Road Trip: Eating through Cleveland's Ohio City neighborhood

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly
Town Hall

Completed in 1932, the Hope Memorial Bridge connects Downtown Cleveland with the west side. As a visit to the once-crusty-now-hip West Side neighborhood of Ohio City reveals, Hope Memorial also bridges Cleveland's proud past to its blossoming present as a hotspot for dining and drinking.

Witness outstanding Crop Bistro and Bar. Crop occupies the dazzling main space of the classically fashioned United Bank Building, which opened in 1925. One of the building's principal architects, Frank Walker (of Walker and Weeks, contractors for Severance Hall, Cleveland Public Library and the no-longer-standing Cleveland Municipal Stadium), also famously worked on the iconic "Guardians of Traffic"-the massive art deco figures synonymous with, and still gracing, the Hope Memorial Bridge.

From Crop's enormous basement-where a gargantuan bank vault separates a modern kitchen and food laboratory from a private dining room-to its mammoth marble columns and ornately carved 35-foot-high ceiling, this has to be one of the most stunning restaurants in Ohio.

Crop offers a large wine list, stylish cocktails (a figgy Manhattan with an addictive bruleed bacon garnish; bloody marys with deviled egg garnishes) and crowd-pleasing dishes gussied with farm-to-plate ingredients and brash flourishes.

Tongue-tingling popcorn is lavished like pasta-with basil, balsamic vinegar, onions, sundried tomatoes and more. The signature Cherry Bomb starter (a Joan Jett/Runaways homage) envelops chorizo-and-cheese-filled roasted tomatoes inside crispy fried wonton purses. Mac and cheese is enhanced with an intense Amish cheddar sauce, cavatappi and killer brisket. And if there's a better locally sourced fish dish than the beautifully crusted Lake Erie walleye with lovely English pea and morel mushroom risotto (a daily special), someone's been holding out on me.

For a more casual experience, try bustling Market Garden Brewery, only steps away down West 25th Street. Labeled as "Cleveland's first American beer garden," Market Garden's intriguing lineup of suds (they range from an award-winning pilsner to a porter made with locally roasted coffee) are dispatched from wooden taps strikingly carved like the Guardians of Traffic. The brisket burger and yellowfin tuna tacos are popular-and taste better consumed on Market Garden's patio.

Patios are abundant in Ohio City. And none is posher than the cabana-esque playground behind sprawling Town Hall. If you find yourself indoors, though, you won't be disappointed with its suave interior. Other Town Hall draws: rare Crowlers (32-ounce cans of tap beer), a weekend brunch crepe station and a GMO-free menu mindful of both vegans and paleos, plus great grass-fed burgers.

Ingredients are taken seriously in Ohio City. This is no coincidence, as the neighborhood's anchor is the 103-year-old West Side Market. Endowed with a vaulted and tiled ceiling and a 137-foot clock tower, the rambling and distinctive market offers a slew of fresh fruit and vegetable vendors. But it's also home to Pierogi Palace, chef-loved Ohio City Pasta, the wonderful sausages and life-changing beef jerky of Czuchraj Meats, notoriously long lines for nationally publicized Steve's Gyros and a dizzying array of other high-profile businesses.

Although lease issues made one beloved business all too fleeting-the West Side Market branch of Jonathon Sawyer's Noodlecat closed in January-Sawyer (the 2015 Best Chef: Great Lakes James Beard Award winner) still casts a long shadow around these parts. The spotlight first shone brightly on Sawyer at groundbreaking Bar Cento, across the street from the market.

As its opening chef nearly a decade ago, Sawyer (who would move on to open Greenhouse Tavern and Trentina) helped forge Bar Cento's identity as a local-focused eatery with strong European influences. Pickles and charcuterie are still made in house, and the Roman-style pizzas are fantastic. In fact, the spaghetti alla carbonara-riffing Sunny Side with house pancetta and local eggs reminded me of a pie I lovingly devoured at world-famous Pizzeria Da Baffetto in Rome. Bonus: an above-and-beyond wine, beer and cocktail list.

Bar Cento (which has spawned an Ohio City empire that includes Market Garden Brewery, small-batch brewery Nano Brew and Belgian beer bar McNulty'sBier Markt) wasn't the only area pioneer. A few other farsighted-and-still-thriving businesses whose owners, years ago, saw great potential where others only saw hassles are: more-artsy-than-kitschy "Mod Mex" Momocho (try the real crabmeat guacamole), the Velvet Tango Room (a sophisticated cocktail mecca exuberantly praised by food writer Michael Ruhlman) and nearly 16-year-old Flying Fig (which lives up to its "Think globally. Sourcing locally." tagline; try the wonderful salt-roasted beet salad).

The Black Pig, one of the newest-and one of the best-Ohio City restaurants aptly illustrates how Cleveland's rich past informs its present. Owner-chef Mike Nowak is a Bar Cento alum, having succeeded Sawyer there as top toque. And Black Pig occupies the former Parker's American Bistro space-the high-end French restaurant run by Parker Bosley, the man frequently credited with launching Cleveland's local food movement in the 1980s.

I was knocked out by The Black Pig's wonderful charcuterie plate with basterma, lamb mortadella, beet mustard and rillettes better than many I've had in Paris. Also of note is its umami-bomb of an amazing Berkshire pork entree with mushrooms, ramp soubise, blood orange gastrique and quinoa-flattering pig and foie sausage; melt-in-your-mouth tenderloin; and smoked and lacquered pork belly that looked like Boston cream pie, tasted like hog heaven.

After pigging out on those masterpieces, I glanced up at the wall art only to see several colorful depictions of the Guardians of Traffic. Cleansing my palate with the refreshing Black Pig Gin & Tonic (Watershed Four Peel, Carpano Bianco, Chartreuse, Old City tonic), I thought about how bridges always conveniently show where you're going and where you've been.

G.A. Benton is a Columbus-based food critic for Columbus Alive and The Columbus Dispatch.