Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Cleveland Lake-Cation: Day 1

Thanks to a tip from AJF over at everybody loves you..., I was able to take part in the #HappyinCLE weekend with Cleveland's convention and visitors bureau, Positively Cleveland. With two fearless (and lovely) tour guides steering our ship (in this case, a brand new mini-van that I am pretty sure could fly to outer space just fine), five bloggers (from Breakfast With Nick, Adventure Mom, Food Hussy, 30 Something Therapy, and yours truly) got to experience Cleveland through the eyes of locals. Social media polling determined every place that we visited and every restaurant in which we dined. This provided not only an atmosphere of spontaneity but also of authenticity. We got to "do" Cleveland, and I believe that we "did" it right.

This and my two upcoming posts will cover each day of my Cleveland lake-cation. Full disclosure: these posts were difficult to write, because I had so much to say. Given the chance, I want to tell you about Cleveland in person. And if you don't mind, I want to go to Cleveland with you.

Day 1
The gals at Positively Cleveland told me to arrive at the hotel by noon on Friday, and be prepared for lunch and kayaking on Lake Erie. Cleveland is barely over two hours of highway driving from Pittsburgh, so the trip was painless. When I rolled into the hotel, I admittedly did a double-take because it has all of the markings of a bank, except that it's a Holiday Inn Express.

Holiday Inn Express
Downtown Cleveland
Left: original signage / Right: lobby ceiling
This hotel, which is in the restored 19th century National City Bank building, has all of the structure's original charm with modern upgrades and amenities. For instance, my room had huge windows and incredibly high ceilings but with wifi and a spa tub. That's a win-win. It is in an excellent location for visitors, especially those coming from Pennsylvania. Also, it's within a block or two of the East 4th Street dining and entertainment destination of downtown Cleveland. In other words, you should totally stay there.

Downtown Cleveland
Left: Japanese Fried Chicken Steam Bun / Right: Crispy Beef Short Rib Ramen
Our first meal together was at Noodlecat, the Japanese-American brainchild of Chef Jonathon Sawyer, who might I add rode his bicycle into the restaurant while we were eating, checked on things, said hello to our table, and rode it back out the door. As pictured above, I tried the Japanese Fried Chicken Steam Buns (2 for $6, hot sauce, pickled onion, lettuce) and the Crispy Beef Short Rib Ramen (full for $11 or half for $6, pork broth, super dashi, sweet & sour short ribs). I thought that the food was delicious, and light enough to eat before kayaking.

Noodlecat on Urbanspoon

41° North Coastal Kayak Adventures
I think that the smile on my face is a solid indicator of how this kayaking excursion went. I've always been a fan of Lake Erie, and being able to kayak through the marina and far enough onto the water to see the Cleveland skyline was so much fun. Although it was tempting to just paddle onward to Canada, none of us has our passports and a night out in the Gordon Square Arts District seemed too good to miss!

Third Fridays at 78th Street Studios
Gordon Square Arts District
Housed in the old American Greetings factory, the Third Fridays event at the 78th Street Studios is appropriately billed as an "eclectic arts maze." In other words, it's a walk through levels of galleries, studios, showrooms, and creative spaces that feature Northeast Ohio's finest artists. With music, beverages, appetizers, and food trucks, it's something that shouldn't be missed if you are in Cleveland and the timing is right.

Happy Dog
Gordon Square Arts District
Top Right: a PBR and the menu / Bottom: my dog and my tots
When it comes to atmosphere, Happy Dog is a bar first, and restaurant second. No pretentiousness, no frills, no menus. Just a bar (with Fat Head's and PBR to name two), a piano, a juke box, a stage, the original wood work and linoleum, some seating, and a check-list on which to place a food order. You can get a Hot Dog or a Vegan Sausage for $5 and Tater Tots or French Fries for $3. That's it. But that's not all. There are fifty topping/dipping sauce options for your Dog or Sausage, and those same options are available for your Tots or Fries.

At first I was overwhelmed, because how could I chose from options as familiar as Sriracha and traditional yellow mustard or as foreign as Froot Loops and Spaghetti O's? Recommendations from our tour guides (and a PBR pounder) helped ease me into the ordering experience. I ended up doing a Hot Dog with Rising Star Coffee and ancho bbq sauce, bourbon pork-n-beans, bleu cheese coleslaw, and applewood smoked bacon. You know, for that smokey, spicy, creamy effect. I ordered my tots with chipotle ketchup and pimento mac-n-cheese. Ultimately, I was satisfied with everything that I selected.

My final word on Happy Dog? Go. This was the first place I described to JTP when I talked to him later that night. Great atmosphere + seemingly endless combinations = imminent return trips.

Happy Dog on Urbanspoon

Yellowcake Shop
Gordon Square Arts District
Artist and designer Valerie Mayen (of Project Runway Season 8) is behind this lovely boutique. She was there when we stopped by to look at her designs, and I couldn't help but admire her along with her brilliant concept of the entire space with its clean lighting, uniquely arranged fixtures, and visible design/construction area. After a lap of the store, I gravitated toward a black and white long-sleeved maxi dress, and she approached me and said that it was marked at 20% off the original price. Of course I had to try it on at that point, and of course it fit perfectly (WHICH NEVER HAPPENS). She offered some suggestions for a belt and shoes, and I walked out of the store with a Valerie Mayen original sold to me by the fashionista herself. It's not everyday that one has that kind of shopping experience. Needless to day, I could get used to it.

Sweet Moses Soda Fountain & Treat Shop
Gordon Square Arts District
Bottom Left: Moses Cleaveland, founder of Cleveland / Right: my Barrel Float
Our dessert served as our nightcap; let's be honest, sometimes the best nightcaps don't have any alcohol in them. Sweet Moses offers something for everyone who needs an after dinner change of taste or who needs sweet tooth satisfaction. The charming atmosphere and extensive menu cannot disappoint. I went with the Barrel Float ($5.5 for regular, $6 for large), with Sweet Moses Root Beer and vanilla ice cream. It was heavenly.

Sweet Moses Soda Fountain & Treat Shop on Urbanspoon

I went to bed Friday night with a full stomach, a new dress and a smile on my face. The first day of the trip was undeniably fun and exciting, and my anticipation for the next two days was higher than my hotel room ceilings.

Click on "Day 2" for Saturday's adventures and "Day 3" for Sunday's.