How Michael Symon Helped Revive The Cleveland Food Scene

Celebrity chef Michael Symon has left his stamp on the culinary world. The author of six cookbooks began appearing regularly on the Food Network following his triumph at "The Next Iron Chef" in 2008, according to his website, which also highlights that the chef is known for incorporating flavors and themes from his hometown of Cleveland into his cooking. In fact, before he achieved celeb status, Symon cultivated a reputation as a restaurateur in downtown Cleveland while the city was in the throes of economic decline. 

Downtown Cleveland suffered financial casualties leading up to the economic recession of 1980. By that time, the population in Tremont — a neighborhood just south of downtown Cleveland — had shrunk by almost 26,500 residents, largely because of vanishing manufacturing jobs, according to Case Western Reserve University. Before that, Belt Magazine reports, construction of Interstates 71 and 490 uprooted more than 19,000 residents, which cut off the area and stunted economic growth.

Symon's eats and image helped bring Cleveland from rock bottom to revival

Symon, a Cleveland native, saw opportunity in a city at rock bottom. He opened his first restaurant, Lola, in Tremont in 1997, and it became a fixture of the community. In 2006, Symon moved his flagship restaurant downtown to East 4th St. and became a driving force in the revitalization of that area as well, according to Cleveland Scene.

Symon's career flourished simultaneously with the burgeoning food scene in Cleveland. He became known as "Cleveland's celebrity chef," and Cleveland became known as the city with Symon's secret sauce. Symon, who began his career at 13 years old smoking ribs at a local restaurant, went on to open more culinary hubs in the area and across the United States. As a testament to his hometown pride, Symon popularized the phrase "This is Cleveland" (via, which went on to operate as a slogan for the 21st-century revival of downtown. But opening restaurants and putting words to the mission wasn't all Symon did to help the campaign: He also appeared in numerous ads highlighting the city's renaissance.

Sadly, the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and Symon's desire to spend more time with family led to the shuttering of several establishments credited with Cleveland's revitalization and associated with Symon's reputation. But the city will always have Symon to thank for breathing new life into its culinary scene.