Throughout its existence, the Cleveland area has been a stew of ethnicities, its mills and factories filled with people with various countries of origin. And those backgrounds have influenced the art, politics, and yes, even the cuisine of the area, offering a variety of food to enjoy. Here’s a list of Cleveland's must-try foods that’s by no means exhaustive, but gives you a good place to start.
Philadelphia has its cheesesteak. Los Angeles has the French dip. Chicago has Italian beef. In Cleveland, it’s the Polish boy, a delicious but messy sandwich that consists of kielbasa (the area’s Polish-American population even today is significant) on a bun, topped with French fries, barbecue sauce and cole slaw. It holds a special place in many Clevelanders’ hearts – and stomachs. No less an authority than Iron Chef Michael Symon, himself a Cleveland native, says his favorite can be found at Seti’s Polish Boys, a food truck that’s more often than not moored on the city’s near west side on Lorain Avenue.
The spelling differs slightly in Eastern European cultures, but be it pierogi, pirogi, pyrohy or pirohy, and whether they’re boiled or lightly sautéed, they are delectable dumplings and available in a variety of places. There’s a Pierogi Palace at the West Side Market, and they’re a regular staple at Sokolowski’s University Inn and Melt Bar and Grilled, where they’re used in the Parmageddon, the grilled cheese restaurant’s homage to Cleveland tastes.
Corned Beef Sandwiches
Yes, it seems like the kind of thing you can get everywhere, but trust me, you haven’t had corned beef until you’ve had it in Cleveland. The one place everyone will tell you to visit is Slyman’s. The mothership on St. Clair has been slinging sandwiches for more than a half-century, and there are also offshoots in Independence and Beachwood, and a food truck as well. Beachwood is also home to Corky and Lenny’s (which is also part of the food court at the Jack Cleveland Casino). On the west side is Cleveland Corned Beef, in a plaza at the corner of Pearl and Brookpark roads.
Again, it seems like something ordinary. But it’s anything but. In the 1920s, Joe Bertman started making a vinegar-based brown mustard, tangy and a little sweet without being overpoweringly hot. Since then, Bertman’s Ballpark Mustard has been a staple at Cleveland’s baseball venues – and is the base for sauces at Symon’s Mabel’s on East Fourth Street. But since 1971, it’s been joined on store shelves by Stadium Mustard, which can be found at Browns games and other events at FirstEnergy Stadium.
This Italian treat, sometimes called a lobster tail because of its resemblance to crustaceans (though there is a difference between the two desserts), can be found in abundance on Mayfield Road in the heart of Cleveland’s Little Italy. Try Corbo’s (which also has an outpost further west at Playhouse Square) or Presti’s. But if you can’t make it there, you’re not completely out of luck. There’s Colozza’s and Gentile’s in Parma, and Fragapane has bakeries in Bay Village and North Olmsted.
For all the jokes Cleveland’s endured about the burning Cuyahoga River, Lake Erie is a great place for yellow perch, a small fish that’s a little sweeter than the standard catch. During Fridays in Lent, seemingly everywhere from churches to social clubs to taverns have a fish fry, but during the rest of the year, perch can still be found at places like the Flat Iron, an institution for more than a century in the city’s Flats district, and the Larchmere Tavern in Shaker Heights.
In the early 1800s, an itinerant nurseryman – later to become famous as “Johnny Appleseed” – planted dozens of apple trees throughout Ohio, and the state remains one of the largest growers of the fruit in America. But his apples weren’t for eating; they were for distilling, and there are still plenty of places that make hard cider, like Bottlehouse Brewing, with locations in Lakewood and Cleveland Heights, or if you’re up for a trip out of town, Redhead Cidery at Burnham Orchards in Berlin Heights. You can even get cider’s harder cousin, applejack, at Tom’s Foolery in Geauga County too.
Ohio’s also a top dairy-producing state, and fifth in the United States in the production of hard ice cream. There are plenty of places in Cleveland for you to indulge your sweet tooth with a scoop (or two) of homemade ice cream. The Honey Hut has several locations, in the city and the Cleveland area, and no trip to Ohio City is complete without stopping at Mitchell’s, in an old movie theater on West 25th Street (you can even watch them making the ice cream there). Sweet Moses, named for the city’s founder, on Detroit Avenue offers a variety of homemade treats and a vintage soda fountain to boot.
If you’re up for a little road trip, head to Barberton, a town about 45 minutes south of Cleveland that bills itself as the fried chicken capital of the United States. Serbian immigrants during the Great Depression opened a restaurant, with the piece de resistance of an old world dish of chicken fried in lard, French fries, cole slaw (vinegar based, not the mayo-based dish used in Polish boys) and a side dish of tomatoes, rice and peppers called simply “hot sauce.” That original restaurant, Belgrade Gardens, is still around, now joined by about a half-dozen other places that serve regionally-famous meal.
It might come as a surprise to people, but there is a significant Hispanic population in the Cleveland area and enough Mexican restaurants that locals can disagree on their favorites. Ohio City Burrito offers mammoth meals at its location in (where else?) Ohio City, and they can be found in a concession stand at Progressive Field. In addition to being a trendy spot as part of the East 4th Street entertainment district, Zocalo offers a complete menu, and Luchita's is a mainstay on the city’s west side. The city of Painesville, just east of Cleveland in adjoining Lake County, also has a significant Mexican population, including a grocery store and restaurant, La Mexicana.