Culinary Journeys

Cleveland v. Philly: A convention city food smackdown

Katia Hetter, CNNPublished 15th July 2016
(CNN) — Everyone in Cleveland knows that politicians who eat Polish Boys and pierogi -- not necessarily at the same time -- increase their chances of winning their political races.
And their favorite candy? The buckeye, of course!
Head east to Philly and politicians better like cheesesteak if they don't want to be called carpetbaggers.
Never mind the bickering over vice presidential picks and party platforms at the political conventions this month.
It's Cleveland's bustling food culture that we'll celebrate during the Republican National Convention, July 18 to July 21, followed by Philadelphia's culinary scene during the Democratic National Convention, July 25 to July 28.
No, we're not going to decide between the two cities or their states, any more than we're going to choose the presidential candidates for you.
Each city has its special spots, and they'll still be happening long after the convention delegates go home.
Classic Cleveland sandwich: The Polish Boy
The Polish Boy is a kielbasa sandwich topped with French fries, coleslaw and hot sauce or barbeque sauce.
People swear by the Polish Boys at Seti's Polish Boys (Food Network "Iron Chef" Michael Symon's favorite spot) and Hot Sauce Williams, a barbeque joint where both the traditional Polish Boy and the Polish Girl (which adds barbecued pork) are available.
Classic Philadelphia sandwich: The Philly cheesesteak
There's always a debate about where to go.
Many traditionalists head to Pat's King of Steaks where the sandwich was born, and there's still competition with Geno's Steaks just across the street. It's fun to argue with the locals about which makes a better "cheesesteak whiz wit" (whiz=with Cheez Whiz and wit=with onions).
John's Roast Pork, which also has some variations on the traditional sandwich, has been topping foodie lists of best sandwiches around the country.
Cleveland celebrity chef spot: Lola Bistro
"Iron Chef" Michael Symon's contemporary American bistro has won numerous local "best restaurant" awards for his mastery of white and red meat and farm-to-table cuisine.
Philly celebrity chef spot: Laurel
"Top Chef" winner Nicholas Elmi's tiny, tasting-menu-only spot regularly tops Philadelphia's best restaurant lists.
Spots fill up at this BYOB months in advance, but critics say the French-infused American food is worth it. (Philly's notoriously strict alcohol laws have spawned a thriving BYOB culture.)
Best Cleveland vegan: TownHall Ohio City
Monday is vegan night at TownHall Ohio City, which prides itself on a non-GMO menu. There's a nice brew list, coffee program, Paleo menu on Wednesdays and even a family-friendly kids' menu.
Best Philly vegan: Vedge
Eater critic Bill Addison named Vedge the top vegan restaurant in the country, which is saying something these days.
Local meat lovers have not let the "vegan" cuisine dissuade them. Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby's vegan restaurant regularly makes the lists of top Philly restaurants, competing easily against meat-filled restaurants across the city.
Hipster Cleveland coffee: The Cleveland Hostel
The hostel just opened up the Passenger Cafe in its lobby, attempting to connect guests from around the world to locals stopping by for a cup of coffee and bagels and spreads.
For something a little fancier, the new downtown Heinen's Grocery Store features the Equal Exchange Espresso Bar.
Hipster Philly coffee: La Colombe
This is the spot for longtime Philadelphia residents who want an excellent cup of a coffee, but an exciting brewing scene is creating some competition.
Ultimo is Philadelphia Inquirer critic Craig LeBan's favorite spot for the moment. "No coffee shop in the city does more things right than Ultimo right now," LeBan writes.
Favorite Ohio breweries: With so many options in Ohio, who can pick just one brewery to visit? The Cleveland Plain Dealer picked 21 in a recent roundup.
Cleveland's Great Lakes Brewing Co. opened the first craft brewery in Ohio, and it's still going strong. Platform Beer Co. opened in 2014, and it's already won awards for its brew.
Favorite Pennsylvania breweries: Pennsylvanians also have a great range of brewery options.
While the Philadelphia Brewing Co. has only been around since 2008, it brews its beer in the old Weisbrod and Hess Oriental Brewing Co. facility, which dates back to 1885. It's popular with the locals, and tours are available on Saturdays.
Tröegs Independent Brewing has an expanded facility in Hershey, offering year-round, seasonal, once-a-year and other special brews. (The children can enjoy the rides and chocolate of nearby Hersheypark.)
Must-try Ohio candy: Buckeyes
The best candy in Ohio, hands down, is the buckeye, named for the state tree of Ohio. What's not to love about chocolate and peanut butter deliciousness?
Two of the best places to get them are Marsha's Homemade Buckeyes in Perrysburg and Winans Chocolates and Coffees in Piqua.
Must-try Pennsylvania candy: Shane Candies
Shane's is a local Philadelphia institution, established in 1911.
Despite the company's longevity, its famous butter creams and other treats were in danger of being lost forever until the Shane family found kindred spirits in Eric and Ryan Berley, owners of the Franklin Fountain, a nearby ice cream parlor and soda fountain.
The Berley brothers bought Shane and its recipes in 2010, and those legendary butter creams are still available today.
Best Ohio edible gift: Ice cream
When Jeni Britton Bauer opened her first artisanal scoop shop in Columbus in 2002, using seasonal whole ingredients and grass-pastured cow's milk was unusual. Now Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream is available in shops around the country.
Another state favorite, Cincinnati-based Graeter's, is operated by the fourth generation of the family. Both ship to U.S. addresses.
Best Pennsylvania edible gift: Cheese and more
While we appreciate the appeal of Pennsylvania's own Tastycakes, we prefer a visit to Di Bruno Bros., a Philadelphia specialty food store launched by brothers Danny and Joe Di Bruno in 1939.
It's now run by three of their grandsons, with five retail locations and online shopping.
The parm, the handmade mozzarella balls, the sopressata, the olive bar! And those are just the classics. There is so much more, including 11 different spreads, and of course, a cookbook.
Favorite Ohio cookbook: Michael Ruhlman's "How to" books
Cleveland native Michael Ruhlman's "Ruhlman's How to Sauté: Foolproof Techniques and Recipes for the Home Cook" is at the top of our list right now. (It's one of his trilogy of "How to" cookbooks, which include roasting and braising.)
Favorite Pennsylvania cookbook: "Zahav"
Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov's Israeli cookbook is gorgeous and packed with stories that will inspire you to make the best hummus ever. You can visit his restaurant, also named Zahav. It's often called one of Philly's best.
Can't choose just one edible experience? Reading Terminal Market in Philly and West Side Market in Cleveland offer the best of each city's food culture.