For a real taste of Cleveland, explore the neighborhoods outside Progressive Field
Like Chicago, Cleveland is a city of neighborhoods. And many of them get a shoutout in the concession area of the new Right Field District at the Cleveland Indians’ home ballpark, where the Cubs kick off their quest Tuesday to become World Series champs.
In the Ohio City section of the Right Field District, for example, Great Lakes Brewing Company pours its award-winning lagers and ales.
Over at the district’s University Circle area, Dynomite Burgers grills its famed bacon-topped patties.
If you have the time and inclination to venture outside of Progressive Field and explore this Rust Belt city’s real ’hoods, University Circle is a good place to start.
The area is home to the Cleveland Museum of Art’s vast collection that encompasses Greek and Roman-era statuary, American masters like Homer and Hopper, and more than 30 Rodin sculptures. This is where you’ll also find Cleveland Orchestra’s Severance Hall and Wade Park, which includes the Cleveland Botanical Garden and the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.
The natural history museum displays the 3.2 million-year-old bones of Lucy, one of the earliest human ancestors ever found, an array of dinosaur skeletons, a Foucault pendulum and a small, outdoor menagerie of live eagles, otters, coyotes and foxes.
Just east of University Circle is Little Italy, brimming with great Italian eateries and galleries and some colorful history to boot. Locals say the crime rate in Little Italy has always been among the lowest in the metro area because it was home to the city’s mob leaders, who wouldn’t tolerate crime in their hood. La Dolce Vita Bistro offers live opera nights, and Mama Santa’s serves delicious pizza. Enjoy a liquor-soaked rum baba cake from the 113-year-old Presti’s Bakery.
South of downtown, you’ll drive past the onion-domed churches and Victorian houses of Tremont to sample home-style Polish food at Sokolowski’s University Inn, a spacious eatery that serves gigantic portions of homemade pierogies, kielbasa, stuffed cabbage and other East European specialties.
The 93-year-old Sokolowski’s, a 2014 winner of the James Beard “American Classics” Award, is Cleveland’s oldest family-owned restaurant. No one goes away hungry. Pianist Tom Ballog, a local institution who seemingly can play any stylistic request, recognizes regular diners by performing their favorite songs when they walk in.
Also in Tremont is the “A Christmas Story” house and museum, where exteriors for the beloved 1983 holiday film were shot. The Tremont homes were stand-ins for the Hammond, Ind., neighborhood of screenwriter Jean Shepherd’s youth, fictionalized in his book and the film as Hohman, Ind. The restored houses feature original props, photos and movie memorabilia (think pink bunny pajamas, sexy leg lamps and a Michelin Man snowsuit).
Another worthwhile stop is Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, where more than 2,000 rare and exotic animals from six continents share the 183-acre campus. One of the nation’s oldest zoos — it was founded in 1882 — Metroparks has a rainforest and a monkey island, as well as a carousel ride made of hand-carved wildlife.
While you’re out and about, take a spin on Martin Luther King Jr. Drive past the Cultural Gardens. The winding, scenic road curves through more than 250 acres of wooded ravines and roughly 30 gardens honoring the many ethnic groups that settled Cleveland way back when. It’s a peaceful, bucolic detour through this increasingly lively city.
Just minutes from downtown in the Ohio City neighborhood you’ll find the historic West Side Market, boasting more than 100 food vendors selling their wares within the spacious, yellow brick building. The year-round market is the northeast corner of Lorain Avenue and West 25th Street. Find fresh fish, meats, cheeses and bread, along with ethnic treats like pierogies and cannoli.
At the market’s venerable smokehouse J&J Czuchraj Meats, I bought the same kielbasa sausage that celebrity chef and native son Michael Symon (“The Chew”) cooks in his new restaurant, Mabel’s BBQ, which opened in the spring.
A bold sign at Mabel’s sagely urges diners to EAT MORE MEAT. The menu is influenced by the city’s Eastern and Southern European flavors and features lamb and pork ribs, garlicky kielbasa and beef brisket. Sides include spaetzle, cabbage and smoked beets with horseradish and scallions. A huge list of craft beer, bourbon and cocktails complements the cuisine of this stylish eatery with a casual ambience.
Mabel’s is next to Symon’s Lola Bistro on East Fourth Street, a now-bustling restaurant and entertainment district that was a hot mess a decade ago — kind of like the Cubs.
Mark Taylor is a freelance writer. Tribune travel editor Lori Rackl contributed to this report.
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