As the country gradually reopens and we take the first steps out of our homes to congregate in groups and socialize (following current distancing guidelines, of course), what’s the first thing you want to do?
First thing on my list is to go out to eat! Oh, how I miss enjoying the experience of dining out, and the food of talented cooks. What I crave more than anything is variety: the options, the wide selection of cuisines and flavors that are hard to recreate without years of practice, and a pantry stocked with something besides tuna and beans.
I’m drawn to those types of places that create “a-ha moments” when you realize that you actually do love vegetables — you’ve just never had them cooked like that before. Personally, I have most of those types of experiences at often under-the-radar restaurants that are immigrant-owned and operated.
For many reasons, Cleveland is incredibly lucky to have an immigrant population that has made this city their home, but I want to specifically talk about how that has expanded our palates. No one is itching for the hospitality industry to reopen chain restaurants or for the return of fast food drive-thru regret. Instead it’s the small, unique businesses that make memorable dining experiences.
I admit I get pure joy from telling my New York City-based colleagues that I, too, can get sushi, Thai, Greek, Somali, Korean, Lebanese, Colombian (the list could go on here for a while) food locally, but at about a third of the price they pay in the big city. The smugness of visiting people in Chicago and saying that the arepas back home in Cleveland are better never gets old.
To highlight our wonderfully diverse culinary scene, I created Culture.CLE in 2017. My goal was to bring people together to learn about culture, cuisines, and communities of different ethnic groups living in Cleveland. We featured a new culture and food business every month and created a unique dining experience to help small businesses boost their visibility and hopefully gain a new following. Creating these experiences, I met many great chefs and people who want to share their love of food and culture with others. These communal dining events celebrated Lebanese, Congolese, West African, and Brazilian food, among others, and left an indelible mark on us.
While none of that has changed, what has changed is how hard they must work to thrive in a post-COVID lockdown. Now more than ever, they need our support and patronage.
My advice? Dine differently tonight. Try something new, or revisit the tried-and-true favorites that maybe you haven’t had in a while. Create your own restaurant week and explore small businesses that can offer you a chance to metaphorically travel until you can experience the real thing. Reintroduce flavors of Asia, Latin America, Africa, or the Mediterranean.
Fellow Clevelanders, I’m pleading with you to support these small businesses as they start to reopen. I don’t know about you, but I sure don’t want to live in a city where the only place to get Mexican is Taco Bell. (Yes, I know it’s not real Mexican food.) Remember what life was like before you tried good sushi? Can you recall the aroma of the small, off-the-beaten-path Chinese restaurant that you love so much?
Don’t let COVID-19 cause you to relapse into eating boring food. Keep Cleveland cool, and the kind of place foodies from all over love to visit, and a city where immigrant small businesses thrive because we know they make our community whole.
— Samantha Peddicord
Culture.CLE will resume the monthly dining series and book club once it’s safe to do so. You can sign up for their newsletter to learn more about Cleveland’s international communities and restaurants.