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What Cleveland Has that Pittsburgh Wants

I have a confession to make:  I like Cleveland.  Take it back, I love Cleveland.  Maybe it's the New Girl in me and the inherent immunity to old rivalries with Pittsburgh, but I find the city by the lake to be charming and happening at the same time.  Granted, some of Cleveland's assets do meet their equals in Pittsburgh:  they have the Rock Hall, a terrific single-subject museum, but we have the Warhol, arguably one of the best single-artist museums in the world.  While the Cleveland Botanical Garden has more colorful butterflies than we can shake a stick at, our butterflies at the Phipps flitted about the G-20 heads of state just last month and whereas the Ritz-Carlton Cleveland has received an impressive face-lift and is loveliness defined, we will debut a sleek Fairmont in a glass-walled tower come springtime. And while we best them in many areas, they have the Cavs with LeBron and Shaq, not to menton a Great Lake. Nothing we can do about that. So where is Cleveland really eating our lunch?  Let's start with food.

Cleveland's restaurant scene is taking Midwestern sensibility to dizzying heights.  At Lola, chef Michael Symon now counts a James Beard Award, the Oscars of the food industry, among his many accolades.  In a dining room with rich hues that evoke food (beet red, mustard yellow), a polished foodie crowd waits in anticipation of dishes that are both clever and expertly rendered. 

On a recent visit, I reveled in a hanger steak that was napped in a delicate salsa verde and arrayed step-style next to a composed salad of field greens, onions and chick peas.  The chocolate pot de crème that followed was silky smooth and left me hankering for two. 

Two doors down at The Greenhouse Tavern, chef/owner Jonathan Sawyer, who has worked with Symon, is now behind the first green-certified restaurant in Ohio.  Reclaimed eighteenth-century barn wood graces the walls while repurposed carpet squares are arranged in a mosaic and the results throughout are elegant, even romantic.  The same sensibility permeates the food and shines in dishes like the market-fish bouillabaisse, a medley of local seafood infused with saffron and citrus. 

Across town in Lakewood, ex-rocker Matt Fish has traded in his guitar for the kitchen at MELT, where gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches are the foil for one of 150 different beers.  The sandwiches are huge and paired with perfect fries and a slaw that's blissfully devoid of mayo and sport amusing names like the Parmageddon, which has two pierogies stuffed between layers of gooey cheese, napa vodka kraut and grilled onions.  As if the food and booze at MELT weren't enough, the place feels like what "Cheers" had hoped to be but never became.  That's GOOD.

Both Lola and The Greenhouse Tavern are located in downtown Cleveland's East Fourth Street corridor, one long intimate block populated with restaurants, cafes, nightclubs and other entertainment venues.  During good weather, many of the establishments offer outdoor seating, making this the place to see and be seen by day or by night and yes, the scene buzzes well into the night.  Are you listening, Market Square? 

More fun can be had at the West Side Market, a nearly century-old food hall where the butcher, the baker and candlestick maker (truly!) sit cheek by jowl next to produce stalls and ethnic grocers all vying for the hungry eye of many a s hopper.  Acacia honey glistens at one stand while another vendor cures his own corned beef and  a smiling Lebanese merchant turns out plump falafel with clean, fresh flavors.  You can wash it all down at the Great Lakes Brewing Company down the street and why a one-stop food hall like this isn't already in the Strip is beyond me – and hey, we can bring Iron City back and put it next door.

The Artsy Side
Culture of a different sort has found a home at the Cleveland Museum of Art since the early 20th century and that home has grown exponentially since the opening of the museum's new East Wing, designed by architect Rafael Vinoly and a pleasing counterpoint to the Marcel Breuer wing of the early 1970s.  The East wing affords the museum far more space in which to display its notable collection of Impressionist, Modern and Contemporary Art and is a play of light and angles that enhance the overall experience.  The expansion of the CMA, ranked among the top five museums in the country, continues apace, with a new West Wing set to debut in 2012.  Best of all, a visit is free.

Yet another homage to the modern world is the Hanna Theatre, part of downtown Cleveland's Playhouse Square complex, a collection of five renovated theatres that are showpieces in their own right.  At the Hanna, which recently underwent a nearly $20 million renovation and is pursuing LEED certification,  soothing tones of mossy green and beige envelop the warm room and every seat is a (extra-roomy) good one.  Wonderfully unique, however, are one of several lounge-like settings at the rear of the theatre where you can choose from a sprawling circular banquette or club chairs that can be grouped into different settings.  Home to the Great Lakes Theater Festival and its top-flight productions, the Hanna's top ticket price is a mere fifteen dollars.

Also keeping an eye on the bottom line is the Fund For our Economic Future, a public/private partnership seeking to improve the economic climate in Northeast Ohio.  To that end, the fund has launched theEfficientGovNow Awards, where local governments pair up to compete for grant money on a variety of collaborative projects.  The public gets to decide who's worthy and it's this possibility of new money and bragging rights that turns the competition (can you say "Dancing of the Government Stars?") into a spirited campaign waged by contestants in both the real and virtual worlds.  "Taxpayers want to be sure government operates efficiently," says Dave Abbott, Fund chair. "Our fund looked at the issue through the lens of regional economic competitiveness.  These awards try to catalyze how we can work together.  We need to deal with how we can govern effectively so we can compete in the global economy."

It's a program that caught the eye of the White House and is attracting interest from all over the country.

All this said, even a New Girl knows there's no topping Pittsburgh and there's one thing we don't want from Cleveland:  the Browns. Go Steelers!

Elaine Labalme writes regularly for Pop City as New Girl in Town. Comments? Contact Pop City.

Captions: Cleveland Art Museum; West Side Market; guitar art; Lola; Matt Fish at Melt; construction at the museum; Hanna Theater

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen

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