CLEVELAND – With an NBA championship freshly under its belt and the shine still on from a flawlessly executed Republican National Convention, Cleveland is a city getting used to winning.
Residents are bursting with hometown pride thanks to LeBron and his teammates, and the millions of dollars poured in for the convention mean new restaurants and cocktail bars, and a crown jewel of a downtown park known for food trucks and a family-friendly splash fountain. Then there’s the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on the waterfront, just next to the International Women’s Air & Space Museum, and the Cleveland Public Library, with its cool marble hallways and Eastman Reading Garden.
Did we mention it’s all walkable?
“You guys are going to kill our well-kept secret,” Cleveland native Amy Schill says with mock horror while eating lunch under a tree in the newly renovated Public Square park downtown. “Cleveland has made a really great trajectory in the past 10 years.”
Private companies have invested heavily in the downtown, including Hilton’s gleaming new 32-story downtown hotel overlooking the FirstEnergy Stadium where the Cleveland Browns play. The hotel services the underground Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, which is topped with a ground-level grassy mall and capped with the inspiring Fountain of Eternal Life.
From there, it’s just a few blocks to the Public Square, part of the city’s original core and a noteworthy destination all of its own. One on corner sits the Old Stone Church, the only remaining Civil War-era structure in the area, with a memorial bell on the sidewalk outside. Diagonally across the square towers the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, which honors the men and women who fought in the Civil War. Cleveland sent about 9,000 soldiers to fight in the war, including some of the nation’s first African-American regiments. Walking into the monument’s small museum, you’re reminded of that fact: A sculpture of President Lincoln freeing and arming a former slave dominates the entrance.
Inside, executive director Tim Daley will regale you with facts about the Civil War and Lincoln’s death (the answer to most of his quizzes is "Cleveland," by the way), and point out the name of his great-great-great-great-uncle by marriage on the honor roll, and the names of the men who served in the “colored” regiment. Daley has been at the memorial for more than a decade, and watched the city transform before his eyes.
“History is a pendulum and we are on the upswing,” he says with a smile.
Smiles are everywhere in Cleveland. This is the Midwest, after all, and people here really are nice. They invite strangers to drinks and mean it. They strike up conversations with newcomers in coffee shops, and cement brief meetings with Facebook friend requests. Suggestions for beaches on Lake Erie flow like the now-clean Cuyahoga, and dinner recommendations come fast and furious.
“The restaurant scene here is insane,” says Linda Tasavanh. “And I feel like even more good things are going to come.”
If they are, you can count on chef Michael Symon to play a big role in that. The Iron Chef competitor and host of ABC’s The Chew, the Cleveland native dominates the city’s restaurant scene with Lola Bistro, B Spot Burgers and the new Mabel’s BBQ, which recently opened on the pedestrian zone of East Fourth Street. Mabel’s has quickly won converts with a custom sauce incorporating local favorite Bertman Ball Park mustard. If possible, sit outside on the Mabel’s patio to watch people walking past.
Butcher and the Brewer is another great option, especially when sharing food with friends (try the house-smoked corn dogs and the fried chicken). Around the corner are Flannery’s Pub, and the Mexican-oriented Barrio and its absurdly delicious queso and guacamole. If rooftop views are your thing, Red should be considered. An outpost of a small steakhouse chain, the downtown Red has a delightful open-air bar on the third floor overlooking Prospect Avenue and the Quicken Loans Arena.
Inside the 5th Street Arcade, artist Sandie Buffie has watched the city’s transformation for four years, and things have only accelerated since the Cavs won the NBA Finals. Buffie moved her studio-cum-store inside the arcade two years ago and has a front-row seat to a city swelling with pride. Buffie loves telling friends and visitors about the city’s thriving theater scene and how they can spend days in the city without ever having to drive.
“When I moved here, Clevelanders had the worst case of self esteem. They’d hang their heads and say they’d lived here all their lives,” she says. “When the Cavs won, it was life-changing for people. It’s almost a new city.”