The Epicurean: Setting Cleveland’s Culinary Stage

Matt Segall, Columnist

This is the first in a biweekly column highlighting our local culinary scene. Restaurant reviews, research, interviews, recipes and more will all come together in order to identify what makes the Cleveland experience unique.

Many have heard of Cleveland’s West Side Market, the much-hyped European-style food bazaar that offers a diverse selection of products that attracts tens of thousands every weekend. Another famous character on the Cleveland food scene is Michael Symon, who won the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef competition, rocketing him into the national spotlight. It should come as no surprise that Cleveland — former industrial and economic capital of the Midwest and home to the likes of John D. Rockefeller — has a rich European cultural history coursing through its streets.

In the early 1900s, Cleveland’s rapidly growing economy attracted large populations of Russian, German, Hungarian, Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants, all of whom brought their culinary traditions. However, this age of growth did not last, and the second half of the 20th century witnessed the decline of industry and population, resulting in an urban exodus and subsequent suburban growth. As the wealthy left the once-bustling downtown, the nickname “the mistake by the lake” began to gain popularity.

The city began its recovery in the 1990s and continues today. During this same decade, the farm-to-table movement started by Thomas Keller and Alice Waters in northern California began to gain national momentum. Local chef-entrepreneurs, such as Symon, Douglas Katz and Zack Bruell, saw this as an opportunity to bring honest, fresh cooking to a city hungry for something new. This generation of chefs looked back to pillars of Cleveland’s culinary culture for inspiration. Sokolowski’s, which has been serving pierogies since 1923, has a clear influence on Symon’s famous beef cheek variant, which can be found at his downtown outpost Lola Bistro. Cleveland chefs’ respect for tradition has won them trust among their customers, allowing them to be more progressive with their choices. It would be challenging to find a restaurant outside of Cleveland that serves roasted pig’s face, and yet this delicacy sells out almost every night at The Greenhouse Tavern.

While Cleveland acts as a typical melting pot, there is a nuance to the experience that sets it apart from traditional culinary destinations like Paris, New York or San Francisco. Douglas Katz, the restaurateur behind Shaker Heights’s famed Fire Food and Drink, prefers to see Cleveland’s unique food scene like a puzzle. He warns against pinning his city’s culinary history and influence down to one — or even 10 — specific cultures. Rent is still cheap in Cleveland, lowering barriers of entry to the scene. Agriculture and farming in the surrounding area facilitate access to fresh and unique ingredients. Cultural institutions, namely the Cleveland Art Museum and Cleveland Orchestra, garner national attention. Katz cites these as factors that make the city the ideal culinary incubator and the reason why we should be excited for its future.

Unfortunately, Cleveland is still burdened by its depressed reputation. Attend a concert by the world-renowned Cleveland Orchestra or a jazz show at the recently reopened Bop Stop. Go for a night out downtown or on West 25th St. in Ohio City. Take a quick 10-minute drive north to Amherst for paprikash at Sal and Al’s Diner, followed by a snoogle from Kiedrowski’s Bakery next door. It will be clear that the area is as strong as ever, and that the unique Cleveland spark never really left.