From cheese kings to fermentation fanatics, you'll meet some of the fascinating people driving the regional food scene forward
Suppose you wake up in Cleveland one weekend morning, and you are looking to understand just exactly what is going on, around here—beyond fumbling your way toward a decent cup of coffee, the main thing you should be doing is figuring out directions to the West Side Market.
Open in its current incarnation for more than a century, the hundred vendor-strong market, an anchor of the city’s revitalizing Ohio City neighborhood, is as uniquely Cleveland as it gets, with some of the stalls remaining in the same family for as long as the market has existed. Hungarian butchers, purveyors of good local produce, bread bakers, tamale makers, pierogi people; everything you are expecting and lots more, too, can be found under the market’s tiled, oft-photographed, ceiling. Outside, the city will be frozen, nearly lifeless, under a dour sky—in here, it’s all perfectly alive, colorful, even cozy, as long as you don’t mind sharing the room with large groups of new best friends, and you won’t—the market is just that entertaining.
Most cities in the Great Lakes region are smaller than they used to be, Cleveland being no exception; a city that once had nearly one million inhabitants is now home to less than half the peak population, and if you don’t know where you are going, or what you are looking for, particularly on a weekend when things can get pretty sleepy, you might wonder if there is much of anything going on in this town, at all. Then, you arrive at the market.
They’re not all in here, surely, but on weekend mornings especially, this does feel something like Cleveland’s clubhouse, a gathering place for a community that has been scattering into the suburbs (and out of the region entirely) for generations. Great news, too—when you are finished here, you really are only just getting started. All over town, and starting right in food and drink obsessed Ohio City, there is so much to see, so much to shop for, and so much to eat, hours before many of the city’s more talked-about restaurants warm up for another evening of service. Even the foulest of winter days can’t stand up to this whirlwind itinerary, bringing you straight to the heart of what makes Cleveland’s food scene so worthwhile, just now. Dig in.
But first, coffee
There are some excellent destinations for coffee just now, from Pour on Euclid Avenue, steps from many a downtown hotel, to the light-filled Foyer in Ohio City, but for the whole package—roaster, cafe, community gathering place—look just behind the West Side Market, where duck-rabbit has been at it since 2016. A Cleveland native that detoured to the Bay Area and then back again, philosophy degree from Cal in hand, is the mind behind the city’s coffee-nerdiest cafe, filling up with a crowd that all seems to know each other, at least on weekend mornings. Make sure to pick up some beans—often purchased directly from farmers in Central America and elsewhere, at well above fair trade minimums, they're roasted right here.
Play the market
From exemplary fresh ravioli and pappardelle at Ohio City Pasta to obscure, locally-grown mushrooms at Avant Gardens, plus so many butcher shops and sausage makers you’ll quickly lose track (perhaps begin at Czuchraj Meats, for their Michael Symon-approved jerky), the year-round West Side Market might make you wish you lived next door—there’s just so much, and often at really good prices. Hungry? Breakfast at the casual Market Cafe, tucked into the back of the building under a half-functioning neon sign, is a tradition for many locals. Anyone looking for something more tightly curated should walk the few blocks down Lorain Avenue to Ohio City Provisions, where they've got a little bit of everything, all local, from dry-aged ribeyes to visually arresting terrines, to top quality eggs. This is more than your typical gourmet grocer's—the shop is directly linked to a sizeable farm in Ohio’s Amish country, an hour or so away.
Have a nosh
Calling Larder Delicatessen & Bakery a modern Jewish deli is a bit simple; Jeremy Umansky’s happy hive of energy inside an old Ohio City firehouse is all kinds of different, delicious things at once. This is a house of fermentation, first of all, something Umansky studied under Sandor Katz, and then while working with Jonathon Sawyer, one of Cleveland’s best chefs, and now, author of a vinegar cookbook—everywhere you look, there are shelves, taken up by so many jars, filled with things you might have never heard of, if they are labeled at all. This is also a bakery, where pastry chef Allie La Valle-Umansky—married to Jeremy—turns out challah, and babka, and delicious black and white cookies, and this is a restaurant, too, a cheerfully casual one, where Kenny Scott, the chef de cuisine, oversees a tight menu of deli classics (including Umansky's from-scratch pastrami) and house made sausages. There are foraging classes, fermentation classes, there is a cooler of local products for you to consider, and hopefully take home—this dynamic trio (all co-owners) has created one of Cleveland’s most interesting food businesses, and the massive breakfast sandwich, centered around a giant sausage patty, is exactly what you need to propel you through the rest of the morning. Just looking for a bagel and a schmear? A couple of blocks down at the Cleveland Bagel Company, they’ve got you covered. Look for the lines out the door—you’re nearly there.
More meat, and a bit of cheese
One thing that the Old Brooklyn neighborhood and Cleveland’s Slavic Village district have in common is that their commercial districts have suffered greatly, as the city continues to shrink; another is that some of the city's most serious food artisans have chosen the two areas, on opposing banks of the Cuyahoga River, as their (hopefully forever) homes. At Michael Januska's Old Brooklyn Cheese Shop, a basement aging cave supports the best shop of its kind in the area; Januska's worthy cheeses (definitely pick up some of the tomme style, raw milk Treadway Creek), are featured here, alongside a well-chosen selection from both far and near. Absolutely pick up a jar of the house beer mustard, dubbed Cleveland Caviar, before moving up the road to the new home of Joshua and Amanda Montague's Lilly Chocolates & Confections, where you can pick up a dozen truffles (dark chocolate filled with salted caramel for us, please) for a most reasonable price. Finally, move on to Saucisson, in Slavic Village—Melissa Khoury and Penny Berend's top-notch butcher shop is chopping up and curing up some of Cleveland’s finest meats (all local). In case you're hungry, they've typically got a lunch special going.
Have a drink
Shaun Yasaki (he’s the brewer) and James Redford (he’s the chef) have created one of the most interesting brewpubs in a city that’s not exactly hard up for beer or beer hall grub—just a few blocks from some of the city’s best-known restaurants, the downtown-adjacent Noble Beast Brewing Co. is a great place to stop by for a growler or two to take home. For many, it's all about the altbier, some of the closest you'll find to the real deal, this side of Düsseldorf, but then there are the seasonals, for instance a sweet potato saison, or a pomegranate sour, which definitely deserve a hearing, as does the Grodziskie, an obscure Polish beer made with oak-smoked wheat malt. This is also a great place to unwind after a busy morning (or longer) of nibbling your way through town—at the very least, stop long enough for one of their corn dogs, made with local, smoked kielbasa (of course), dipped and fried in a batter made of spent grain, and then served with a honey beer mustard and sauerkraut. Cleveland—modern-day Cleveland, make that—on a stick.