For Michael Symon, Cleveland Heights is again home
Nationally renowned chef Michael Symon—the owner of such popular Cleveland restaurants as Lola and Lolita, as well as the B Spots—has returned home to Cleveland Heights, and he couldn’t be happier. Symon, who spent his first five years as a child in Cleveland Heights, bought a house on Kent Road about five months ago.
“I love the East Side,” he said. “The arts are close to you. You are surrounded by them. You’re still within the inner circle of downtown, so the convenience of downtown is right there. And the people—it’s a great mix of people.”
Among the people that Symon, who is 44, calls friends in Cleveland Heights are Doug Katz, the owner of fire food & drink and the Katz Club Diner; Jonathan Sawyer, the owner of the Greenhouse Tavern; and Michael Ruhlman, the author of numerous books about cooking. “We all live within a quarter-mile of each other,” Symon said. “And we all live here because Cleveland Heights is probably the most artistic community in the Cleveland area.”
Symon’s father and grandfather both lived in the Heights, but when his father got a job at Ford Motor Company, the family moved west to North Olmsted. “There was just no easy way for him to get to work from the Heights,” Symon explained. He went to high school at St. Edward’s in Lakewood, where he was on the wrestling team. Then he broke his arm while wrestling, and he wound up taking a part-time job as a cook at Gepetto’s restaurant in Lakewood. “My mother is Greek and Sicilian,” he said, “so food was always a big part of the way I grew up.”
After graduating from high school in 1987, Symon attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. He returned to Cleveland in the early 1990s and worked as a chef at a few local restaurants before opening the restaurant that was originally called Lola in Tremont. The restaurant, named after his aunt, put Cleveland on the map for the national food scene, and Food & Wine magazine named Symon its Best New Chef in 1998. “That was great,” he said. “It was the first time a chef from Ohio had ever been awarded that honor, and it was the first time a chef from the Midwest, other than Chicago, had ever won the award. It was a game-changing award for me.”
In 2005, Symon turned Lola into Lolita and opened a new Lola on East Fourth Street in downtown Cleveland. Since then, he has also opened B Spot restaurants in Woodmere, Westlake and Strongsville, and in 2008, he opened a restaurant in Detroit, Michael Symon’s Roast. He said he is planning to open more restaurants in the Detroit area. In addition to all of his restaurants, Symon also appears on two syndicated television shows, "The Chew," which is broadcast locally on ABC-TV Monday through Friday at 1 p.m., and "Iron Chef," which is on the Food Network.
With all of his restaurants and TV shows, Symon leads a pretty hectic life. He is in New York, filming his shows, every Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Then he heads home and spends as much time as he can at his Cleveland-area restaurants. In addition, he makes numerous trips to Detroit. When he is home, he said he does “tons of cooking.” In addition to his wife, Liz, Symon also lives with two dogs, Ruby and Ozzy. And he has two motorcycles, both Harleys. “I have to have some hobbies,” he said. Symon and his wife have a 26-year-old son, a musician who lives in Lakewood.
Asked if he has any plans to open a restaurant in Cleveland Heights, Symon said, “We never really say, ‘Oh, we’re going to open in this area.’ Opportunities come, and we look at them and say, ‘Is this something that will work for us?’ We opened in Tremont 17 years ago, and there was nothing there. But my wife and I knew the people who owned the bar that was there before we took over the space. It was really the only place we could afford to open a restaurant. And downtown was really the same way. There was nothing happening on East Fourth when we moved there. House of Blues was just getting ready to open, and when we opened, there was still construction on the street. But I never say ‘never,’ and I never say ‘for certain.’”
James Henke, a Cleveland Heights resident, was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone magazine for 15 years. He is also the author of several books, including biographies of Jim Morrison, John Lennon and Bob Marley.