Adnan Zai, Advisor to Berkeley Capital located in Beachwood, grew up on three continents, and has a lot of experience eating a wide variety of foods around the world. We caught up with him recently to discuss the burgeoning restaurant industry in Cleveland, and the importance that quality restaurants and chefs can have to the economics of the area.
Mary Kraven: For a town that used to be dubbed the “Mistake on the Lake,” the city of Cleveland has really come a long way, not the least of which is in relation to its restaurant scene. Recently, Travel and Leisure Magazine ranked the city seventh in the nation when it comes to excellence in food. “This Midwestern city has a severely underrated albeit eclectic food scene fueled by nearby farms, local producers, and trailblazing chefs. Moreover, it’s safe to say Cleveland’s culinary scene pays homage to the 100-plus diverse ethnicities that make up the city.” Does this surprise you?
Adnan Zai: I am not surprised that Cleveland is so highly ranked for its restaurant scene. The Midwest spirit is certainly alive in the chefs that innovate in this town. And with so many local farms, the farm to table movement can put down deep roots in the area. The customer will be the winner every time. And the great part about it is that there is something for everyone, and a way to please every palate.
Mary Kraven: Having lived around the globe, what truly unique elements have you noticed when it comes to food in Cleveland?
Adnan Zai: Cleveland is filled with such diversity, and the little pockets and neighborhoods reflect that diversity and the palates of differing nationalities and cultures. From Asia Town to Little Italy to Slavic Village, food truly reflects the history and culture of the people. I have lived on three different continents, and I can see the diversity reflected so clearly in Cleveland.
And there is something to be said for the West Side Market. Very few cities in America have achieved something so unique as this indoor/outdoor market that has been around for over one hundred years and is such a pillar of the community.
Mary Kraven: As a businessman, you know the importance of local businesses to help the economy grow. Why do you think having quality restaurants in the Cleveland area is so important to our community?
Adnan Zai: Local restaurants push a lot of cash into the economy. With rent, utilities, and taxes alone, restaurants bolster the economy in which they reside. They also use local suppliers and farmers, which bolsters the economy even further. It probably goes without saying, but restaurants also foster job growth in the area. From bartenders to busboys, restaurants require a lot of manpower to get delicious food on the table in front of hungry customers. The more successful restaurants, the more gainfully employed people.=
Restaurants also go hand in hand with our sports teams and our downtown life. If people know they can go see the Browns or Cavs and have an amazing restaurant experience before or after the game, that pumps even more money into the Cleveland economy.
Mary Kraven: This makes total sense. If people are out and about anyway, stopping for a bite to eat is a win-win. The Picky Eater Blog recently set out to find the most popular type of food in Cleveland, and found that American cuisine came in first, followed by Italian, Chinese, and Mexican respectively.
According to blogger Anjali Shah, “The prevalence of American cuisine could be attributed to its status as a melting pot of different cultures, resulting in a unique culinary style that incorporates influences from around the world. Overall, this data reflects the city’s diverse population and its impact on the local culinary landscape.” Do you see the Cleveland area as a melting pot?
Adnan Zai: It absolutely is. And that is one of the reasons why I feel so at home here. Having grown up around the world, I can find a wide variety of comfort food in every part of the city.
Mary Kraven: Now that we have touched on the economic ramifications of restaurants, and the way they meld together in Cleveland, let’s get more personal. What are some of your favorite restaurants in Cleveland and the surrounding areas?
Adnan Zai: That is a great question because no doubt there are many great restaurants from which to choose. One of my favorites for sure is Batuqui, a Brazilian restaurant. Chefs Carla and Gustavo opened their first restaurant near Shaker Square in 2015, and expanded in 2021 to Chagrin Falls. They pride themselves on fresh and authentic food from Puerto Rico, Latin America, and the Caribbean. They even won the Cleveland Magazine Silver Spoon Award in 2020.
Mary Kraven: Sounds delicious. What are some of your other favorites?
Adnan Zai: One of my other favorite restaurants is located in Pepper Pike, called Peppermint Thai Cuisine. From Pad Thai to Basil Fried Rice, Garlic Salmon to LemonGrass Chicken, they have a wide variety of dishes that meet every palate’s needs. Opened in 2007 by Sunny and Matt Kanegkasikorn, the restaurant loves to cater to the taste of its guests with its fresh ingredients.
Mary Kraven: There are a lot of Thai Restaurants in Cleveland, and this one sounds excellent. Any other favorites?
Adnan Zai: The Capital Grille is another favorite, and it is in Lyndhurst. Although it is not strictly a local Cleveland restaurant, it is one of the best steakhouses around. It is owned by Darden and there are more than 25 throughout the country. Even though it is technically a chain, it always feels like family.
Mary Kraven: Another one that sounds delicious! Thank you, Adnan Zai, for dishing with us today and giving us your take on the Cleveland restaurant scene. It was a pleasure to see the culinary world through your eyes.