With the snow falling fast and furious in Cleveland recently, the Cabin Fever has been hitting hard and often. So last week Nicole and I braved the elements to get out of our apartments for a few hours. Our mission was a taste of the near West Side, the neighborhood known as Ohio City. While certainly not strangers to Ohio City we opted to try a few newer places in order to spice things up a bit.
Our first stop was the Velvet Tango Room on Columbus Road. Nestled in the first floor of a house, the VTR is a bar and restaurant specializing in classic cocktails. As their website will tell you: “Once, there was a time when people understood the art of cocktails. A cocktail was not just a drink - it was a mood, a place, an aesthetic statement.” And that’s just what they do. Soft lighting, candles, and wood paneling give VTR a timeless, classic atmosphere while funky jazz floats off the stereo. While serving a higher class of cocktail than the average bar, VTR is surprisingly free of pretention; it’s simply the kind of place where fans of delicious, hand crafted cocktails can sip on a bit of history and a bit of invention.
While VTR’s mission is to present the highest quality cocktail possible, drawing on the mixology’s rich history, they’re not above innovation. Combing the best spirits available with the finest mixers and a slew of house made sodas, syrups, and bitters means VTR’s libations are as potent as they are delicious. After perusing both—that’s right both—drink menus Nicole and I ordered. For her a Manhattan. A classic cocktail usually consisting of bourbon or whiskey, vermouth, and bitters, the Tango Manhattan features VTR’s own wine reduction syrup, giving the drink a fullness and warmth not usually found in the traditional recipe. Served up in a cocktail glass this was one of the best Manhattan’s I’ve ever tried. I ordered the Old Fashioned. Building on a foundation of citrus muddled with sugar and bitters, this whiskey drink beautifully balances three of the four tastes. Deliciously smooth to sip with a beautifully subtle finish, this is easily one of the best cocktails I’ve ever had. Certainly a great way to start the evening, but all this perfection has a price, so be prepared to shell out or get there early for happy hour! This is certainly the Cleveland parallel to Chicago’s Violet Hour.
With fancy-pants drinks tickling our hungry bones we departed the Velvet Tango Room in search of some eats. During one’s time in Ohio City there are plenty of food options, but hungering for something new we made for ABC the Tavern at Nicole’s suggestion. A bar that’s trapped between dive and respectable, ABC’s atmosphere is an atmosphere of no atmosphere. High ceilings, little to no décor, and dim lighting should signal blandsville, but somehow ABC pulls it off. We seated ourselves to a soundtrack of Al Green’s greatest hits—almost always appropriate—and ordered a round of Dogfish Head 60 Minute IPAs (along with Sierra Nevada’s pale this is one of the best widely available IPAs in the country). We scanned the short but tasty menu filled with bar food standards—appetizers, sandwiches, sides, etc.—and placed an order for their burger and the Jamaican Jerk Chicken sandwich.
Nicole’s burger was perfectly cooked and topped with frazzled (fried) onions. Absolutely amazing, any burger joint throwing raw onion on a burger is missing an opportunity to make their Average-Joe meat sandwich an All-Star by frying those aromatics up! My chicken had been slow cooked until it was juicy and tender, then pulled and tossed with a house made jerk sauce. Crammed to the gills with ginger, sweetened with some brown sugar, lightly torched by some hot chilies, with just a hint of smokiness the sauce made this sandwich one of the most messy, delicious things I’ve eaten in a long time. It was one of those beautiful moments of eating something and suddenly realizing it’s exactly what you’d wanted but had no idea. Both sandwiches are musts should you visit. Like all good bar food should, these beauties on buns came with sides of fries, but ABC doesn’t serve your everyday French fry. Sixe wise these were just north or shoestring, but just south of a full sized fry; boot-string, perhaps. Expertly fried, ABC quickly tosses their fries with salt, pepper, parsley, and green onions for a little extra something in every bite. Outside of the sweet potato fries I had at Frank’s in Akron Monday night, ABC’s are the best fries I’ve had in a long time.
Our hunger pacified for the time being we were still looking for a little of that night life, so we made one last stop before heading home in what would eventually become last week’s Snowpacalypse. Our last call of the evening was made at the Academy Tavern on Larchmere in the Shaker neighbor hood. Another no-frills, locals and regulars type joint, the Academy is the place to go for an Early Bird Special, the game on TV, and plenty of beer that tastes like beer. The perfect spot to end a great night out. We ordered a few Beam-and-Ginger-Ales, the drink that’s quickly becoming the drink of choice as winter winds down, and watched the Cavs come from behind for decisive victory over the hated Celtics. There’s nothing fancy about the Academy, but who needs fancy when you’re just plain good?
This night out helped reinforce one of the greatest aspects of living in Cleveland: no matter your budget or location there's always a place to go that offers the best food, the best drinks, the best night out. All of Cleveland's neighborhoods and suburbs have a treasure trove of restaurants and bars just waiting to be discovered.