The Best Places to Eat and Drink during this Summer's Republican and Democratic National Conventions | Food Newsfeed
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The Republican and Democratic National Conventions will bring excitement, attention, and yes, a little chaos, to the cities of Cleveland and Philadelphia this summer.

Defying Convention

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As Republicans and Democrats converge on Cleveland and Philadelphia for their national conventions, the cities’ restaurants will have a chance to impress national audiences on all fronts. From pubs built in the 1800s to James Beard–winning venues, FSR compiled an eclectic list of restaurants with notable food and beverage programs.

By Danny Klein May 2016 Bar Management

How long has it really been since the madness began?

Speaking in late February, Jude Feyedelem thought it might be 18 months, although that felt like a distant and understated calculation. “It’s been insane. I can’t even believe it’s almost coming,” says Feyedelem, the director of fine dining at Michael Symon Restaurants. “I feel like I’ve been working on it my whole life.”

Even before the Republican National Committee officially announced it was bringing its party to the Quicken Loans Arena from July 18 to 21, the collective culinary heartbeat of Cleveland began to plan. Over the past few years, Feyedelem says there’s been a taste-driven rebirth of sorts in the Sixth City. Consider that, in 1997, a decade before Symon would win his first “Iron Chef” competition, the megawatt luminary was simply a popular cook scouting for a location in the trendy Tremont neighborhood. Lola Bistro, named after Chef Symon’s aunt, placed one of the first Cleveland pins in food maps across the nation. And as the chef-driven culture has blossomed, things haven’t slowed down.

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“I really do think [the Republican National Convention] is going to be a time to showcase the whole city,” Feyedelem says. “You hear people when they come to visit now say things like, ‘We didn’t know there was this much to do here. We’re going to come back. Look at all these great restaurants right in one area.’ The global spotlight is going to be on us, and many people are going to have that same lightbulb go off.”

Symon relocated Lola to the East Fourth Street area in 2005, which signaled the beginning of his Greek and Mediterranean concept, Lolita, in the former space. Manning the kitchen was Jonathon Sawyer, who just last year joined Symon as the only chefs from Cleveland to win the James Beard Best Chef: Great Lakes Award. By this point, Sawyer was the owner and visionary behind The Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat, Trentina, and two stadium venues. The victory came in a Great Lakes category that—outside of Sawyer—was exclusively composed of chefs with Chicago ties.

Like Feyedelem, Chef Sawyer sees his city’s spot at the table rapidly growing. “I think when we opened The Greenhouse Tavern [in 2009], it was at the height of the most recent economic recession here in America,” Sawyer says. “I think, over time, and with a great national speaker for our city like Michael Symon, it was inevitable that the scene caught up with the rest of the country. I think it’s been pretty cool to see where it’s gone over the past 10 years.” The community has also developed a tightknit personality, he adds. “When you’re talking about who Cleveland is going to root for, it’s going to be guys that they know from Cleveland, or guys and girls they know from the Rust Belt,” Sawyer explains. “There’s commonality in all these old industrial cities where we all share this brothers-in-arms attitude.”

The Greenhouse Tavern has been booked for the convention by social media mogul Twitter for “a long time,” Sawyer reports. Feyedelem says Lola is reserved solid for a week—a process that began nearly two years ago—and he expects the momentum to remain constant from anticipation to afterglow. “As the convention ends, we’re hoping we don’t see a mass exodus to the airport,” he says. “We hope some people stick around. I have to believe this will lead to, more than likely, one of the busiest summers that the city of Cleveland has seen in some time.”

Liberty And Restaurants For All

More than 400 miles to the east, the city of Philadelphia will welcome the Democratic National Convention to the Wells Fargo Center from July 25 to 28. For those visiting, trying to settle on a restaurant will feel like throwing a dart at a bull’s-eye the size of Independence Hall. A small example: Eight chefs from the Philly area were named 2016 James Beard semifinalists.

Navigating a city with mammoth culinary shadows the likes of Stephen Starr, Marc Vetri, Jose Garces, Eli Kulp, and Michael Solomonov, can be a thrilling experience for a relative newcomer. Even when a restaurant is part of the well-established CookNSolo group, as is Abe Fisher, which opened in August 2014, rising above the competition is never easy. “The stakes are high in the city,” says general manager Brian Kane, who also runs the beverage program. “It’s a fun town to be a part of. There’s always a competitive spirit involved. However, there’s also a camaraderie in the city that I feel makes it very distinctive. … It’s crazy, it’s a great town to be hungry and thirsty in if you’re into that.”

The restaurant, which serves up contemporary Jewish cuisine (imagine Montreal-spiced, smoked short rib with house-made rye and mustards, and Manischewitz Glazed Beef Cheeks) is one of five concepts created by chef/partners Solomonov and Steve Cook. Federal Donuts, Dizengoff, Percy Street Barbecue, and the famed Zahav are the others. The latter restaurant, from Solomonov, the 2011 winner of the James Beard Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic, is where Chef Yehuda Sichel honed his skills as sous chef. Sichel says the pace and pressure of working for a globally recognized brand prepared him for anything. Having Solomonov as a mentor didn’t hurt, either. Solomonov, who hails from Savyon, Israel, was named one of only five finalists for the 2016 James Beard: Outstanding Chef award. Even the restaurant’s cookbook, titled Zahav: A World of Israeli Cooking, is up for a James Beard award. For more on the restaurant’s unique and celebrated wine program, check out the story, Focal Point, on page 31.

At Abe Fisher, Sichel is serving around 150 covers on the weekend in the 50-seat space with no problem. “It’s definitely beneficial to be among great chefs, in terms of the expectations,” Chef Sichel says. “The standard is higher here in Philadelphia than it would be if there weren’t all these great chefs. That’s sort of a driving force behind everything we do.”

From the Liberty Bell to Rocky’s famed climb at the Museum of Art, the past remains a vital fixture in Philadelphia’s integrity. Come July, when the political air is buzzed, Chris Mullins, the owner of McGillin’s Olde Ale House, will scatter donkey memorabilia (a nod to the Democratic symbol) throughout his restaurant, and unveil the Dublin Donkey, an Irish take on the Moscow Mule made with 2 Gingers Irish Whiskey (instead of vodka) and ginger beer.

There are few, if any, American traditions as patriotic as the political process. And given that the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were signed in this city, Mullins believes the history of his Drury Street venue, which opened the year Abraham Lincoln was elected president and is one of the country’s oldest continuously operating taverns, will draw people in.

“People love the history. Absolutely,” he says. “We have a feeling, just based on the initial calls we’ve been getting, that we’ll probably do better with the Democrats than we did with the Republicans [in 2000]. I think the Republicans tend to have a more elaborate party scene. The Democrats have to take care of themselves, and those are the kinds of people we have to take care of here at McGillin’s.”

Harris, who owns the restaurant with his wife, Mary Ellen, and his son, Chris Mullins Jr., bought the restaurant in 1993 and cradled the craft-beer scene before it was commonplace. “We were the first bar in Philadelphia to embrace craft brews and especially as a central motif of what we do,” Mullins explains. Currently, they have 30 draft beers, including three house selections made by Stoudt’s Brewing, such as the McGillin’s 1860 IPA, released in 2010 for the venue’s 150th anniversary.

“It’s an honor,” Mullins says of being only the second family in 156 years to run McGillin’s. “I feel that I’m a trustee rather than an owner. We’re excited for the convention. I think everybody in the city is.”

Team Sawyer Restaurants

Cleveland

Team Sawyer Restaurants

The Greenhouse Tavern Long Island Iced Tea. The Greenhouse Tavern

Chef/Owner: Jonathon Sawyer

Restaurants: The Greenhouse Tavern, Noodlecat, Trentina, Seesaw Pretzels, Sawyer’s Street Frites

Beverage: Sawyer’s flagship restaurant, The Greenhouse Tavern, pre-sents classic cocktails, Old World wines, and sherry by the glass—one is even on tap. Sawyer says the program changes with the seasons and with the trends.

Trentina serves food and beverage options inspired by Northern Italy, distinctly the Tyrolean region, which is influenced from Italy’s neighboring territories, such as Germany and France.

CookNSolo Restaurants

Philadelphia

CookNSolo Restaurants

The Abe Fisher Cocktail. Michael Persico

Chef/Owners: Michael Solomonov and Steve Cook

Restaurants: Abe Fisher, Zahav, Percy Street Barbecue, Dizengoff, Federal Donuts

Beverage: Abe Fisher’s pressurized wine program enables general manager Brian Kane to offer 16 bottles by the glass. Cocktails and wines are all the same fixed price ($12), and there’s also a standout amaro program with upward of 20 selections of the Italian herbal liqueur. Zahav features a global wine list with a section dedicated to offerings from Israel and Palestine, as well as Lebanon and Turkey.

Michael Symon Restaurants

Cleveland

Michael Symon Restaurants

Classic Champagne Cocktail. Michael Symon Restaurants

Chef/Owner: Michael Symon

Restaurants: Lola Bistro, Lolita, B Spot Burgers, Roast, Bar Symon, Mabel’s BBQ

Beverage: Lola Bistro earned a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence in 2015 for its selection of around 350 offerings. California is a strength, although the list spans 17 pages complete with handfuls of global labels. Lolita, which is still recovering from a fire, takes a more casual approach, featuring an extensive tequila list and house-made sangria. There are also seven kinds of Margaritas and inventive cocktails, as well as craft beer and select wines.

McGillin’s Olde Ale House

Philadelphia

McGillin's Olde Ale House

McGillin’s popular Beer sampler features six drafts for $9.50. Thomas Robert Clarke Photography

Owners: Mary Ellen and Chris Mullins Sr., Chris Mullins Jr.

Beverage: Opened in 1860, McGillin’s is one of the nation’s oldest continuously operating taverns. Thirty beers pour on draft with a focus on regional microbrews plus three signature house beers made by Stoudt’s Brewing—McGillin’s Lager, McGillin’s Real Ale, and McGillin’s 1860 IPA. The beverage menu also touts classic cocktails with themed drinks.

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Cleveland welcomes the Republican National Convention.

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Philadelphia welcomes the Democratic National Convention.