Cleveland's restaurant and bar scene has been gaining momentum over the past few years. Celebrity chefs like Michael Symon of Lola and Lolita have taken the lead in championing local dining, and long-standing favorites are finally gaining the recognition they deserve. Here are a few places (and some of the best burgers, brunch dishes and a cafeteria, around), not to miss during a summer weekend on the shores of Lake Erie.
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The Flying Fig
One of the first farm-to-table restaurants to open in the Cleveland area and right across the street from the West Side Market, The Flying Fig (2523 Market Ave) has been a mainstay on the West Side since it opened in 1999. While you can't go wrong with a meal here any time of day, we're a sucker for its brunch menu. Try a burger topped with local eggs, bacon and cheddar, or an intense fried chicken thigh and egg sandwich piled onto a housemade cheddar and chive biscuit and topped with apple butter and arugula. The brunch cocktail list is even ahead of the curve, featuring non-traditional options—our favorite is the Market Cocktail, a combination of lemon, orange bitters, ginger beer and Fernet.
Worth the drive out of the city, no trip to the Cleveland area is complete without a stop for burgers and shakes at Swenson's Drive-In. Not much has changed since the original Akron location opened in 1934—high school students still sprint across the parking lot to take orders and deliver trays of food right to your car. Try the Galley Boy, a double cheeseburger doused with two secret sauces (spoiler alert: barbecue and tartar sauce) on an impossibly light buttered bun that oozes with creamy American cheese. Don’t be afraid to mix and match shake flavors (we’re partial to a vanilla-mint malt or a chocolate–peanut butter concoction) but the options are endless. The Independence location (7635 Broadview Road, Seven Hills) is only 15 minutes from downtown, and there are four more in the Akron area.
West Side Market
Cleveland’s historic West Side Market (1979 W 25th St) opened in 1912 and is still one of the best places in the city to score local gastronomic specialties. Arrive early to beat the crowds and grab a heavily deep-fried apple fritter for breakfast from one of a dozen bakery vendors. Tap into the city’s rich Polish heritage and take home a dozen handmade pierogies stuffed with everything from sauerkraut to mozzarella and mushrooms at Pierogi Palace. Don’t miss out on the region’s classic Slim-Jim-esque smoked meat sticks, smokies—we adore the jalapeno and cheddar variety from J&J Meats and the maple version from Sebastian’s Meats. If you’re still hungry, grab lunch from Jonathon Sawyer's Noodlecat booth, serving up ramen, fresh noodles and daily specials.
Chef Jonathon Sawyer is Cleveland’s newest culinary darling, with an extensive list of restaurants opened in the past few years. With two Noodlecat locations, a pretzel shop at the Quicken Loans Arena and even a Street Frites station ready to provide you with comfort food during an inevitably depressing home Browns game, it’s hard to miss Sawyer’s influence on the city’s food scene. It’s best experienced at his original outpost, the Greenhouse Tavern (2038 E 4th St). The menu is extensive, and there’s something to please everyone—from meat-eaters to gluten-free diners to vegans. Don’t miss out on one of the gravy-and-cheese–covered frite dishes, an homage to Quebec’s favorite dish, poutine.
Sokolowski’s University Inn
A Cleveland institution, Sokolowski’s (1201 University Rd) just picked up a well-deserved James Beard Award as one of America’s Classics. Originally a lunch spot for the city’s steelworkers, it’s been serving lunch and dinner since 1923. Not much has changed at this old-school establishment, and it still features cafeteria-style dining. Chances are you’ll have to wait in line, but the payoff is worth it (and a selection of Polish beers to drink in line helps time pass a little faster). You’ll be rewarded with heaps of housemade Polish food—dumplings, pierogies, salisbury steak, smoked kielbasa, chicken paprikash and, our favorite, stuffed cabbage. Dessert is the first thing you’ll get to put on your tray, but beware—you probably won’t have enough room to finish it.
Porco Lounge & Tiki Room
Skip the wait and fuss of the speakeasy Velvet Tango Room and escape to Cleveland’s bit of tropical paradise at Porco Lounge (2527 W 25th St). Hidden on an empty stretch of road on the West Side, this quaint tiki wonderland is surrounded by tropical plants, plays soft island music and offers a menu of traditional tiki drinks decked out with fresh fruit, flowers and plastic trinkets. We recommend the Painkiller (which comes in three strengths) and the Fog Cutter, complete with billowing smoke from the addition of dry ice. The food menu might be sparse, but don’t miss out on a taco or two, even if you just want to soak up some of the navy-strength gin.