About 70 foodies buzz excitedly as they peruse the cryptic menu at Dinner in the Dark, a charity feast organized by chefs Brian Okin and Jeff Jarrett. Each month, top Cleveland chefs gather at a different spot to cook a spectacular meal. Guests follow Dinner in the Dark online and snag spots in advance, with one little hitch: They have no idea what they’ll eat or even who will be cooking. Each course (on this night, they’ll get 12) becomes a guessing game as the chef emerges to introduce the dish: corn panna cotta, miso-glazed halibut and tongue as tender and tasty as corned beef, all paired with complementary wine and handcrafted cocktails for $87.
The success of Dinner in the Dark is no surprise to people who acknowledge Cleveland’s industrial roots but are positive about the food scene’s potential. A lot has changed since celebrity chef Michael Symon opened his flagship Lola 15 years ago. With his talent, mixed ethnic heritage and hip ethos, Michael bridged the gap between Cleveland’s blue-collar character and cosmopolitan ambitions. His success stoked local pride—and piqued curiosity. “The city has responded by raising its game from a meat-and-potatoes town,” Brian says. “People are getting really adventurous and trying different things.”
And so are chefs. Acclaimed restaurateur Zack Bruell just opened his fifth establishment, this one in a former jewelry store that keeps its original name, Cowell and Hubbard. He uses the shop’s former vault area for private dining; rich red fabrics throughout the restaurant and an open kitchen add a modern touch. “We have given new life to an old space that had lost its luster over the years,” Zach says.
This spirit of experimentation makes Cleveland a great destination for a foodie vacation—or at least a really delicious date night. Want nine more? Read on.
Everything about Lola Bistro reflects Michael Symon’s culinary style and personality. (Rather than chef’s whites, the cooks at his downtown restaurant wear mechanic-style garb.) Michael is a proud carnivore, so servers at Lola will applaud you for wanting a big pile of protein. The menu changes every couple of months; the seasonal Frito Misto appetizer includes pork belly, pork ear and chili-spiced cracklings, and Hampshire Pork Chops bear no relation to what can be, in the hands of amateurs, notoriously dry “other white meat.” He even incorporates bacon in dessert, but lighter choices such as lemon mousse with caramelized grapefruit score, too. Not all of Michael’s newer ventures into burger territory have wowed us, but his landmark first restaurant is as good as ever. (216) 621-5652; lolabistro.com 
Lucky’s Cafe is the kind of place where you take out-of-town guests to show off your city without spending big bucks. The bakery-cafe has a herb-and-veggie garden behind the 19th-century Tremont bar. It serves a bang-up breakfast: Sausage gravy blankets cheddar-scallion biscuits, and fresh strawberry-rhubarb compote and honey whipped cream top waffles. (216) 622-7773; luckyscafe.com 
When we asked our Facebook fans for their Cleveland picks, we were happy to see the Great Lakes Brewing Company among the suggestions. Founded in 1988, this Ohio City watering hole makes five year-round beers, nine seasonal brews, plus pub exclusives. Newbies should order a $16.50 flight: tastes of the on-tap beers. The food can be spotty, but appetizers like the Pub Bites or Brewer’s Barley Pretzels satisfy, especially when paired with Dortmunder Gold Lager. (216) 771-4404; greatlakesbrewing.com 
At his snappy-casual Shaker Square restaurant, Fire Food and Drink, Douglas Katz reimagines comfort food. His grass-fed beef cheeseburger is a juicy masterpiece topped with tomato relish, mustard aioli and a plump pickle. Crispy garlic-herb fries score high on both the smell- and taste-o-meters, and a hint of sweetness in the duck confit could convert the staunchest duck critic. With entrees priced north of $25, Fire is definitely a splurge, but complimentary valet parking, generous portions and free cookies temper the shock of the bill. (216) 921-3473; firefoodanddrink.com 
Saravá, a Brazilian restaurant in Shaker Square, brings a classy slice of Copacabana to Cleveland. The Street Plate menu’s small portions are perfect for diners who want to keep costs down; they cost less than $10, and three or four is plenty for two people. Choices include fried pastry turnovers called salgadinhos and fiery Shrimp Inferno. Save room for coconut butter cake, a melt-in-your-mouth treat with just a hint of coconut. To complement it all, try sweet lime-infused caipirinha for an authentic sip of Brazil. (216) 295-1200; sergioscleveland.com 
A 14-year track record of creative American-eclectic food and impeccable service makes Tremont’s colorful Fat Cats a Cleveland classic. Chicken and Olives, a rich, salty concoction served with smashed potatoes, tastes so good you’ll wish you were in the privacy of your kitchen rather than in a restaurant where basic decorum requires forks, napkins and breathing between bites. Some ingredients come from an adjacent kitchen garden; others travel only a few miles farther. Fat Cats’ under-$20 entrees are a bargain compared to similar spots—and you get a downtown view for free. (216) 579-0200; coolplacestoeat.com/fatcats.html 
Its edgy new American cuisine draws some skeptics, but everyone loves the look and feel of Crop Bistro and Bar, a 1920s-bank-turned-restaurant. A sleek open kitchen and chef’s counter erase the stodgy-old-bank-lobby feeling. The creative, flavorful menu includes a tangy balsamic popcorn appetizer that makes salad seem silly and popcorn feel elegant, and a subtle smokiness flavors the mac and cheese. Some concoctions try too hard, but simpler entrees, like the Ohio ribeye, taste absolutely perfect. That you can take to the bank. (216) 696-2767; cropbistro.com 
Calling Melt Bar and Grilled’s sandwiches “grilled cheese” is misleading. Sure, you can order a basic Kindergartner for $6, but most sound like something a pack of college guys would eat. Consider the beer-battered Westside Monte Cristo: honey ham, turkey, two cheeses and berry preserves. With its holiday-light decor and huge portions, it’s easy to dismiss Melt as an artery-clogging gimmick, but the menu has genuine, heartfelt nods to local heritage. Pierogi-stuffed grilled cheese, anyone? Three locations, with another opening in October 2012. (216) 226-3699; meltbarandgrilled.com 
It’s not uncommon for Clevelanders to debate their favorite Zack Bruell restaurant. Now that the chef’s fifth, Cowell and Hubbard, has opened in the theater district, foodies just might shift their allegiance. The French fare is pretty close to perfect, with earthy yet elegant flavors. If classics like foie gras and frog legs sound a little too French, try the truffled chicken breast ($20) served over rich thyme dumplings. Named for the building’s original tenant, a jewelry store, the restaurant feels like a gem itself. (216) 479-0555; cowellhubbard.com