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Locals Know Best: Cleveland

By Liza Weisstuch
January 27, 2022
Locals Know Best: Cleveland (69231) Image Placement 117992

When you think of destinations for music-lovers, Nashville, Detroit, Kansas City, and Austin easily spring to mind. But you’d be remiss if you left Cleveland off that list. Home to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, the city, a longtime industrial metropolis that suffered economic decline, devastating pollution, and population flight in the 1970s, is in the throes of a renaissance today. But its old-world character persists. Beyond the roster of tried and true tourist must-sees, like the world-class Cleveland Museum of Art, the shores of Lake Eire and, of course, the house made iconic by “A Christmas Story,” there’s a booming circuit of local restaurants and a vibrant indie arts scene to be explored. We caught up with Greg Harris, President and CEO of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, to give us the lowdown on this magnificent city with a resilient rock’n’roll soul. 

EAT YOUR HEART OUT 

Cleveland landmarks come in all shapes and sizes and, as it turns out, flavors. Having just celebrated its centennial, West Side Market is arguably something of a food museum, what with its abundance of traditional provisions (think: handmade sausages, cheese, spices and oils) sold alongside countless fruit purveyors and butchers. While locals stock up on groceries, Harris recommends you join the dependably long line for made-to-order crepes

Cleveland has its fair share of James Beard Award nominees and winners, but it also has a long and solid legacy of old-world ethnic fare, thanks to the many immigrant groups who made their way here when the city was a booming industrial center. In the 1950s, its strong Hungarian and Slovenian populations gave the city Sterle’s Country House, a mecca for Eastern European comfort food. Plus, in a nod to German heritage, polka bands often play. The classic chicken paprikash is Harris’s go-to here. The city’s Polish heritage is on display at Sokolowski’s, which has been family-run since 1923. They offer stuffed cabbage and roster of other standards that, Harris happily notes, you can smell from blocks away.

READ: "Locals Know Best: Milwaukee"

That Eastern European influence makes its way into the city’s signature barbecue, as evidenced at another one of Harris’s go-to, Mabel’s BBQ, a hip industrial-chic smokehouse with an extensive bourbon list. An old-world pride is also the cornerstone of the local-minded Butcher and Brewery, which Harris recommends for its house-cured meats. 

And no visit to a rock’n’roll city would be complete without knocking back a few in a classic dive bar. Cleveland’s most legendary is the Harbor Inn, a local institution that, Harris explains, used to the be gathering spot of merchant seamen. For those with more mondern inclinations, the Velvet Tango Room, a speakeasy-style cocktail den, is a must for craft cocktails.  

LONG LIVE ROCK

When the President of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame endorses a music club, you know it’s gotta be something special. Harris declares Beachland Ballroom “the finest live music venue in the city. I’ll even add in the country.” Its lineup regularly ranges from rockabilly to punk to Americana and plenty more. The club is the anchor of the Waterloo Arts District, where local businesses are open for a street-party-style walk-about the first Friday of each month. 

And then, of course, there’s the Hall of Fame, which is more than just a museum. Harris notes is mission: “to engage, teach, and inspire through the power of rock and roll,” and they're tenacious about that commitment. The museum is open 362 days/year and while music history is the spotlight of most exhibits, today’s talent comes to life in the busy concert schedule. They hosted 40 concerts on the pavilion in front of the museum, which was christened with a 80-foot-long “LONG LIVE ROCK” sign, dedicated in November.  

GET CULTURED

Here’s an interesting tidbit: In 2006, Cuyahoga County approved a tax on cigarette that would fund Cuyahoga Arts and Culture, an organization that organizes and funds all sorts of programming for the community. “The county collects cigarette tax greater than most cities’ funding,” Harris notes. “It’s fueled a lot of great artists—large and small—through its various arts programs.” It’s a bit of an incubator for young talent, so make sure to check out what events are on when you’re in town. You never know—maybe someday in the future you can say, “I saw her when…”

READ: "Locals Know Best: Charleston, South Carolina" 

Of course, when it comes to art, the Cleveland Museum of Art is a treasure trove of masterpieces, from Edgar Degas to Edward Hopper, but the city’s galleries should not be overlooked. Harris points to the burgeoning scene at Gordon Square Arts District, which was officially established in 2007 by the area’s theater and the local community development organization. Today, 78th Street Studios, which is set in an old automobile parts factory and dubs itself an “eclectic arts maze,” is one of the District’s anchors. On the third Friday of every month, from 5PM to 9PM, all the resident galleries and studios are open, pop-up shops, and food trucks are onsite, and visitors mingle. According to Harris, it’s “uniquely Cleveland.”

In addition to revitalized theaters and an independent movie theater, there’s a broad range of bars and restaurants to choose from. One of Harris’s favorites is Spice, which offers creative updated southern fare made with local ingredients, much of which is grown in the on-site hoop house or the restaurant’s nearby farm. For something a bit more nostalgic, Happy Dog is, first and foremost, “a classic, untouched dive with hot dogs with any toppings,” he explains. It’s also a music venue featuring everything from punk to polka. And if that aforementioned nostalgia is your thing, check out the vintage video games in the basement. It may take you back to your early rock’n’roll memories.  

STAY

Like so many other cities around the US, Cleveland has seen a remarkable hotel-building boom in the past two years, so much so, that Harris nearly guaratees that savvy travelers can find deals. One particularly cool new spot to check out is the Drury Plaza Hotel, retrofitted into an old Board of Education building. The $52 million project opened in April 2016. 

BEER HERE

Everywhere you go in the USA these days, you can find local beer. Cleveland’s brewing scene is exceptionally attention-getting, what with several top-rate breweries located in lively areas of the city. Harris calls out Market Garden Brewery, located next to West Side Market. It’s known for its brewpub, which is open until 2.30AM and offers what Harris simply deems “terrific atmosphere.” A 35,000-square-foot production facility, complete with tours and a tasting room, recently opened next door. Harris also gives a nod to Great Lakes Brewing Company, which offers tours Fridays and Saturdays from 12PM to 8PM, and he's looking forward to getting acquainted with the new Platform Beer Company

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Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Sacramento, California

There once was a time when Sacramento was, to put it kindly, in a rut. Locals cast their gazes longingly towards San Francisco and Oakland, epicenters of creativity and culture. Then Sacramento State graduates Maritza and Roshaun Davis had an idea: give Sacramento’s creative class an outlet for showcasing their talents and watch them—and the city—thrive. Enter: Unseen Heros, the lifestyles event production company they founded. “In 2008, Sacramento was still trying to find its identity,” says Maritza. “It’s like when you were a teenager and you were awkwardly trying to grow, Sacramento was like a teenager—with braces and awkward with its body.”  Today Sacramento has grown into its own, with no small thanks to Unseen Heroes, which oversees year-round events like  the Saturday midtown farmers market and Gather Oak Park. Both, as they put it, are “events that make people proud of what’s here.” The couple (in life and business) also own shops specializing in California-made goods and curate a rotating pop-up market where they house their offices. Since founding Unseen Heroes in 2008, they’ve made a career out of knowing every nook and cranny of Sacramento. We recently reached them to get their inside tips on where to eat, drink, stay, and hang in the city. *Spoiler alert*: “obnoxiously delicious” ice cream, a poke bar, and unbelievable happy hour deals all factor in.   TABLE FOR TWO: Oak Park is Sacrament's oldest neighborhood, but there are plenty of spots that are under the radar, like the retro-minded Arthur Henry’s, which bills itself as a Supper Club and Ruby Room. Without windows or signs, the only indication that it’s there is its red door. “If you’re in the mafia, this is where you wanna make your deals. There are a lot of dark, fun, strange elements to it,” says Maritza. “I don’t want to give too much away, but if you order dinner there, it’s going to come raw, so be prepared to cook.” They offer a beer and steak special for a remarkable $16 and a bourbon list that’s sure to impress. For every steak in Sacramento there’s a slab of grilled soy meat. Andy Nguyen has an ample variety of wholesome vegetarian and vegan meals—countless permutations of noodles, rice, tofu and vegetables. Meals are generous in size and clock in under $10. If your preferences lean south of the border, La Benbita has what Maritza deems the best margaritas, made with fresh juices. The cantina is known for its festive patio and unbeatable happy hour special: two tacos and a margarita for $13. If you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ll have a great story to bring home after a visit to Gunther’s. The time-worn ice cream shop is an institution among locals, as evidenced by the fact that despite it being tucked away in a relatively residential area, people flock there in droves. “When you see the line out the door and down the block, you know you’re there,” said Maritza, describing the handmade ice cream and shakes as “obnoxiously delicious.” DINE OUT: Unseen Heroes curates and manages Gather, a culinary event that takes place on the second hursdays of each month from May through October. There are lots of food onsite--tacos, pizza, veggie fare from Mother (also a restaurant), and much touted donuts from Sweet Dozen Donuts (Get a lemon poppy seed donut then try everything else, advises Maritza). There are long communal tables where everyone kicks back and chows down. The rest of the year they curate Midtown Farmers’ Market, a culinary extravaganza in Midtown. Over 90 vendors hawk their wares, from beef jerky and sausages to balsamic vinegar, honey and wine. It's a go-to for a taste of the vibrant local culinary scene.   THE AFTERNOON AGENDA: Not far off the freeway sits JayJay, a gallery founded in 2000 that spotlights a roster of international artists whose work spans all media. “They have a lot of fun pieces and the owners are really hands-on and engaged,” says Maritza. “they’ve been around the area for 40-plus years and they’ve helped curate different large projects. They get their hands on cool artists and they have their finger on the pulse of young up and coming artists.” After you’ve looked at art, taste some. Head down the street to Tupelo. The couple asserts it makes the city’s finest mocha, made with Mexican chocolate. Cap off the afternoon down the street with dinner at Selland’s Market-Cafe, which is known for its elevated comfort food—salads, sandwiches, pizzas—prepared with local seasonal ingredients. At select times, two dinners and a bottle of wine clocks in at $25. Another Martiza-and-Rashaun-approved outing that’s a feast for the eyes and palate is centered in the Curtis Park, quaint with great brownstown galleries. Sol Collective is more of a community center than a gallery, but nevertheless, it’s a destination for unique shows of all media and installations by a lineup of international artists as well as pop-up shops. Additionally, Maritza and Roshaun rave about the classes offered throughout the month that anyone can drop in on: beat-making, art, and, most regularly, yoga. Fortify yourself afterwards with noodles galore at Shoki Ramen, where about $15 will get you a bowl of excellent ramen, a drink and curry on rice. As an added bonus (or, some might say, courtesy), you can order wines here by the half-glass. Wrap up the day at Gunther’s. The old fashioned ice cream shop (See above for Maritza's rave review) is a mere five blocks away.  Some people go to nature to experience a sense of place, others go shopping. Display, owned and run by Maritza and Roshaun, showcases Sacramento’s creative class with its ever-changing inventory of products made by local designers and brands, from gift items, household goods, and lots of fun stuff for kids. More recently, they opened the neighboring Damas, featuring goods and clothing for women, by women. Men have plenty of spots to shop, too, like Get a Clue, a longtime midtown retailer. They specialize in sneakers, denim, shirts, and the like, mostly by local designers. Hungry? Preservation and Co. has plenty of boutique edibles, like a house bloody mary mix, plus tons of sauces, jams and such. STAY: Modern, funky and rich in local lore, Maritza and Roshaun recommend Citizen’s Hotel, not least because  its restaurant and bar, The Grange, has a fantastic happy hour. Steps away are two super-hip spots to eat: Empress Tavern and the very lively Mother Sacramento, a vegetarian haven. Despite its brand name, the Westin Sacramento Hotel, which sits on the Sacramento River, has a lot of character. It’s a short drive away from the hubbub of downtown, and in addition to its affordability, they note that it’s nicely landscaped, so much so that locals hang out there just for the scenery. 

Inspiration

Locals Know Best: Portland, Oregon

Portland, Oregon’s history is one of ship-building, grit, and organized crime. What a difference a century makes. Today, Portland is strongly associated with organic food, hipster eyewear, elaborate tattoos, craft beer, and artisanal everything. The dining scene is particularly alluring, offering loads of options from classical cooking to hyper-creative modern menus, not to mention the city is less than an hour from heart of Oregon’s wine country. To get a culinary insider’s tips on where to go and what to do around this city, we caught up with Cathy Whims, award-winning chef who owns a variety of restaurants, including Oven and Shaker, which is known for its wood-burning pizza oven, the modern Italian eatery Nostrana, and Hamlet, the newest entrant in her expanding empire which focuses on ham-heavy small plates, craft cocktails, and sherry. You’d think it’d be tough to find down-time when you oversee that many restaurants, but a retro steakhouse, a bird-watcher’s haven, and a visit to a Zumba class with an eccentric instructor are just a few of this long-time resident’s go-to’s. EAT YOUR HEART OUT If you can’t count on a chef with six James Beard Award nominations for dining recommendations, who can you count on? Cathy’s restaurant picks lean towards the classically-minded and Portland has them in spades. A personal favorite, she says, is Burrasca, a “super-classical” trattoria owned by a Tuscan. “Eating there is like being suddenly teleported to Florence in 1970,” she asserts, ticking off just a few of the “super-classical,” ultra-authentic offerings, like Fegatelli, pork liver wrapped in caul fat, homemade pasta and focaccia, an exclusively Tuscan wine list, and, when in season, squid stewed with greens. Clyde’s Prime Rib is another one of the city’s throwback eateries that comes to us heartily endorsed by her staff. A trip back to the 1950s, they regularly have live jazz and soul music and a happy hour where you can get a prime rib and martini for prices that are as throwback as the vibe. One of the things that defines Portland is its entrepreneurial culture, and that’s especially captured by the food purveyors. Cathy is particularly fond of Providore, a go-to for salami, cheeses and veggies. The store is actually a business within a business: it houses Fly’N’Fish Oyster Bar, a compact, casual joint with a small selection of wine and beer. Cathy describes as an “indie startup fish company,” which evolved from a small shack. THE GREAT OUTDOORS Much like Amsterdam, the preferred mode of transportation of many Portlandians is bicycle. Nike recently launched Biketown, a bike-sharing program with 100 stations around the city. To get a full sense of local life, you can get navigate your way around, hopping on and off brand new orange bikes every few blocks. As to be expected of a city surrounded by wilderness, Portland is a fitness mecca. One of Cathy’s preferred workouts is her Saturday morning Zumba at a spot called Center Space. “The instructor is unlike any other,” she says. “He’s trained in African dance and has actually led several African dance troupes, so he integrates that traditional dance aspect. Almost every Sunday Cathy laces up her sneakers and heads to Mt. Tabor Park, a city park centered around a non-active volcano where it’s easy to figure out a hike, she says. Right near it is Cheese Bar, which, in addition to incredible cheeses, offers wine and beer, salads, and meat boards. When she leaves the park, she usually picks up cheese for rest of the week. Another spot for glorious surrounds is Forest Park. Covering 5157 acres, it’s known as the biggest inner city park in the country. It features 80 miles of trails and an Audubon Society Sanctuary is situated within its borders. And for a quirky twist—something this city is good for—Forest Park is home to what’s recognized as the smallest park in the country. CULTURE CLUBS Whether you’re into music, art, or comedy, Cathy’s got tips for you. Music-lovers would do well to hit Mississippi Studios, a “neighborhood spot,” she says, that offers a packed calendar of live music, from singer/songwriters to indie rock to punk to electronica. And while you’re there, check out the adjacent Bar Bar for what Cathy declares some of the best cheeseburgers in town. All of her employees are regulars at the long-standing Alibi Tiki Lounge, a tacky-chic bar with lush leather booths, string lights, and a giant neon tiki sign outside, and, of course, tropical drinks. It’s perfect for rainy cold night, she said. Speaking of cocktails, the Living Room Theater, which shows first-run arthouse films, has a cocktail bar so you can order drinks and bites for the show. And if cocktails are indeed your interest, go across the street after the show (or before, of course) to the bustling Clyde Common, which Cathy deems “one of the funnest bar in Portland.” Its menu features elaborate drinks like barrel-aged cocktails. If that all seems too self-serious for you, Helium Comedy Club is a great bet. From emerging comics to well-known personalities (Cathy has caught Margaret Cho and David Attell) to open mic nights, laughs come fast and furious.

Inspiration

Best Places To Ring In The New Year

This is the year you’re gonna do better than watch the ball drop on TV, right? There’s a great big world of New Year’s celebrations out there! From a big-city bash to a beach retreat to family fun, our resolution is to deliver a Happy New Year for every travel personality. BT Senior Editor Jamie Beckman shared these three great ideas on the Weather Channel's AMHQ this morning: The Roxy Tribeca Surrealist Ball A quirky and affordable alternative to Times Square, this NYC bash transforms The Roxy Hotel’s entire lobby into an absolutely bizarre costume party that will remind you of a Salvador Dali surrealist painting. Enjoy an open premium bar from 9 p.m. on, and a champagne toast at midnight from $149. GoldenEye Reggae Party, Jamaica Oracabessa Bay, Jamaica, is home to one of the Caribbean’s hottest New Year’s celebrations, when the GoldenEye Resort supplies live reggae music, DJs, traditional jerk cuisine, and, of course dancing. While a stay at the resort is pricey for Budget Travelers, the party is a stylish steal from $175. Family-Friendly Fun at Great Wolf Lodge This chain of kid-pleasing water parks re-creates the North Pole with its Snowland celebration, including indoor snow showers, holiday decorations, and a Snowball party with a carnival, family karaoke, and a midnight countdown. Room rates vary depending on location, but Great Wolf Lodge is a good deal because rates include water park passes for the entire family.

Inspiration

Extra Mile Awards 2005

Anyone paying attention to the news might get the impression that travel is in an unpleasant downward spiral. Bankruptcy! Amenity cutbacks! Security hassles! Privacy violations! Lost in all the hubbub are the companies throughout the industry that are making sincere efforts to improve travel. Our philosophy is that if you don't give a little positive reinforcement, these companies don't have much incentive to keep up the good work. And so, we're thrilled to announce our first-ever Extra Mile Awards. We looked back at a 12-month period--August 1, 2004, to July 31, 2005--and argued endlessly over which companies deserved a pat on the back. We tried not to overlook minor improvements: The first time a housekeeper placed a mint on a hotel-room pillow, it probably didn't seem like something that could significantly brighten your night. The prize? Good press, first and foremost--these days, it can be hard to come by. Second, an invitation to our fancy-pants awards dinner at New York City hotspot The Modern. Finally, winners receive an Extra Mile Award snow globe: After all, there's no better way to commemorate the folks who are really shaking things up. --The Editors The 10 winners The runners-up: close but no snow globe!

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