At the tail end of 2014, I composed for this very magazine my annual look-ahead at the year in food. Back then, Cleveland diners were eagerly awaiting the arrival of such places as Alley Cat, Graffiti, Citizen Pie, Batuqui, M Italian and any number of gratuitous Crop Bistro spin-offs. In the years that followed, we heralded the impending launch of high-profile haunts like Butcher and the Brewer, Trentina and Marble Room, neighborhood joints like Molto Bene, Xinji Noodle Bar and Banter, and second acts like Michael’s Genuine, Black Pig and Dinerbar on Clifton.
Some don’t last a year, while others carve out a more lasting spot on the Cleveland dining landscape. What follows is a list of places that feel like they’ve been here all along.
The Black Pig
Officially, Black Pig opened in 2012, but it wasn’t until the restaurant relocated three years later to its current home, a handsome brick building on quiet Bridge Avenue, that the Pig truly emerged as one of the best nose-to-tail bistros in town. Michael Nowak is a meticulous chef who transforms ethically sourced pork into world-class charcuterie, seasonal entrees and ever-shifting tasting menus. For every succulent braised pork collar, there’s a stunning vegetarian small plate, lust-worthy pasta and sunny seafood special.
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, and it’s the fuel behind the eye-popping delights at this contemporary but timeless Ohio City deli. An 1850s-era firehouse has been converted into a bustling neighborhood hub where hungry guests pop in for bowls of soul-satisfying matzo ball soup, two-fisted pastrami and fried chicken sandwiches, and snappy housemade pickles and charcuterie. That festive fare is followed up with ethereal Jewish pastries like rugelach, babka and knishes, all of which is washed down with fizzy phosphates.
Jill Vedaa’s resume is too lengthy to list here, but suffice it to say that the chef has been an invaluable resource in countless Cleveland restaurants. That experience is on full display at Salt, a trendy small-plate eatery in Lakewood that continues to win over meat-and-potatoes skeptics. Guests chart a course from the seasonal, Mediterranean-inspired menu, with each artful, smart and creative dish a tightly constructed delight.
Astoria Market and Cafe
To make a splash in buzzy Gordon Square, you must be doing many things right. Since opening a little more than three years ago, this marketplace-slash-cafe is doing that and more. A true community hub, Astoria treats neighbors to generous happy hours, easy-like-Sunday-morning brunches, and cosmopolitan dinners built around an expansive menu with almost zero duds. Highly tuned service keeps us coming back for more.
Banter was an early adopter of the KISS formula, where a stripped-down setting served as a fitting backdrop for a succinct menu built around sausage and poutine. Equal parts retail bottle shop, corner bar and neighborhood tavern, this modern, minimal Detroit Shoreway venue always seems to rise to the occasion. The poutine is matchless, the Polish Boys legendary, and the beer and wine selections hand-picked for greatness.
The Plum is audacious, playful, enigmatic and utterly distinctive. And while the hyper-local, seasonal bistro defies easy description, diners know the menu will be chock-full of thoughtful and delicious snacks, small plates and sharable feasts. Don’t get too attached to any of them as they may not be available on return visits. This is chef-, ingredient-, and technique-driven cuisine that pays equal attention to vegetables, grains, seafood and meats.
La Plaza Taqueria
One of the most talked about new restaurants of the past five years is La Plaza Taqueria. Mexican food fans have been making pilgrimages to La Plaza for tacos, tostadas and quesadillas for nearly a decade, but the entire experience was elevated last year when the operation was moved from a makeshift cafe in the rear to a bona fide taqueria up front. An expanded salsa and condiment bar paired with seating for dozens manages to make those heavenly tacos taste even better.
Before Mabel’s BBQ came to town, Texas-style barbecue fans had to board a plane to enjoy real-deal smoked brisket. Sure, there’s a Cleveland bent to many of the dishes at this nearly 4-year-old East Fourth Street destination, but at the heart of them all is bona fide barbecue, cooked low and slow in wood-fueled pits. Gloriously savory fare like pig ears, pork ribs, fatty brisket and juicy kielbasa is served up in a fun and festive environment with Swiss-like efficiency.
As Superior Pho did for pho, this Asiatown newcomer introduced an entirely new gaggle of diners to the thrills of Shanghai-style soup dumplings, spicy beef noodle soups and earthy pan-fried noodles. We love LJ because it’s quick, affordable, delicious and exciting. The full-color menu makes it easy to try new things, and there always seems to be new things to try. Come for the xiao long bao but stay for the pork and preserved vegetable noodles.
Prolific chef Zack Bruell opened both Alley Cat and Collision Bend down in the Flats, but we always seem to end up at the latter. There are few better places to enjoy the river than on that roomy rear patio, where Cleveland’s best assets are on full display. In winter, the lofty warehouse-like dining room is the place to be, where tasteful nautical elements like brass lamps, sailcloth awnings and dock-cleat sconces reflect the area’s history. The menu is a riot of flavorful small plates, wood-fired pizzas and robust American entrees.