By Sharon Holbrook
When you’re thinking of all the things you love about Cleveland’s edgy-cool restaurant scene, I’m guessing that dining with children is not on your list. But it’s definitely on mine.
Yes, we just might be the people at the next table who brought the kids. And I’m going to venture that they belong there, and that maybe they’re even helping shape that hip local food scene we grown-ups love so much.
[blocktext align=”left”]Healthy neighborhoods have an organic mix of real people of all ages doing ordinary things throughout the day and week — that is, living.[/blocktext]Look, we go out regularly without the little ones, who are now 3, 6, and 8. And on our dates and concert nights and dinners with friends, we won’t impose them on you and yours. There are plenty of restaurants, and hours of the day, that just aren’t the best for little people or anyone who wants to eat peacefully in their vicinity. So, no, we’re not clueless or rude.
But, especially given Cleveland’s deliciously unpretentious food scene, there’s more than enough room for kids. Mighty as they are, twentysomething hipsters alone cannot make (or remake) a neighborhood. Certainly government-funded stadiums and oh-so-corporate Crocker Parks cannot. Healthy neighborhoods have an organic mix of real people of all ages doing ordinary things throughout the day and week—that is, living.
When, almost a decade ago, my family started its tradition of eating in Ohio City on Friday evenings, West 25th was notably sleepier. Just imagine—you could still easily park on the street in the evening without skirting the “no stopping before 6:30 pm” rules or, as I can’t believe I now need to add in boomtime 2014, using a valet.
There weren’t that many choices—Johnny Mango, The Old Angle, Phnom Penh and, a little later, Bar Cento. Our eldest was a baby and if the restaurant owned a high chair, we considered it fair game. (On one occasion, a very kind restaurant host even ran across the street to borrow a high chair from another restaurant. Now that is what you do if you want loyal customers.) We always went early in the evening, before the date crowds, brought finger food “appetizers” and small (quiet) toys, and hoped for the best.
[blocktext align=”left”]But there’s something about the presence of children that says, “This place is alive. This place is safe.” And I’m guessing every neighborhood on the edge could use a bit of that message.[/blocktext]Remarkably, we were warmly welcomed. The staff at our favorite restaurants began to remember us—we were a novelty at the time, of course, and so that made our little family a bit more memorable. We began to be spontaneously offered crayons and kid selections, even off-menu, and no one once gave us any issues when a hungry baby had to be nursed or food crumbs landed everywhere.
The welcome extended, as it does to this day, to the street too. Young couples and weary-looking bus stop folk alike still always give a smile to our kids running and skipping happily down the sidewalks of Ohio City before or after dinner. When we started coming to the neighborhood, enormous potential and considerable charm aside, it was a pretty darn hard-luck stretch. But there’s something about the presence of children that says, “This place is alive. This place is safe.” And I’m guessing every neighborhood on the edge could use a bit of that message.
Ohio City is, of course, different now. We can hardly keep up with all the shiny new restaurants and storefronts. We see more and more families, and more and more people of every description, filling our favorite haunts and every new addition. Staffs have turned over, and there aren’t as many people who remember us as regulars from the time when our babies were small, and who would notice when a new one was born, and who even (amazingly) remembered our elder daughter’s food allergies.
We can let ourselves imagine that, for a time, we had a special kinship with the neighborhood. But even if that was so, maybe it’s outgrown us a bit. Our loyalty and our children’s bubbling spirits aren’t as noteworthy on West 25th anymore. But we are more than happy to let our little bit of family energy yield to the neighborhood’s own kinesthetic vibe.
Collinwood, we’re coming for you.
Sharon Holbrook writes and lives with her family in Shaker Heights. She can be found on Twitter @216Sharon.