Cleveland’s West Side Market – A Diamond in the Rough

One only needs to step foot into the bustling, historic West Side Market to understand that Cleveland has a distinct food culture, and a marketplace unlike any other in the country.
By Marissa Sertich

From rivers catching on fire to losing basketball superstar Lebron James, Cleveland often gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop. I get a lot of grief coming from Cleveland, but in truth, Cleveland rocks. I realize that the rest of the world sings The Drew Carey Show theme song ironically, but Clevelanders belt it out with earnest fervor, hoping that some day, the rest of the world believes us.

Cleveland is beginning to receive recognition in the Food World – With local celebrities like Michael Ruhlman, author of books such as The Making of a Chef and The Elements of Cooking, and Iron Chef Michael Symon, from the The Chew, Cleveland is gaining national attention as a “food town,” but the Midwest has never been a barren landscape of big chains and box stores like the east and west coasts might believe.

The town has always been very food-centric and its greatest gem is the West Side Market. According to the book Cleveland’s West Side Market: 100 Years and Still Cooking, “The market square was a gathering spot for farmers and shoppers even before 1840.” The enclosed brick market house that exists today, with its 137-foot clock tower, was dedicated in 1912, and has always been a home to the butchers, bakers and produce peddlers who begin their days at 4am to sell fresh, regional ingredients to the locals.

The building holds over 100 vendors of great ethic diversity. During the 19th century the area saw an industrial boom that attracted in influx of immigrants from Germany, Ireland and Hungary.  There are also Russians, Italians, Ukrainians, Slovaks and other Eastern Europeans who made their home in Cleveland and made their mark on the culinary landscape. Stalls with names like Frank’s Bratwurst and Pierogi Palace remain Cleveland favorites. At the Pierogi Palace you can choose from over 100 variations of the traditional potato and onion dumpling – Bourbon Mushroom, crab meat or Cajun beef, to name a few.

The market has an Old World industrial charm, where vendors know your name and haggling prices is a usual practice.  It is full of customs, culture and flavor – a snapshot of Cleveland’s history and contemporary food culture. Michael Symon writes, “I took the Market for granted as a teenager. I just assumed that most cities had an amazing market like ours. As I got older and began to travel, I realized how truly special and unique it is.”

One only needs to step foot into the bustling, historic West Side Market to understand that Cleveland has a distinct food culture, and a marketplace unlike any other in the country.

Marissa Sertich

Marissa Sertich Velie is a New York based pastry chef and graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. She passionately documents her adventures of baking and eating her way through the fascinating (and sometimes nutty) underbelly of the American pie. Velie has a Master's degree in Food Studies from NYU.

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8 Comments
  1. Thanks so much for referencing our book, Cleveland’s West Side Market:100 Years & Still Cooking and quoting from the Forward Michael Symon so generously wrote for us. My co-author, Marilou Suszko, and I really thought we knew all about the place and the people who work and shop there. But we learned so much more doing two years of research and interviews.
    And we totally agree with you- there’s no place else like the West Side Market.

  2. It’s a lovely piece, and thank you. One small point, though….. the West Side Market is not a “diamond in the rough.” It is a diamond. Just because it doesn’t look like a slick “lifestyle center” mall filled with chain stores doesn’t make it “in the rough.? It is a diamond. Period.

    A friend also pointed out that the river burned about 60 years ago. Time to let it go and find a better reference point to describe our city. Please?

  3. Did want to update your knowledge and point out a couple of misconceptions:
    -Cleveland’s food scene has been a topic of national note for awhile…definitely gone beyond “beginning to receive recognition in the Food World.”
    -Haggling over prices is neither usual nor acceptable.

  4. It is also my city. I was born and raised in Cleveland. The West Side Market is certainly not “rough” at all, but Cleveland itself still aches for some improvement. I stand behind my title. Unfortunately, having lived in several other cities, the burning river is the only reference point the rest of the country recognizes….”Isn’t Cleveland where the river caught on fire?” I think Cleveland should take an example from Great Lakes Brewery and just embrace that part of itself with a sense of humor. I believe that is why I followed the sentence about burning rivers with “I get a lot of grief coming from Cleveland, but in truth, Cleveland Rocks.” I DO get a lot of grief coming from Cleveland and it has only bolstered my pride for the city and is why I enjoy writing about its positive attributes (like the market) and the cuisine. Thanks for the comments – I like seeing the fierce Cleveland pride coming out of the woodwork :)

  5. I too love the West Side Market and feel so fortunate to be able to visit it weekly! Pierogi Palace is a perfect example of why CLE food rocks – old world food product taken to a whole other level perfect for a modern palate. Their German Potato Salad, Szechuan Green Beans and Chicken and Roast Beef – BBQ are crazy good. Nice article!

  6. Thanks for the great words about the Market and a nod to our book, Cleveland’s West Side Market: 100 Years & Still Cooking. Let me add this about the concept of haggling. It was a practice more common years back and primarily in the produce arcade but I think what more people are likely to find these days in addition to bargains is that when people get to know vendors and develop those over the counter relationships, that many vendors have a tendency to be generous. So it’s not unlikely to find a little extra in the bag and that discounts are often extended, although not announced. For any of your follower who want a regular dose of Market history, nostalgia and information, our facebook page will satisfy. [http://www.facebook.com/westsidemarketbook]

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