CLEVELAND, Ohio — Walking down Old River Road in the Flats, I could almost pretend this was a normal summer night. I glanced inside the restaurants along the route, filled with diners, and lingered along the riverfront to admire the sunset.
Granted, I was wearing a face mask, as were most of the people strolling the street. And I gave an extra-wide berth to anyone who came too close.
But I was outside in the city on a glorious summer evening — eating, drinking, walking, people watching. And it felt terrific.
I’ve missed downtown – summer baseball games, meeting friends for lunch, a drink after work. And work! I haven’t been to my office in months, stuck in front of a computer in my dining room since mid-March.
I set out recently to remedy my growing sense of loss. Motivated by Destination Cleveland’s new Rediscover CLE campaign – which aims to inspire Clevelanders to support the city’s ailing tourism industry – I planned an overnight stay in downtown Cleveland.
First, I outlined a few parameters for the trip, both to focus my time and stay safe:
* No indoor dining, if at all possible. So when rain was in the forecast on my original date, I delayed the outing by 24 hours.
* Mostly outdoor activities. We took a walking tour, watched the Indians play (on a screen outside), and tried a Spin scooter for the first time. One exception – my husband and I spent a few hours inside at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, which has debuted a couple of new exhibits recently that I was eager to see.
* Remain downtown, which ruled out a trip to the West Side Market and attractions at University Circle. I’ve put them on the top of my list for my next Cleveland outing.
First, a note about safety: Yes, I felt safe, both in the context of crime and the health pandemic. I did worry somewhat about crime, which is up this summer in the city, mostly because I feared downtown streets would be largely devoid of people. They weren’t. There were enough folks around that I never felt isolated. And the streets were generally well lit, with the odd exception of a stretch of Superior Avenue near East Sixth Street – I hope that’s been taken care of by now.
I decided to overnight at the Drury Plaza Hotel, which opened in 2016 in the historic former Cleveland Board of Education building on East Sixth. I love hotels in historic buildings and this one is super cool, with marble floors, historic murals, high ceilings and wonderful architectural details. A package deal that included valet parking and tickets to the Rock Hall sealed the deal.
The hotel wasn’t even half full during my visit. The woman working the front desk said weekend bookings were picking up, albeit slowly. Business travel remains dismal.
Among my fellow guests: a family from Columbus headed to the Asian Lantern Festival at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo; a family from Erie who spent the day at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History; a couple from Marblehead, who was headed to the JACK Casino for the evening; and a couple from Mansfield in town for medical appointments.
After dropping off our bags, we headed to the Sixth City Sailors Club, a new nautically-themed bar and restaurant with a huge outdoor patio, where we watched the Indians beat the Cardinals in extra innings.
Afterward, we strolled Euclid Avenue, where numerous retailers remain closed following the protests in late May over the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The protests here turned violent, resulting in injuries and damage to some downtown businesses, including Heinen’s and Geiger’s, which remain closed. The CLE Clothing Co. was open, however, so I popped in and bought a Cleveland Spyders T-shirt.
From Euclid, we walked across Public Square to the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, where I intended to toast the city’s future at one of downtown’s most dramatic spots, Bar 32 on the hotel’s 32nd floor. But the bar’s outdoor seating area was closed because of high winds, and the indoor area was full. We headed to the Flats instead.
Exploring the Flats East Bank
The Flats – my hangout in high school – has enjoyed a period of significant revival in recent years, with the development of the Flats East Bank project, now including Alley Cat Oyster Bar, Margaritaville, Dante’s Inferno, Punch Bowl Social, the Big Bang Bar, Thirsty Dog and numerous other places to dine and play.
More interested in dining than drinking, I put my name in at Collision Bend Brewing and Lindey’s Lake House, both with a varied, moderately-priced menu and lots of outdoor seating. While we waited, we strolled the river boardwalk and enjoyed waterfront Cleveland at its finest.
Lindey’s was ready for us first, with a table for two perhaps 20 feet from the river. After an heirloom tomato salad and shrimp and grits alfresco, we strolled back to East Fourth Street for a nightcap.
Remember: Because of the pandemic, last call in Ohio is now 10 p.m., with bars and restaurants required to close no later than 11 p.m. This isn’t really a problem for me, but it was odd to see what was once one of the city’s most dynamic, lively entertainment zones so quiet after dark.
Walking tour of downtown
After breakfast at our hotel, we joined tour guide Scott O’Con in front of the statue of Cleveland Mayor Tom Johnson on Public Square.
O’Con launched Tours of Cleveland three years ago, when he was still a relative newcomer to Northeast Ohio, having moved here from the Washington, D.C. area in 2017. “I loved the city so much I started my own tour business,” he said.
O’Con’s tour covers roughly 200 years of Cleveland history – from Moses Cleaveland to the the 1970s mob war to the Marble Room, the high-end restaurant that opened in 2017 in the historic National City Bank Building, which was built by the sons of President James Garfield. The restaurant remains temporarily closed, unfortunately.
The tours start at Public Square, end at Playhouse Square, traveling across Mall A, through the Arcade and along Euclid Avenue. Among the topics of discussion: John Rockefeller and Millionaires Row; Higbee’s, Halle’s and Sterling-Lindner; Eliot Ness, Danny Greene and filming of “The Avengers.”
This is the kind of tour I seek out when I’m visiting other cities, so figured I’d try O’Con’s to test my knowledge of my hometown. And yes, I learned a thing or two. For example, the roof on the former Huntington Bank Building at East Ninth and Euclid was originally designed to accommodate zeppelins en route from New York to Chicago. But thanks to the winds off Lake Erie, the plans were never implemented.
I’ll remember that the next time I see the Goodyear blimp flying overhead.
Revisiting the Rock Hall
After the tour, we headed north on East Ninth toward the Rock Hall, with a detour at Nuevo Modern Mexican & Tequila Bar for lunch, followed by a quick photo session at one of the original Cleveland script signs, on the East 9th Street Pier.
At the Rock Hall, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month, we started our tour inside the Connor Theater watching “The Power of Rock,” new in 2017, a 12-minute film featuring video clips from Rock Hall induction ceremonies. Among the featured artists – Springsteen and Bono, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Tom Petty and Prince. It’s terrific – don’t miss it.
Like all museums, the Rock Hall has had adapt to a new pandemic reality. Among the adjustments: the theater now holds fewer than 40 visitors, down from a maximum of 120; routes through the museum are designated one way; and several highly interactive exhibits, including the popular Garage area, are off-limits.
Despite the limitations, there is still much fun to be had. I spent most of my time in the expansive new Play It Loud: The Instruments of Rock & Roll exhibit, which opened late last year, a collaboration with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, featuring the musical history makers owned, and sometimes created, by groundbreaking artists including Bruce Springsteen, Buddy Holly, Eric Clapton, Prince and many others.
I was never much of a Nirvana fan, but it was hard not to be intrigued by the Fender guitar Kurt Cobain famously destroyed during a 1993 performance to impress Eddie Van Halen (and the drill he used to destroy it). Or Prince’s “Love Symbol” guitar, created after his contract dispute with Warner Brothers caused the musician to change his name to a symbol.
I also checked out the new exhibit devoted to 2020 inductees (Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, Notorious B.I.G. among others, who were supposed to be inducted last spring in Cleveland, but will be inducted in November in a virtual ceremony). Also of interest: “It’s Been Said All Along: Voices of Rage, Hope, and Empowerment,” the newest special exhibit, which focuses on the ongoing intersection of social justice and rock music, featuring the works of James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and others.
As always, the entire experience is set to a terrific soundtrack that may have you dancing across the plaza as you depart.
My dancing feet were tired, however, so my husband and I decided to travel back to our hotel via the city’s newest mode of transportation, the electric scooter. You may recall: These scooters were first introduced to Cleveland in summer 2018, then pulled amid safety concerns, then returned in spring 2019. They were pulled again, this year, due to coronavirus transmission concerns, but are back on the streets – and in droves.
Riding these two-wheelers was surprisingly easy and fun – wrangling the technology was the hard part. After fighting with the phone app for 20 minutes, we hopped aboard our rides and zipped through Cleveland’s mostly empty streets – until my husband’s machine started smoking. Then my phone wouldn’t let me properly terminate my ride. And I still don’t know how much the joy ride cost me. Anyway, it was fun while it lasted.
Before heading home, we made one more run over to East Fourth Street to visit the alley’s newest tenant, Citizen Pie, serving up so-good slices of Roman-style pizza, with a crust that’s at once chewy and crispy. And for one final treat: an ice cream sandwich at Cathy’s Gourmet Ice Cream Sandwiches.
It was a sweet ending to my first-ever downtown Cleveland overnight. I’ll be back again soon, I promise.
Also open downtown:
Great Lakes Science Center
Greater Cleveland Aquarium
International Women’s Air & Space Museum
JACK Cleveland Casino
Children’s Museum of Cleveland
Western Reserve Fire Museum
Great Lakes Water Sports
The Downtown Cleveland Alliance maintains a list of restaurants that are open downtown: downtowncleveland.com/news/june-2020-1/downtown-businesses-confirmed-open
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