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 The Brancatelli File

joe CLEVELAND'S DOUBLE LIFE

BY JOE BRANCATELLI

May 27, 1999 -- Cleveland has a new airport concourse, the hottest team in baseball, a new football stadium and a new/old football team, the I.M. Pei-designed Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the endorsement of Drew Carey, the fireplug-shaped comedian who set his edgy sitcom in his old hometown.

In other words, it's a long, long way from when Cleveland was a global joke, the Mistake By the Lake, the place where things were so bad that the Cuyahoga River once caught fire as it meandered its way through town.

Still…

"I can't figure this place out," says Stephen Thomas, a frequent flyer who travels to and through Cleveland twice a month. "Every other building downtown is empty, everyone lives in the suburbs, but there are all sorts of massive urban revival projects that knock your eyes out. I never know whether this is a textbook example of urban decay or a textbook example of urban renewal. Both seem to go on at once."

And so it does. You can't help but marvel at the spic-and-span Gateway sports complex, which encompasses Jacobs Field, home of the Cleveland Indians; the Gund Arena, home of basketball's Cleveland Cavaliers; and the new football stadium to house the revived Cleveland Browns, who begin play in September. You have to love the music hall; The Flats, a renovated waterfront district; and the street action in the Warehouse District.

But you also can't ignore the downtown, where street traffic disappears after 6 p.m. because there is no nightlife and no residential community. You can't ignore the empty hulls of once-famous department stores. And you certainly can't ignore the attitude of locals, who won't stop raving about Cleveland's revival, then skitter off to the security of gated communities in the suburbs because they wouldn't be caught dead in town after hours.

"Cleveland works, but only to a point," admits one oft-quoted civic booster who demands anonymity when speaking candidly. "People here love the big project and the grand gesture. But the day-to-day amenities are lacking."

AT THE AIRPORT
Continental maintains an efficient hub at Cleveland Hopkins Airport and operates 268 daily jet and commuter flights. Nonstop service to London's Gatwick Airport begins June 30. … To accommodate its growth, Continental dumped $92 million into a new facility, Concourse D, which opened on May 16. The new concourse is currently used primarily for Continental Express commuter flights. It connects to Concourse C, Continental's primary Cleveland base, via two very long escalators and an 800-foot walkway under the runway. Unfortunately, Concourse D is a long, long walk from the ticket counters in Concourse C, so leave at least 15 additional minutes from check-in. … American Eagle, the commuter affiliate of American Airlines, begins New York/LaGuardia-Cleveland service on July 29. There will be six daily flights using 50-seat regional jets.

THE HOTEL SCENE
Cleveland is not a great hotel city and all the hotels in the business district have serious flaws. … The Ritz-Carlton has lovely guest rooms and excellent public space, but service is erratic and sloppy. … The Renaissance is the former Stouffer and once the city's best. Yet every renovation somehow makes it more obvious that this is one tired, old dowager. … The Sheraton City Centre is adjacent to the convention center. It desperately needs the renovation the company says is imminent. … The Marriott and the Wyndham are serviceable, but nothing special. … Hotels here are often more crowded on weekends than weeknights. That's because Cleveland is a regional magnet for leisure travelers from all over Ohio, western Pennsylvania and western New York.

DINING DIARY
Clevelanders demand huge portions and low prices--and restaurateurs who survive here deliver on both counts. … The city's best dining rooms are concentrated in the Warehouse District, just a few blocks from the downtown business core, and The Flats. There are also some wonderful ethnic restaurants--Ethiopian, Mongolian, Slovenian and others--scattered throughout town and the nearby suburbs. … Everyone raves about the Blue Point Grill, a stylish seafood house. Across the street is Greek Isles. Skip the concessions to local tastes and concentrate on the truly Greek dishes and the fresh fish. … Piccolo Mondo is sleek and offers an interesting fusion of Italian and South American cuisines. Mallorca is a throwback to old-style Spanish restaurants: big room, solicitous service and big platters of good food. Even though it's located in a shopping mall, Cafe Sausalito is a great choice for a casual, comfortable business lunch. There's a big, cheery bar area for solo dining. Johnny's Bar offers Italian and continental fare and a great wine list in a converted tavern.

LOCAL COLOR
The Cleveland Indians have sold out more than 300 consecutive home games at 43,000-seat Jacobs Field. The rest of the season is also sold out--and was sold out long before the Indians emerged as the team with the best record in baseball. That makes tickets to see the "Tribe" a sort of alternate local currency. Hotel concierges make an active secondary market in seats. Expect to pay two or three times the face price. … If it sometimes seems that all of Cleveland life revolves around the Indians, you're not too far off base. The owner of the team, Dick Jacobs, announced earlier this month that he's looking for buyers. That immediately fueled speculation that Jacobs, one of the city's leading developers, may be pulling out of town.

WEB WATCH
Find what you need at ClevelandLive.com, the Web site of the daily Cleveland Plain-Dealer. FreeTimes.com and ClevelandScene.com, sites maintained by local weekly papers, are loaded with arts and culture news, dining data and entertainment reviews.

This column originally appeared at biztravel.com.

Copyright © 1993-2004 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.