Mistaken Identity

With the Rock Hall, Eateries, Cleveland's Worth the Trip

By Christine Snyder | Posted on 11.14.15 – Destinations, Travel

Tour Cleveland’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, now celebrating its 20th anniversary, and what sticks most may not be the chance to see artifacts tied to John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and other great names in music, but the chance to learn surprising tidbits about the myriad artists who helped create the genre.

Songwriter Doc Pomus, inducted in the hall in 1992, is a perfect example. Born in New York City in 1925, Pomus survived a bout of polio as a child, relying on crutches and later a wheelchair to get around. In the 1950s, he found success writing hits for Elvis, Bobby Darin, The Drifters and others. He also found the love of his life in Broadway actress Willi Burke, a gorgeous blonde.

Out one night, Pomus watched from the sidelines as his wife had fun on the dance floor, then penned Save the Last Dance for Me and its lines: “But don’t forget who’s taking you home and in whose arms you’re gonna be … ”

“It’s about the stories,” insists Todd Mesek, the rock hall’s vice president of marketing and communications. “We’ve built a reputation as a destination, but it’s not just a fun place. The stories we tell here make people cry, give parents and kids a chance to connect, whether it’s a family with young kids or families where the kids are grownups. It’s a place where you come for a lasting, memorable experience.”

One of the hall’s newest temporary exhibits, “Graham Nash: Touching the Flame,” is narrated by the two-time Hall of Fame inductee, famous for his work with The Hollies and Crosby, Stills and Nash. It showcases items from his personal collection with ties to the Everly Brothers, the Beach Boys, Buddy Holly and others as a way to explore the highs and lows of the past half-century.

Just as the rock hall aims to deliver the unexpected, Cleveland itself offers visitors unexpected delights. This quirky Rust Belt city has long been derided as the “Mistake on the Lake,” often by Clevelanders themselves. In many minds, it’s cemented as the home of the big Cuyahoga River fire of 1969 (a blaze put out in less than two hours but nonetheless is credited with sparking the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and getting Congress to finally pass the Clean Water Act), the place where Nixon-era Mayor Ralph Perks caught his hair on fire as he tried to use a welder’s torch in a ribbon-cutting ceremony and where his wife, Lucille, turned down a White House invitation, explaining she couldn’t miss her regular bowling night.

But these days, the joke’s on those who still turn up their noses at the city in the face of the rock hall, a plethora of museums (including the Cleveland Museum of Art, where admission to the permanent collection is free), the historic Playhouse Square (the largest performing arts center outside of the Big Apple), the elegant, three-story Horseshoe Casino, which opened three years ago in the former Higbee Department Store in the center of downtown, a world-class food scene and, of course, the Browns, Indians, Cavaliers and other pro sports.

The Cavs’ home base, “The Q”—formally Quicken Loans Arena, the NBA’s third-largest venue—this summer will host the nation’s GOP faithful as the party’s 2016 presidential candidate is chosen. When the convention starts in mid-July, it will mark the first time Cleveland has hosted the gathering since the Great Depression. (By the way, the city’s been a mixed bag for the GOP. In 1924, incumbent President Calvin Coolidge went on to win in a landslide, but in 1936, when the pick was Alf Landon, Republicans suffered their most lopsided presidential election defeat ever, carrying just Vermont and New Hampshire.)

Though only official delegates from each state are invited to take part in the convention, it’s estimated the event could bring 50,000 or more visitors to the city. They’ll enter a city enjoying a remarkable renaissance since Cleveland’s success in winning the rock hall, which opened in September of 1995.

Visitors to the I.M. Pei-designed glass pyramid on the Lake Erie shore downtown can take in permanent exhibits about the roots of rock ‘n’ roll, displays focusing on the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other individual artists, as well as temporary displays on hip-hop, “Women Who Rock” and other topics. The museum welcomed its 10 millionth visitor earlier this year.

Another downtown attraction is the new casino, free to enter and open around the clock, seven days a week. Home to 1,600 slot machines and close to 100 table games, the casino’s exterior may look familiar for its starring role in A Christmas Story, the 1983 holiday classic filmed in snowy, chilly Cleveland. Higbee’s is where 9-year-old Ralphie first spots the Red Ryder BB gun of his dreams, it’s where the family watches the pre-holiday parade and it’s where Ralphie and Randy visit with Santa.

On Cleveland’s West Side, the actual house at 3159 W. 11th St. where the Parkers lived in the film has been restored to look as it did in A Christmas Story. It’s open year-round for tours, and across the street there’s a museum devoted to the film, complete with a gift shop selling those leg lamps in a variety of sizes and styles, along with pink bunny suit pajamas and other apparel.

Nearby is the famed West Side Market, where 100-plus vendors offer ready-to-eat foods including sandwiches, soups, pierogies (old-fashioned as well as new-fangled in varieties with fillings from crab to artichoke hearts to bourbon chicken to portabella mushrooms) as well as every imaginable variety of baked treat. Also for sale: fine meats, fresh seafood, cheeses, fruits, vegetables and even fresh flowers to take home.

Locals come to the market the way we visit our favorite grocery store, open only 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday and Wednesday and from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday. With such a wide selection of tasty treats, it’s a good idea to walk through the entire market before you start making purchases.

As practical as it may be to shop and eat at the market, it’s also the chance to enjoy a bit of authentic, working-class Cleveland history. The yellow brick market house, with its 137-foot clock tower, has been a city landmark since 1912. An open-air market operated on the site for decades before that, and many market stands are family-run businesses dating back three or more generations.

In Cleveland’s trendy Tremont neighborhood, visit Sokolowski’s University Inn, the award-winning restaurant that serves smoked kielbasa, cabbage rolls and other traditional Polish staple. Or check out Brewnuts, where the ultra-moist doughnuts are made fresh daily with local craft beers in flavors such as the Boss Hogg (a maple-bacon concoction) and a Girl Scouts-inspired Samoa.

Other top culinary spots include Slyman’s Deli in downtown Cleveland with its towering corned beef sandwiches; Ohio City’s Bonbon Pastry & Cafe, where the eggs Benedict starts with house-made English muffins and fresh, from-scratch Hollandaise; and Presti’s Bakery in Little Italy where locals line up for homemade cannoli, tiramisu, biscotti and the like.

Many foodies won’t want to leave Cleveland without eating something associated with Michael Symon of Iron Chef America and ABC’s The Chew fame, whether it’s an outing to his B Spot burger joint inside the Horseshoe Casino or the Cleveland native’s sleek Lola on the city’s bustling pedestrian walkway.

At the Fourth Street bistro, the must-try list is topped by the melt-in-your-mouth beef cheek pierogi with mushroom demi-glace and a horseradish crème fraîche; his ultra-tender hanger steak; Lola fries (crisp, perfectly seasoned with fresh rosemary); and the Lola S’More (graham cracker ice cream with dark chocolate ganache, smoked honey and house-made bourbon marshmallows).

For culture, head to the Cleveland Museum of Art in the East Side neighborhood of University Circle. There’s something special on view through Jan. 5: “Painting the Modern Garden: Monet to Matisse.” Cleveland marks its sole stop in the United States. Tickets to the exhibition created in conjunction with Royal Academy of Arts in London and featuring 103 historical masterpieces by 25 artists, cost $18. To learn more, go to www.ClevelandArt.org.

Nearby, the Cleveland Botanical Garden offers a pair of climate-controlled glasshouses that recreate the Madagascar desert and a Costa Rican rainforest where visitors can retreat from the Cleveland chill and get to enjoy chameleon feedings and butterfly releases.

Also here is Lake View Cemetery, nicknamed “Cleveland’s Outdoor Museum.” It’s where President James Garfield, the Ohioan shot by an assassin just four months after entering the White House in 1881, lies entombed beside his wife, Lucretia, who lived until 1918. The park-like cemetery also is the final resting place of crime fighter Elliot Ness; tycoon John D. Rockefeller; Cleveland disc jockey Alan Freed, who coined the term “rock ‘n’ roll” and put on the first major rock concert in 1952; African-American inventor Garrett Morgan; graphic novel pioneer Harvey Pekar; Carl B. Stokes (the first African-American elected mayor of a major U.S. city); and Ray Chapman, the Indians’ star shortstop who died hours after a Yankees pitch hit him in the head during a 1920 game at the Polo Grounds.

Though the sight of the Garfields’ bronze crypts may leave you underwhelmed—they rest side-by-side in a dank, basement-like space—the rest of the building, an ornate mini-castle decorated with intricate mosaics, stained-glass windows, a vaulted ceiling painted gold and a life-sized marble statue of the 20th president, is worth the stop. Be sure to take the winding staircase to the edifice’s top level, where a terrace offers an impressive (and free) view of Lake Erie and Cleveland’s skyline.