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Best Cleveland Restaurants

AOL PICK from our Editors

In the past 10 years, Cleveland’s reputation as a foodie destination has been sealed, partly because of innovative chefs like Michael Symon and Jonathan Sawyer, who’ve landed spots on “Top Chef” and the best-restaurant lists of Food and Wine magazine. They’ve helped bring attention to neighborhood favorites that range from authentic ethnic cuisine to innovative contemporary. As Clevelanders, they care about the city and are happy to brag about its extensive, eclectic offerings. In Cleveland, you can find upscale restaurants to rival the ones in New York City, but you’ll also find the best milkshake in the Midwest, people lining up for Polish pierogis, Italian food made from recipes passed down for generations, and Mexican food made with a contemporary flair. As you travel Cleveland’s neighborhoods, the myriad options are evident.

Flying Fig

Neighborhood: Ohio City Price: Expensive

At the Flying Fig, an intimate, stylish bistro tucked off Lorain Avenue in Ohio City, chef-owner Karen Small reigns as the farm-to-table queen. The female in the cluster of Cleveland’s culinary stars, Small is credited with being the first to get serious about honoring small family farms and local food artisans. For 11 years, she’s turned organic and locally-grown ingredients into innovative, contemporary cuisine that has earned the Flying Fig a fan club of regular devotees. With her artistic sensibility, Small’s dishes are as lovely to look at as they are to eat. An appetizer of tempura-fried green beans is arranged into a delicate tower. Braised, then grilled, short ribs rest on horseradish potato puree, with green beans festooning the top—the Pilsner reduction sauce, a perfect pool on the plate. Since the price tag can get hefty at dinner, come for the Happy Hour on weekdays and Sunday, when small plates offer a bounty of textures and flavors for less money. Those tempura-fried green beans are $2 cheaper then. The small blue-cheese burgers with caramelized onion and bacon are a zesty-sweet combination.

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Momocho Mod Mex

Neighborhood: Ohio City Price: Expensive

Chef Eric Williams’ bold, contemporary take on Mexican food is going gangbusters as one of Cleveland’s latest foodie hotspots. It seems Williams must have a divining rod in his kitchen that points to unusual combinations of flavors and textures that actually work. Sure, you can get traditional guacamole, but opt for one of Williams’ versions mixed with goat cheese and chili poblano—or smoked trout and bacon—or blue crab and corn. Flavors are fuller and the texture more creamy. Tacos get the same creative tinkering, but more so. There are 17 different versions, from the familiar to the unexpected—wild boar, duck and braised goat raise the bar on meats. If your wallet allows, head to the main dishes. The seared sea scallops served with hominy croqueta and jalapeño creamed corn is a splendid option, even if just for the croqueta. The scallops make it golden. Photos of Mexican wrestlers’ masks, religious votive candles and a bevy of Mexican wall trinkets set the tone of whimsy and humor. One thing though, bring a pen flashlight. A cell phone light works in a pinch. Reservations are advised.

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Lola Bistro

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive

Lola’s chef-owner Michael Symon is Cleveland’s culinary golden boy. With his signature shaved head, quick and slightly maniacal laugh and innovative take on American cuisine, Symon has put Cleveland on the path to foodie celebrity fame. Symon has been named one of the top 10 chefs in America by Food and Wine magazine and placed second in “Iron Chef America.” At Lola, a sophisticated, boutiquey eatery with dark leather booths, intimate, contemporary lighting and splashes of color from well-appointed artwork, Symon shows what progressive American food is all about. Rib eye is a smoked blue cheese and wild mushroom affair, and halibut is jazzed up with a bacon, corn and cilantro accompaniment. For the true Michael Symon experience, go with the pork belly and pig ear. Symon, a pork aficionado, prepares this dish with wild mushrooms and horseradish crème fraiche. Make a reservation to guarantee a table. If Lola breaks your budget, Symon’s other restaurant, Lolita, located in Tremont, has less expensive but equally creative options.  Lola is closed Sundays.

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Greenhouse Tavern

Neighborhood: Downtown Price: Expensive

One of Cleveland’s newest top-end Fourth Street restaurants, the Greenhouse Tavern is Jonathan Sawyer’s showcase for unpretentious French cuisine. Sawyer, who spent time under Symon’s tutelage at Lolita and sharpened his skills by co-founding Bar Cento, was just named a “Best New Chef, 2010” by Food and Wine magazine. If there was a “Top Chef” environmentalist award, he’d win that, too. The restaurant is the only LEED-certified, green restaurant in Ohio, in part because of Sawyer’s interest in recycling materials. Bicycle wheels were made into contemporary overhead lamps and barn wood was used as accent elements. The effect is as refreshing as the food. Sawyer’s specialty is an unfussy approach to locally-sourced fresh ingredients and an uncanny feel for just how much heat to apply to make flavors pop. Clams in foie gras and Ohio beef with grilled romaine are two dishes people rave about. If you’re dining with a group, opt for the chef’s tasting menu of four courses, and share appetizers.

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Bar Cento

Neighborhood: Ohio City Price: Moderate

Dark olive walls, recycled Amish barnwood and hanging lamps draped in gauzy red fabric create an intimate restaurant-bar that hops with youthful energy. Here, 100 different wines, several served by the glass or half bottle, are accompanied by contemporary American cuisine. Chefs Michael Novak and Adam Lambert present seasonal entrees, like duck confit, that have earned high praise. Gourmet pizzas with thin flavorful crusts, though, are a specialty. The arugula pizza is a tasty mix of pine nuts with garlic and onion. Bar Cento’s fries are legendary. Fried in duck fat, they’re served in a paper cone with a rosemary sprig and garlic, with four perfect circles of house-made dipping sauces.

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Guarino's Restaurant

Neighborhood: Little Italy Price: Moderate

When the scent of fresh basil and finely-chopped tomatoes waken your taste buds before you bite into your bruschetta, you know you’ve picked the right Italian restaurant. In Little Italy, other options might be trendier, but Guarino's is the one that feels the most like Italy—the Sicilian version—the first version of Italian cuisine brought to Cleveland, when Guarino’s opened in 1918. It looks as charming as it did when Frank Sinatra was a dinner guest. Lace tablecloths, antique Victorian furniture and a parlor piano topped with vintage photographs create a friendly elegance where kids are welcome and couples get engaged. If you’re here in summer, opt for patio seating. It’s an intimate Italian courtyard festooned with potted flowers and 50-year-old grapevines. When deciding on a meal, always go with one server’s suggestion: “When you want bang for your buck, get anything stuffed.” The cannelloni proved her right. Our idea? The calamari—light, crispy, fried batter outside and the inside tender and tasty.

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Great Lakes Brewing Company

Neighborhood: Ohio City Price: Budget

When LeBron James dumped Cleveland for Miami, the Great Lakes Brewing Company created Quitness—a limited-release brew served only at its pub. This wry humor has helped put owners Patrick and Brian Conroy at the top of the craft beer game. Brewery staples like Burning River, Eliot Ness and Edmund Fitzgerald have both a local and historic twist. At their pub, the Conroy brothers give as much care to crafting food as they do beer, making this as much a favorite for professionals at lunch time as for the late-night casual crowd. The menu offers suggestions like matching the Edmund Fitzgerald Porter with a pulled-pork sandwich or the barbecue ribs. For lighter fare, partner your beer with the Local & Fresh Plate, a fanned-out collection of sausages, cheeses and roasted vegetables from the West Side Market. The place itself is a reason to come. Three Victorian buildings, Ohio City originals, a feed store, a hotel and a tavern were turned into a single brewpub that incorporates the original buildings’ features. Look for the bullet holes in the taproom bar. The rumor is Eliot Ness’ gun put them there. At night, you’ll need to jockey for a table in the mostly polo-shirt crowd.

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Melt Bar & Grilled

Neighborhood: Coventry Village Price: Budget

When the bell rings at Melt, someone’s “taking the challenge.” That means eating an entire mega sandwich made with 13 different cheeses melted between three slices of thick bread and piled high with fries and slaw. Finish all and you’re in the Melt’s Hall of Fame along with the “Man v. Food” guy. Gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches are chef-owner Matt Fish’s trademark that draws daily crowds of people willing to wait. The décor makes waiting fun. Menus are on the backs of vintage record jackets, and holiday light-up yard ornaments are mixed with Cleveland photographs and kitsch. If you’re stuck deciding between, say, “The Parmageddon,” a two-hands sandwich of two pierogi, kraut and cheddar cheese that slips and slides with each bite, or “The Lake Erie Monster,” with batter-fried Lake Erie walleye, American cheese and jalapeño tartar sauce, the bartender has an opinion. The Cleveland Heights location is Melt number two. The original is in Lakewood, another Cleveland suburb. If the wait is too long for your schedule, scout out a bar stool. The bar is a friendship magnet.

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Sokolowski's University Inn

Neighborhood: Tremont Price: Budget

When Sokolowski’s opens its doors for Saturday dinner, its most popular shift, people are lined up waiting. Not because this is the new it establishment, but because the same Polish, Eastern European comfort food has been served the same way since 1923. The idea here is big—big food, big flavors: as in rich meat sauces and melted butter. This is not the place to watch your cholesterol, but who cares? As you push your tray through the cafeteria line along with everyone from blue-haired teens to octogenarians, your appetite growing for the Sokolowski family’s version of food your Polish grandma would have made (if you had one), you have plenty of time for decision-making. Will it be the stuffed cabbage swimming in sauce, the hearty chicken and noodles, or the fresh smoked bratwurst? What about picking up a side order of those pierogi sautéed in butter and said to be the best in town? Make sure to check out the photos on the dark wood walls. They’re a Cleveland history timeline. Also, don’t miss the view of the downtown skyline from here. It’s superb. 

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Sokolowski's University Inn  

Tommy's

Neighborhood: Coventry Village Price: Budget

Milkshakes first gained Tommy’s notoriety in 1972, when Rolling Stone proclaimed them “Best Milkshake East of the Mississippi.” These days, owner Tommy Fello’s airy café-style restaurant with lots of natural wood, live plants and local artwork is a neighborhood institution where people are likely to be carrying on earnest conversations with friends, or enjoying family with a toddler in tow.  From vegans to carnivores, everyone can find something homemade and delicious on the menu that reads a bit like a birthday-card list. Fello’s flair for making customers his friends, and friends his family, shows up on the menu. Early on, customers gave him suggestions on what to make, and he named the dishes for them. Whether a roast beef or a vegan sandwich, or a Lebanese-inspired dish, Fello’s specialty is your pleasure. Famous folks, including Alicia Keyes, Ellen DeGeneres and Danny DeVito, have come to Tommy’s for a happiness fix. Breakfast is also a specialty and the restaurant is open for dinner.

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