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Cleveland: Ohio's new chow town

Innovative chefs who push boundaries but understand the city’s roots have turned Cleveland into one of the Midwest’s top dining destinations. Here are some places that show you why.

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Neighborhood cafe: Lucky's Cafe

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

Readers’ pick: Great Lakes Brewing Company

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

Classy comfort: Fire Food and Drink

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

Old favorite: Fat Cats

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

In the bank: Crop Bistro and Bar

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 

Super sandwiches: Melt Bar and Grilled's

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

Chef on a roll: Cowell and Hubbard

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

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