The sunlight – if you can call that muted glow actual sunlight – is quickly fading, returning the late-winter sky to its customary gun-metal grey. It's happy hour on Friday and the folks streaming into the Happy Dog, located three kilometres from downtown Cleveland, begin to disrobe in a perfunctory burlesque performance: First come the gloves, then the scarves and finally the puffy coats and wool sweaters. The knit caps, however, stay firmly affixed.
Up front, on a low-rise platform that functions as the bar's stage, DJ Kishka manhandles an accordion while belting out old-timey polka tunes. These monthly get-togethers have become so popular that seats disappear faster than the afternoon sun (not to mention the workday sobriety). That's perfectly fine with most in attendance, who are happy to dance wherever there's space.
What's happening at Happy Dog is occurring throughout Cleveland as a new generation embraces a city and culture largely forsaken by its parents, most of whom long ago fled to the suburbs (or Phoenix or Florida). What these younger locals appreciate that perhaps their parents did not is that this re-emerging Great Lake city is accessible, affordable and, yes, beautiful.
While it's no secret that Cleveland has experienced a large population decline since its peak in 1950, when it was the seventh-largest city in the United States, things have begun to turn around in a big way. Oft-repeated jabs about burning rivers, blundering sports teams and infinite winters are giving way to reports of bike-friendly infrastructure and a world-class dining scene. Heck, city folk here are even allowed to raise chickens and bees.
For the first time in recent history, the inner city and neighbourhoods such as Ohio City, Tremont and Detroit Shoreway are growing faster than the suburbs that surround it. Population in the downtown, home to grand 20th-century architecture, has doubled in the past 10 years, thanks largely to an influx of young professionals.
More than almost any other activity, Clevelanders love to eat out, and the dining scene here continues to attract more than its fair share of attention. Michael Symon, a Food Network celebrity and co-host of ABC's The Chew, continues to cast a favourable light on his hometown's restaurants. Reporting for the Buffalo News, food writer Andrew Galarneau wondered why Buffalo's own cuisine pales in comparison to that of its Rust Belt sister to the west. "How did Cleveland get so awesome?" he wrote.
Washing all that farm-to-table grub down is a swelling tide of fizzy craft beer and stout spirits, part of a blossoming brewing and microdistilling industry. In the past few years, more than a half dozen microbreweries came online, making Cleveland one of the fastest growing brew towns in the Midwest. Joining craft beer pioneer Great Lakes Brewing are upstarts such as Indigo Imp, Buckeye Brewing, Fat Heads and Market Garden Brewery.
But it isn't just residents eating and drinking themselves into a contented stupor; visitors are coming to the city in record numbers. According to Positively Cleveland, the convention and visitors bureau, more than 11 million people are expected to visit downtown Cleveland this year – twice the number of just two years ago.
Driving all that tourism is more than $2-billion of downtown development, which includes a $350-million casino, a $465-million convention centre and a $33-million aquarium. In the fine arts department, the renowned Cleveland Museum of Art is wrapping up an eight-year, $350-million expansion and renovation, while the Museum of Contemporary Art just opened the doors to its $27-million showstopper.
Walk around Cleveland these days and you'll spot something else new: civic pride. With the motto, "Spreading Cleveland Pride One T-Shirt at a Time," the CLE Clothing Co. began life as a cheeky online retailer. It's now a busy bricks-and-mortar shop downtown, specializing in shirts, hats and other accessories emblazoned with symbols of municipal adoration.
Folks might still be telling jokes about Cleveland. The difference is that these days, the residents are too busy having fun to wait around for the punch line.
WHAT TO SEE
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum
Since opening in 1995, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has become an enduring symbol of Cleveland. But a recent $10-million redesign has upgraded the entire visitor experience. Chief among them is the new arrangement of exhibits, which tells the story of rock 'n' roll in chronological fashion. 1100 Rock and Roll Blvd., 216-781-7625, rockhall.com
Cleveland Museum of Art
After eight years and $350-million, the renovation and redesign is almost complete. In addition to new and improved galleries, a shimmering new 39,000-square-foot atrium with 20-metre-high skylights literally caps off the years-long work. Now, art lovers can see more of the museum's vast holdings than ever – and in much better light. 11150 East Blvd., 216-421-7340, clevelandart.org
Unlike Rogers Centre, the home of the Toronto Blue Jays, the Cleveland Indians play in a dedicated, open-air baseball diamond called Progressive Field. Located in the heart of downtown, the attractive 40,000-seat ballpark is an urban field of dreams. The fan-friendly facility features comfortable seats, generous legroom and unobstructed sight lines of the field. 2401 Ontario St., 216-420-4444, indians.com
WHERE TO EAT
It was 16 years ago that celebrity chef Michael Symon opened Lola in an out-of-the-way blue-collar neighbourhood. Since then, Lola relocated downtown from the Tremont neighbourhood, which has become ground zero for fine dining. To locals, though, Lolita (which replaced Lola) will always be our favourite Symon spot. Mediterranean small plates, charcuterie and wood-fired pizzas, pastas, fish and meats are served without fuss or fanfare . 900 Literary Rd., 216-771-5652, lolabistro.com
Set in a two-storey Colonial in Ohio City, this hip mod-Mexican eatery has been operating at full capacity since opening seven years ago. James Beard Award nominee Eric Williams turns out contemporary interpretations of classic South of the Border dishes like smoked trout guacamole, duck confit taquitos and pepita-crusted trout. 1835 Fulton Rd., 216-694-2122, momocho.com
Start with hand-ground Ohio beef tartar before moving on to foie gras-steamed clams and pork chop saltimbocca. Chef Jonathon Sawyer's take on bistro fare is impressive – former Gourmet editor and New York Times restaurant critic Ruth Reichl wrote that Greenhouse Tavern "really blew me away." 2038 E. Fourth St., 216-443-0511, thegreenhousetavern.com
WHERE TO DRINK
You don't find classic dive bars like the Happy Dog in most cities as they've already been replaced by a shiny-new replica of an old dive bar. This agreeable tavern is a great place to kick off the weekend, with rousing Friday happy hours. Pair your cold brew with a hot dog capped off with your choice of 50 toppings. 5801 Detroit Ave., 216-651-9474, happydogcleveland.com
This lower-level cocktail lounge is geared to the mature crowd. Live piano music, small plates and expertly crafted cocktails lure the post-dinner crowd leaving Michael Symon's Lola, which is across the street. 2063 E 4th St. Lower Level, 216-781-9050, societycleveland.com
Ohio City Pub Crawl
When Great Lakes Brewing Co. launched in 1988, it was the sole craft brewery in the state let alone the neighbourhood. Now there are three microbreweries in Ohio City with more on the way. Start with a pint in Great Lakes' historic Taproom (2516 Market Ave., 216-771-4404, www.greatlakesbrewing.com), which carries non-distributed varieties. Cross the street to the new Market Garden Brewery (1947 W. 25th St., 216-621-4000, marketgardenbrewery.com), where a full line-up of craft drafts are enjoyed in an open-air beer garden. Just down the block, the pint-size Nano Brew (1859 W. 25th St., 216-862-6631, nanobrewcleveland.com) brews up excellent ales in a tiny one-barrel system, on view in the main room.
WHERE TO STAY
Doubletree by Hilton
A 1930s building that long ago housed an exclusive men's club recently underwent a $22-million renovation and conversion to a Doubletree by Hilton. Not only is the interior stunning, but the location makes it an ideal perch to explore the city. Rooms from $129 (U.S.) 10660 Carnegie Ave., 216-455-1260, thetudorarms.doubletree.com
Residence Inn Cleveland
For location, service, rate and accommodations, it's tough to beat this centrally located hotel. Just blocks from Progressive Field, Horseshoe Casino, E. Fourth Street – and minutes from the Rock Hall. Rooms from $134 (U.S.) 527 Prospect Ave., 216-443-9043, marriott.com/hotels/travel/cleri-residence-inn-cleveland-downtown
WHERE TO SHOP:
West Side Market
The West Side Market is a bustling 100-year-old public market with over 100 vendors selling everything from spring-fresh asparagus to Ohio-raised lamb. Snack on sausage sandwiches, made-to-order crepes, ramen bowls or just grab a baguette and some cheese for a picnic in the park across the street. 1979 W. 25th St., 216-664-3387, westsidemarket.com
CLE Clothing Co.
Take a piece of Cleveland home with you. In addition to Cleve-centric apparel, the shop sells books, posters, stickers and pretty much anything else with a Cleveland logo. 342 Euclid Ave., 216-736-8879, cleclothingco.com