I’ve lived in Cleveland for nearly 15 years now, & in all of that time, the city & its people have been, through existential trial & error, trying to taxonomize what it means to be Cleveland. All of them should have visited Steve’s Lunch before it burned.
There are a few who have me beat, but, for the most part, I’ve been to more places in more neighborhoods than people who’ve lived here their whole lives. The common denominator, when you wipe away all the branding & internet-era posturing to reveal the rusted heart at our core, is a moderately exasperated politesse. Clevelanders are busy, we’re in a hurry, we know what we’re doing, we don’t have time for your shit, but we aren’t gonna be jerks about it.
We’ll hold the door just long enough for it to not close in your face; we’ll throw up our hands at a senior citizen who probably shouldn’t be on the road, and impatiently give them the right of way. We’ll serve up a completely unpretentious hot dog, on a cheap plastic plate that’s been cursorily washed 10,000 times in 15 years, that changes your life when the stadium mustard smears across your tongue.
Steve’s Lunch is where I went when I had $20 to spend on a night out & could buy a hot dog with my last two dollars at 3AM. It burned before I could introduce my son to the place, but we’re regular enough at Steve’s Diner that the staff knows us on sight & the Pepsi is waiting for us when we sit down. We grouse with the staff about weather & homework & bills & split a plate of fries. Steve’s is where I go when I’m lonely or in need of comfort, & where I head when all I have time for is a hot dog.
That hot dog could be dim sum; or pierogi; or ribs barbecued in a converted 50-gallon drum & served up without a permit at an abandoned gas station. The core of Cleveland, that no amount of luxury condos or new coats of paint can obscure, is a lack of pretension. Dandelions like Steve’s are in every neighborhood; lifting their yellow heads & growling at whatever Cleveland supposedly is this week.
We’ve seen so many grand gestures & prophets of prosperity descend from the clouds to save Cleveland, using money & influence to change entire swathes of our neighborhoods. The loudest story is that we need to be saved. We do our best to obscure the fact that we serve up little bits of salvation every day.
You want another hot dog?