By Dave Nelson
Do you consider Paris passé? Manhattan mediocre? Tokyo tiresome? It may be time to check out the newest global hotspot: Cleveland. You read that correctly. Cleveland. Ohio. The former “Mistake by the Lake.” The city that Detroit used to mock. That Cleveland. I have seen it with my own eyes.
I hadn’t been in Cleveland for at least a decade. My wife was scheduled to attend a marketing conference there so I decided to tag along. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do. I have friends there I hadn’t seen for a while. Or I could take in a ballgame at Progressive Field. If I were completely bored, I could just sit in some downtown dive, downing shots and commiserating with the locals about the good ol’ days.
I am happy to report I was enormously mistaken about Cleveland. The town has rebounded quite nicely. (Yes, that is a basketball pun because the NBA Finals between the Cavs and Golden State begin today.) Nowadays, the only “Mistake by the Lake” is the out-of-date impression most people have of the city.
Let’s start with the weather. For some reason, I thought I was going to be sliding around town in a sleet storm. But the weather was perfect. What are the odds? Yeah, it did start raining as we departed and two months later, Cleveland was buried in snow. But I didn’t see it so it didn’t happen.
We stayed at the downtown Westin on St. Clair Street, and it was just fine. It was within walking distance of nearly everything, and it had the coolest lobby sculpture I have ever seen, a giant head constructed of cross-sections of slender tree trunks. I can’t explain it any better than that. Whenever you need to visit the head in Cleveland, you now know where to look.
As it has in other urban areas, the under-40 crowd has moved back to the city. This movement has jet-propelled the gentrification of the blighted urban center. The change began a couple decades ago with the construction of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame and the three sports venues for the Indians, Cavaliers and football Browns. Cleveland is so hot even the Republicans have returned. True! After abandoning Cleveland as a lost Republican cause for decades, the GOP has opened a campaign office for the 2016 election cycle.
And then there’s LeBron. LeBron James, the preeminent basketball player in the world, returned to Cleveland this season and suddenly the Cavaliers are in the NBA Finals for only the second time in their history. I have a feeling Cleveland will be jumpin’ over the next two weeks. One of the places the fans will gather is the Winking Lizard Tavern at the corner of Prospect and Huron, just two blocks from Quicken Loans Arena. The Lizard is the place to watch games, sample regional beers, and drink bourbon in tasting flights. It’s also LOUD so be prepared to YELL.
Just a short stroll from the Winking Lizard is the downtown dining district. It is loaded with bars and restaurants. You can blubber in your beer at the House of Blues or bowl away your worries at The Corner Alley. Ristorante Chinato features an upscale Italian menu. You can even taste something called “Southern Fusion” at Stonetown. I have no idea what that is, but it sounds interesting. Grits hollandaise, maybe.
We had cocktails and a lovely meal on the rooftop of the Greenhouse Tavern. This place would fit right in with the trendiest joints in San Francisco or Brooklyn. The menu has everything from foie gras steamed clams to lamb burgers, tabasco chicken, and vegan entrées. Our dinner conversation was often distracted, though. Across the street, in an apartment about four stories up, someone was watching the largest television I have ever seen. It took up about two-thirds of the wall space. We were 200 feet away but we could see every detail on the screen through the open window. I almost yelled, “Turn up the sound!” but thought better of it.
The next night, my friends took us to Mia Bella restaurant in Cleveland’s Little Italy. It’s in a 150-year-old building in a neighborhood about 20 minutes east of downtown. Out there you will find Case Western University, several museums, and a few of the loveliest parks imaginable. I had forgotten how impressive parks in the Midwest are, much nicer than Central Park or Golden Gate Park. Anyway, the occasion was my birthday so much calamari and Chianti was consumed.
The night before we departed, my wife and I strolled down St. Clair Street to a sushi restaurant. On our way back to the hotel, we took some time to peek into the lobbies of some of the ornate old buildings in downtown Cleveland. Fabulous. They are extraordinary monuments and I just hope the Cleveland millennial generation is smart enough to revitalize them.
The sun had set and there was a full moon framed by glowing clouds. We decided to stop for a glass of port at a sidewalk bistro where we had a perfect view of Cleveland’s grand Terminal Tower and the moon hovering beside it. Folks, I’ve taken many trips to a lot of places but few have been as delightful, or as surprising, as the one to Cleveland. No mistake about it.
Photographs courtesy of This is Cleveland.com. Top: Jeff Greenberg; bottom two: Cody York. Head shot: Barbara Nelson.