Chef and restaurateur Jonathon Sawyer operates six diverse restaurants in Cleveland, including Noodlecat, a noodle house, and soon-to-open Trentina, which is focused on food from the Trentino region of Italy. His flagship restaurant, The Greenhouse Tavern, was named one of Bon Appetit's best new restaurants of 2009 and Sawyer was a Food & Wine Best New Chef in 2010.
Although he has a hectic schedule (we spoke to him in midst of an unexpected restaurant inspection), Sawyer makes a point of dining out and trying all sorts of different restaurants around town so he can give visiting friends and family the best food recommendations. "I think it's important to be an ambassador of the city," he says. "And it's not just the fanciest or most expensive restaurants. There's a whole range of what people enjoy."
Sawyer was raised in Cleveland, but cooked all around the country before returning to build his restaurant empire. Since Cleveland is a long and slim city that runs from east to west, Sawyer often has two favorite places in any particular food category, one for each side of the city.
"We have awesome farmers and we can afford a ton of real estate," he says. "We're the affordable Chicago. The price that we pay for ramps is a quarter what you'd pay in New York. I think people are moving back more so than ever before." Here are Sawyer's top culinary reasons to move back, or at least visit, Cleveland.
Meaty Local Specialties: Hot Sauce Williams for fried chicken and a Polish boy sausage. It's often confused with a po' boy but has nothing to do with it. It's a cool mash-up of Eastern European meets soul-food. The dog is like a Slovenian polish sausage, slightly spicy, very garlicky. They top it with French fries, barbecue sauce, and coleslaw. Their fried chicken I think is the best in Cleveland. Both the hot sauce and the battering technique are impeccable. It takes about 25 minutes to get your order. It's indicative of the quality and well worth the wait. For Memorial Day, I went there and ordered a half slab of ribs while I was waiting for the chicken. So I got a 21-piece of chicken for the family picnic and it was the first thing to go. They have a few locations, but I'm partial to the one on Carnegie Avenue. I've been going there for at least 10 years.
Spicy Chinese Food: Szechuan Gourmet. It's a bone-numbing, unapologetically Sichuan flavor without any frills. Szechuan Gourmet does awesome stuff, from chilled beef tendon salad to crispy fried duck tongues to mapo tofu. It's so spicy that you're sweating from your entire body. I like their twice-friend chicken and pork belly and cashews, too.
Great Grocery Stores: Asia Town Center is my favorite Asian market. It organizes its pantry by country of origin. You can go to the Vietnamese aisle and get Vietnamese rice paper, fish sauce, and more. It's really a thoughtful market. They even have two pretty good restaurants inside, a Vietnamese phở place and on the second floor there's an akido karate studio and right across from that is a Korean restaurant that has pretty awesome Korean barbecue and bibimbap. All the banchan are homemade—steamed eggs, blanched mung bean sprouts, and stinky tofu.
Fantastic Phở: Superior Pho. The owner is one of those interesting characters. He's always on a portable phone in his own restaurant. But his broths are the best. I think you can taste that they've been simmering for years. I'm 90 percent sure that he subscribes to the mothering process of the broth. He would never evaporate his stock pot or drain it. I think he leaves 10 to 15 percent of the broth there and lets it run 24/7. He doesn't go crazy on the spicing. He doesn't use a lot of star anise or cinnamon and there's a deep beef flavor that I don't think anybody else could achieve if they tried it overnight.
Late Night Eats: Michael Symon's Lolita for chicken livers, roasted bone marrow, and mussels. It's a Mediterranean-minded bistro. It's a little Italian, a little North African, and a little Greek. The mussel dish on the menu is my old recipe from when I used to work there. It's Moorish with preserved lemon, cinnamon, and chorizo with mussels. It's always solid. They don't falter on quality. The space has been in the same kitchen's hands for almost 20 years. Lolita has been there for 9 years, but it was Lola before that.
Neapolitan Pizza: Vero Bistro is super solid. There's just one chef, one oven, one pie at a time, but it's super good. It's also a great place to go on a date and it's low-maintenance. There are only maybe 30 seats total, 15 downstairs and 15 upstairs. I love the Piccante with chili flakes, pickled red onions, sharp provolone and a very judicious smear of tomato sauce. Super smoky bubbly crust, Neapolitan-style, but I don't think he has the certification. It has a real airy, nice chew. He knows I like it real charred so I get a little extra. He's real deliberate with how he melts the cheese on the top. He picks up the paddle and allows the smoke from the fire to get up and underneath the pie.
Healthy Options: Before I go on a trip where I know I'm going to eat and drink my face off, I like to have some juice on my way out and then on my way back in. I like Anna In The Raw in East Cleveland and Beet Jar in West Cleveland, which is super new. I like [Beet Jar's] cashew and date milk that is almost sinfully indulgent. I use Anna In The Raw if I'm doing a juice cleanse. She loves turmeric and so do I. It's so good for your blood. It's the most natural anti-inflammatory you can have.
Cleveland Coffee: Rising Star (West Cleveland) and I love also Phoenix Coffee (East Cleveland). Rising Star has the most pour-overs and pulls in Cleveland and roasts on-premise, too. Phoenix also roasts all their coffee, and I like them because they're willing to say no to you. Not every coffee bean is meant to be espresso. They're really specific with what they brew and how they use it. They have a really experiential display for pour-overs, where you can open up, smell, and figure out what your favorite cup for a pour-over is from four to five choices. I've even seen them age both both green and roasted beans in bourbon barrels. When they go through the barrel, a lot of the flavor goes into the coffee. It's one of the most unique coffees I've ever tasted. I just sent some to a brewer (Victory Brewery) that we work with. They're doing a prototype beer with the bourbon-aged coffee. And Phoenix also makes a coffee kombucha as a pet project, although it's not for sale to the public yet.
Best Brewery: My favorite is the smallest in Cleveland. It's called BottleHouse. He had a ton of square footage and rather than put in a 10-barrel system, they put in 10 one-barrel systems so they can create really small-batch beers. Rather than getting bigger and ordering the bigger equipment, they order more of the equipment they like. They're always creating new flavors.
Creative Cocktails: Definitely Velvet Tango Room. If I'm given my choice, I like brown, bitter, and stirred drinks, but I also like trying the new menu here. They pioneered the cocktail industry here in Cleveland. They were doing house-made shrubs that nobody in Cleveland had ever seen. He picked an interesting neighborhood that even to this day is pretty marginal, Duck Island, real pirate-y back in the day. There might be some meth dealers there now. And it's where the most luxurious, high-end cocktail lounge in the city is.
Vegetarian: Tommy's Restaurant has good falafel, pita and hummus. Simple stuff. They have great grilled cheese sandwiches on pita and I just love it. I like to take my kids there. I think it's great hangover food too. I'm not a steak and eggs hangover guy, I'd rather have a bunch of juice and vegetables.
Dessert: Coquette Patisserie. It's a nice little Parisian place that has macarons and financiers and also has oysters and triple cream cheese and beer and champagne. It's the cutest place you could imagine. It's my wife's and my favorite place to get away from the kids for two hours now. She can get organic cider from Normandy and I can get champagne or beer. The ideal meal for her is oysters and dessert.