservation on a Saturday night. Symon’s outstanding beef cheek pierogies can only be found now at lunch, the scallops in a sunchoke puree are no longer on the menu, but one of my favorite desserts of all time, the “6 am special” with brioche french toast next to caramelized apples and maple bacon ice cream, remains.
The restaurants and sports influence on East 4th Street have awakened Cleveland. The city is no joke anymore.