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Break The Chains of Love: A Look At "Best Of" Lists (Part 2: Ohio in the House)

The Art-Deco style "Guardians of Traffic" totems provide an
eye-catching sight for those on Cleveland's Hope Memorial Bridge.
As noted in my previous post, a news story on Taco Bell being named this country's "Best Mexican Restaurant" gave me a story idea about "Best Of" lists and how often outside-the-area chains appear on these lists.  Part 1 of my series  focused on three local Columbus-based reader polls from some of the major media sources here, where I found a decent amount of chain love, including a couple of head-scratchers that named P.F. Chang's as "Best Asian" and Chipotle as "Best Burrito."

It only seemed natural that Part 2 of the series would stay within the Buckeye State and focus in on Columbus's largest state neighbors. Would we find similar results in cities of similar stature (namely, Cleveland and Cincinnati) or cities of more modest size (Dayton and Toledo)?  As you might have judged from the picture above, we're going to start with a city that has gained quite a bit of prominence in the national scene in Cleveland and work counterclockwise from there.


The interior of the 4th Street location of Barrio, which earned Clevescene's
"Best Mexican Restaurant" and "Best Late Night Eats" for 2018
Cleveland, Ohio (2015 Population: 387,812)
Clevescene Best of 2018 (Link to Poll)
Most Unique Categories: See summary below

Total Categories: 60
Total Chain Quotient: 15%
Outsider Chains: 0
State-Based Chains: 1
Homegrown Chains: 5
Regional Mini-Chains: 3

Summary: For what it's worth, I did try to compile results from two other sources. However, the Cleveland HotList not only is still processing their best of 2018, but also their website design is geared to the most clicks possible, an admittedly frustrating experience.  Similarly, Cleveland Magazine has a 2018 "Best of the East" and "Best of the West", but seemingly no plain "Best of" for the year that I could find (yet).

Thus, Clevescene's "Best of Cleveland" works for our purposes, and it also relates something unique to the food lists I looked at: instead of neighborhood favorites, there is a strong "East vs. West" component in this Rust Belt city. In fact, what I enjoyed about Clevescene's poll is that in lieu of a clear winner, they had their directional best-of winners go toe-to-toe for the top spot.

In general, this poll speaks well of Cleveland. A low Total Chain Quotient, no outsider chains, plus a general lack of chains in general earns a thumbs-up in my book. Lakewood's Aladdin's Eatery and Barrio (the spiritual grandfather of Columbus's Condado) are the most prominent Homegrown Chains, but the Regional Mini-Chains have a strong anchor in Mitchell's Ice Cream, one of the best I've had to sample.

The one lone State-Based Chain that eked onto the poll?  That would the Columbus import 16-Bit Bar Arcade in the "Best Games" in the Bars & Clubs section.  Also, Clevescene's poll had a category that simultaneously cracked me up and made me realize that I'm getting old with the "Best Bar for a Tinder Date" (FWIW, that would be Ohio City's TownHall, which earned several other nods on the poll, including "Best Restaurant".)

The Shish Kebab platter from Toledo's The Beirut, which earned Toledo
City Paper's nod from readers as "Best Mediterranean"
Toledo, OH (2015 Population: 279,676)
Toledo City Paper Best of Toledo 2017 (Link to Poll)
Most Unique Categories: Best Meat/Butcher Shop

Neighborhood Oriented Categories? No
Total Categories: 34
Total Chain Quotient: 29.4%
Outsider Chains: 2
State-Based Chains: 2
Homegrown Chains: 0
Regional Mini-Chains: 7

I heard some people joke Ohio lost the bloodless "Toledo War" because they ended up with the city of Toledo in the process. As it stands, I've always enjoyed my few visits up to Glass City, and I wouldn't mind visiting that part of Ohio more in the future.

As far as the poll results, it aligns more or less with the Columbus Alive reader poll in terms of numbers of chains. The two outsider chains aren't really head-shakers in the realm of a P.F. Chang (Biggby Coffee, which is pretty decent as coffee chains go, and the Epic Buffet at the Hollywood Casino), and Dayton-based Fricker's accounts for both spots in State-Based for "Best Wings" and "Best Sports Bar."

The seven Regional Mini-Chains range from a place that even those outside of Ohio know (Tony Packo's, a favorite of Corporal Maxwell Klinger on the popular TV show M*A*S*H) to restaurants owned by the Mancy Family (a family with long roots in the area) to a place that Columbus natives had dealings with when The Andersons General Stores were still open in The House of Meats.

In conclusion, the be all and end all of interesting (non-Food and Drink) categories resided on this poll in the form of  "Best Psychic/Astrologer."

Warped Wing Brewing topped Dayton.com's poll as "Best Brewery"
Dayton, OH (2015 Population: 140,575)
Dayton.com Best of 2017 (Link to Poll)

Most Unique Categories: Best Place for a Business Lunch
Neighborhood Oriented Categories? No
Total Categories: 51
Total Chain Quotient: 11.8%
Outsider Chains: 1
State-Based Chains: 1
Homegrown Chains: 0
Regional Mini-Chains: 4

Perhaps population played a little part here, and perhaps it's partly from a food and drink scene that is starting to bubble up with activity.  Whatever the reasons, the Dayton.com "Best of" poll for 2017 for the Dayton area is really (and nicely) chain-light.  The only outside interloper here is (again) Five Guys for "Best Fries" (for what it's worth, at least Cleveland has an eatery that can make better fries than that quintet, at least according to voters, in the form of Bar Cento), and Cincinnati's Graeter's rules the roost in terms of "Best Ice Cream" in the area.

The Regional Mini-Chains are pretty local knowledge stuff - you probably wouldn't suspect these restaurants were mini-chains unless you lived in the area.  With that said, these "Best Of" nominations cover a nice gamut from Indian (Amar India) to Margarita (Elsa's) to Specialty Food (Dorothy Lane Market) to what might be the natural antagonist (symbolically) to Columbus's El Vaquero in El Toro Mexican Bar & Grill, voted "Best Mexican".

The Blue Ash location of The Sleepy Bee, nominated for "Best
Gluten-Free Restaurant" by the voters of CityBeat Cincinnati
Cincinnati, OH (2015 Population: 298,654)
CityBeat Cincinnati Best of 2018 (Link to Poll)
Neighborhood-Based Voting? Yes
Most Unique Categories: See summary below
Total Categories: 121
Total Chain Quotient: 34.7%
Outsider Chains: 18
State-Based Chains: 3
Homegrown Chains: 18
Regional Mini-Chains: 3

And then, we have the big grand catch-all that is CityBeat's Best of Cincinnati poll. In many ways, the "Most Unique Categories" to an outsider of this metro that also covers parts of Northern Kentucky is simply the norm for the populace, including things like "Best Goetta" (Glier's Goetta), "Best Chili" (more on that below), and the several Bourbon-related categories. Maybe the most truly unique of the categories, or one that I would not suspect is a thing in Cincy, is "Best Korean Spam Stew" (Riverside Korean Restaurant, which took the overall Korean category too.)

The sheer number of categories dilutes the Total Chain Quotient quite a bit. On the other hand, the poll specifically asks for Best Chain versions of various food items,which cancels that effect out to a certain extent.  Thus, you have "Chain" and "Non-Chain" winners in the categories of Coffee (Starbucks (duh!) and Coffee Emporium), Pizza (Dewey's and A Tavola), Burgers (Five Guys and Zip's Cafe) and Chili (Skyline and Blue Ash, though by our definition, the latter qualifies as a Regional Mini-Chain.)

So, chain presence is definitely here in plentiful supply. Similar to Columbus, First Watch takes both Breakfast and Brunch (I'd happily take Sleepy Bee in this case); Chipotle, Cooper's Hawk, and Five Guys (again for fries) make repeat appearances. Unlike Columbus, The Cheesecake Factory takes the "Best Desserts" category (perhaps my biggest head-shaker in the group), while HofbrÀuhaus (with locations in Cleveland and Columbus) takes "Best German". Orlando-based Buca di Beppo thankfully gets a nod for its sheer space (”Best Restaurant for Large Parties“) versus its food, while Chick Fil-A earns honors as "Best Restaurant To Take The Kids."

Thankfully, this list has the gems of the area in plentiful supply, from Jungle Jim's International Market ("Best Cheese" and "Best Cooking Classes") to Graeter's (both "Retail Desserts" and, what else, "Best Ice Cream"), a couple of Jeff Ruby restaurants, the lovely donuts of Holtman's, the regionally strong Eli's BBQ.  Couple that with Best Overall Restaurants (Sotto for Cincy/Pompilios in Northern Kentucky) and Best New Restaurant (Taft's Brewporium), and all the singleton winners, the CityBeat "Best of Cincinnati 2018" list gives the visitor a lot to ponder on their next visit.

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