High and popular culture, dining in Cleveland [classic article]

Cleveland is a perfect place to immerse yourself in both “high” and popular culture. Culture – whether it’s food, music or art – has been experiencing intense crossover for the past few years. With easy access to lots of styles through YouTube, cable television and migrating populations, people are appreciating a colorful spectrum of life experiences and can no longer be pigeonholed. The same person who likes fine cuisine may also enjoy punk music. A symphony goer may also enjoy a burlesque show.

Thanks to a couple of factors – Cleveland’s long-time German and Slavic populations, as well as old money from John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil – the city was able to create and nurture one of the finest orchestras in the world. On the flip side of the coin, Cleveland DJ Alan Freed popularized the use of the phrase “rock and roll” to describe music emerging in the 1950’s. Decades later, the city became the site of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It’s this comfortable mix of polished and rough that makes Cleveland special.

Where to stay: Cleveland has many types of interesting accommodations, to suit different tastes and budgets. The Cleveland Downtown Holiday Express absolutely does not feel like a chain, but a rather chic boutique hotel. It’s located in what was the 1894 Guardian Bank Building, complete with the grand masonry and high ceilings of that fin de siècle era. The rooms are spacious and decorated in a modern industrial but warm design. Amenities include Jacuzzis for two, mini fridges and a location that’s convenient to the 4th Street entertainment corridor and the new Horseshoe Casino.

Right over the Rocky River, across from the city limits is Emerald Necklace Inn. It’s pretty rare to find a bed and breakfast with so many amenities: beauty salon, tea room and a state park system with trails, golfing and fishing right in back. The rooms are spacious and elegantly – not busily – appointed, with decks and a sitting room.

What to eat: I’m starting to pick up when chefs — some of them quite famous — are copying Dante Boccuzzi’s style and dishes. But you know how it is with the original . . . imitators can feel like an old fashioned carbon copy from grade school. His eponymous restaurant in Cleveland, Dante, stays seasonal but versions of your favorites can still be found on the menu. Dante is located in a former bank and charcuterie is house-cured in what was the vault. A recent charcuterie platter included a mild, creamy quenelle of chicken mousse, pork “Slim Jims”, prosciutto, pork Speck, pepperoni, a fatty and smoky chorizo, pork pate’ with apricots, pate’ with pistachios and chestnuts, as well as crispy, seasoned breads. Nothing was overly salty or gamy or garlicky or peppery. The meats enhance your tastebuds, rather than killing them like some cured meats can do.

When patronizing one of the Food Network Iron Chef‘s restaurants, expectations are high. Cleveland’s Michael Symon is credited with revitalizing Cleveland’s restaurant scene and his casual “neighborhood boutique” restaurant Lolita is part of that movement. I recommend the roasted bone marrow – salsa verde, scallions, grilled bread ($8) as an appetizer. Instead of the traditional round bone cuts, it had a gorgeous leg bone presentation of marrow. The salsa verde and seasoning does not overpower the fatty marrow, best eaten on toast rounds with a little spoon.

Cleveland’s Greenhouse Tavern has been named one of Bon Appetit’s Top 10 restaurants in America and Food and Wine magazine’s Best Chefs 2010. I ordered Warm Bread & Butter Board with a selection of house jams, conserves, yogurts, spreads, schmears, dips, butters and “rendered fatty animal love” served with grilled bread, pain d’epi, house crackers & country bread ($15). Bread is meant to be broken between 2 to 4 people. On this night, the spreads included a smoky chicken spread, pork spread, garlic scape spread (the flower stems of garlic), pimento cheese, lavender butter with sea salt, lemon zest spread. Crusty breads from a local bakery were on a wooden butcher’s block. The portions were huge and the dish makes a meal. Each spread had interesting, innovative flavors and they provide quite a conversation starter.

Not all restaurants in ethnic enclaves have to have a Granny’s place, old-school feeling. In Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood, Washington Place Bistro & Inn has a modern, chic feeling both in ambiance and in its menu. The offerings combine local products with American classics, Continental favorites and a whole lot of flair.

An old-school restaurant on E. 55th Street — U.S. 6 — is in an older neighborhood, but is still standing strong: Sterle’s Country House. The restaurant first opened in 1954 and is not only a favorite of Cleveland, but also of chefs Anthony Bourdain and Guy Fieri.

Both the exterior and interior look like a Mittel European chalet, but dress is casual. The female servers are in national costume. There’s a live accordion player playing polka dance music on Friday nights and a full polka band playing on Saturday nights. I’m told that Saturday nights are packed and reservations are a must.

Sokolowski’s University Inn. Local chef and Iron Chef Michael Symon pronounces them “the very best thing (he) ever ate”. Having opened in 1923, it’s the oldest family-run restaurant in Cleveland. The casual Tremont neighborhood restaurant serves their lunch cafeteria style and a very buttery pierogi with onions is on the line. You can get any number you please. One of the secrets of fine pierogis may be the use of a lower gluten Polish flour. Sokolowski’s pierogies are delectable and not “doughy”. Anthony Bourdain counts himself as a fan. Bill Clinton also ate there in his pre-vegan days. Pierogies are vegetarian, but quite rich with butter. Some put a dollop of sour cream on top for extra decadence.

What to do: During the summer, the world-famous, marvelous Cleveland Orchestra performs outdoors at the Blossom Music Festival, inside the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. You can bring picnic coolers, as well as purchase food and wine there. The lawn seating is arranged on a hill, so it’s nature’s amphitheater seating with no obstructed views of the musicians.

Suite Lorain is a huge vintage warehouse with everything from clothing to kitchenware to swingers’ magazines. It’s one of the few stores of this type open daily and the owner is an invaluable resource for off the beaten track sites for tourists.

A century ago, cemeteries were all the rage to visit, to have picnics, to see the statuary. Knowing that the leading sculptors and artists of the day worked on monuments, it’s easy to see why. It’s free, the large acreage encourages wildlife – even in the city — and it’s by its very nature peaceful. Lake View Cemetery has an impressive monument dedicated to assassinated President James A. Garfield. You can visit his actual casket in the basement, draped in the Stars and Stripes. The cemetery is also the final resting place of John D. Rockefeller, Eliot Ness, and Carl B. Stokes; members of President Lincoln’s cabinet, Civil War generals and Revolutionary War soldiers. Also must-see: the glorious Wade Memorial Chapel, dedicated to the founder of Western Union. The hand-set Tiffany & Co. glass mosaic tiles representing different parts of the Old and New Testament are stunning.

The Western Reserve Historical Society, the Cleveland Botanical Garden and the Cleveland Museum of Art are all in the same general cul-de-sac, for easy cultural immersion. The museum of art truly has something for everyone in its permanent collections, which is always free: you’ll find everything from mummies to Medieval suits of armor to paintings by Renoir.

After a part of Lake Erie was dredged to ensure safe shipping channels, all kinds of interesting plant life grew on the dredged land. It’s now Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, free to walk around.

If you’re driving around, check out the breathtaking manses on Lake Shore Blvd. in the tiny village of Bratenahl, surrounded by the City of Cleveland on three sides and Lake Erie to the north.

To the north of the city, the suburb of Willoughby has cute coffee shops, boutiques and outdoor farmers markets.

The Barking Spider Tavern is hidden behind another building at Case Western University, but it’s worth seeking out for cool live music 7 days a week. The venue is about the size of an average living room. During nice weather, they open up large carport-sized windows on each side, with picnic tables outside. You can hear everything from folk, rock, blues, reggae, jazz and Gospel.

Beachland Ballroom is a venue that appeals to young folks and not-so-young folks, with a variety of acts, a real cocktail lounge and rare in the world of venues: tables and chairs. A recent night featured the national burlesque act, Pretty Things Peep Show.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame presents the history of rock music – and its various roots – in an I.M. Pei-designed pyramid building. There are traditional museum type exhibits, like famous guitars and performance outfits. The museum also has outstanding interactive exhibits that allow you to listen to the songs that influenced your favorite artists. They also put the various decades of music into an educational social context. The gift store’s pretty amazing, too!





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