Cleveland is a perfect place to explore all sides of your personality, both “uptown” and “downtown”, high and popular culture. Between the fine arts, ethnic restaurants and rock music, you don’t have to pigeonhole yourself or your vacation.
Where to eat: Dante stays seasonal. The five course tasting menu is a great value at $60. Don’t worry if you’ve had it before; the restaurant keeps notes and when you come back, they’ll adjust the menu. The restaurant 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.
Local chef and Iron Chef Michael Symon pronounces Sokolowski’s University Inn’s pierogies, a Polish delicacy, “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 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.
An old-school Slovenian restaurant on E. 55th Street — U.S. 6, the Grand Army of the Republic Highway — is in an older neighborhood, but 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. Saturday nights are packed and reservations are a must.
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. 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 runs $15. Bread is meant to be broken between 2 to 4 people. Each spread has 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.
Pier W is on Lake Erie with a stunning view of downtown Cleveland. Dress is dressy. If you’d like a taste of the good life — but at a bargain price — they do have a terrific Happy Hour special: Sunday through Friday 4:00-7:00, Saturday 4:00-6:30, featuring half-priced bar food menu items, Specialty Drinks at $5.75, a selection of Wines by the glass at $5.75, Classic Cocktails at $5.75. Pier W orders its seafood from responsible sources and obtains the freshest food possible.
What to do: 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. Time magazine favorably compared Cleveland Orchestra to many of the most noteworthy orchestras of Central Europe. The current conductor is Franz Welser-Möst, an Austrian. During the summer, the world-famous 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.
The Cleveland Museum of Art’s permanent collections are always free to the public, including their German and Austrian Medieval and Renaissance suits of armor, as well as German and Austrian Baroque sculpture.
Another place in Cleveland that features free Prussian art is historic Lake View Cemetery. Lake View is one of the first cemeteries of the Victorian era that broke away from the sterile Colonial era layout to start the “garden cemetery” trend. Garden cemeteries became the place to promenade, to picnic and to view fine marble statuary. Lake View was laid out by Adolph Strauch, a renowned landscape architect born in the province of Silesia, Prussia. Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. acknowledged the influence of Strauch on his own work. The cemetery has an impressive monument dedicated to assassinated President James A. Garfield. It’s 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. Lake View also has the glorious Wade Memorial Chapel, dedicated to the founder of Western Union. Its hand-set Tiffany & Co. opalescent, iridescent, and translucent glass mosaic tiles representing different parts of the Old and New Testament are stunning.
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, a visitor’s center that houses an eclectic medical museum and an outdoor farmers market.
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.
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.
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 outdoors. 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.
Record Revolution in Cleveland Heights is a real-deal record store and head shop in operation since 1967. That was the Summer of Love, don’t you know.
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!
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. Rates are generally in the mid 100’s.
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. There are several packages, including a two night stay deal under $200.