When you think of food destination cities in Northeast Ohio, put Wooster near the top of the list.
When the Beacon Journal’s Let’s Eat series stopped in Wooster, we found a town small on population, but big on cuisine, with nearly all of it concentrated downtown.
Let’s Eat is an occasional series aimed at telling you where you’ll find some of the best places to eat in the Greater Akron area. Our stories don’t profess to list every single place that sells food in a particular town — just some of the ones that we found to be the most interesting and which best reflect the culinary sense of the community.
In downtown Wooster, you can stand at the intersection of Market and Liberty streets, look in any direction and spot a place where you’ll find something great to eat or drink (not to mention shop).
Restaurants are serving up quality steaks, authentic barbecue, amazing breads and the freshest locally grown produce, both on the plate and in a bustling growers market.
The fact that they are presented in buildings that have been lovingly restored by local developers makes this historical downtown all the more inviting. Exposed brick, restored ceilings and reclaimed wooden floors give the spaces an urban feel.
It’s clear that downtown Wooster is enjoying a renaissance, and while he may not be rehabbing the buildings, chef Mike Mariola is helping to write the menu for this revival.
In 2002, Mariola, a Wooster native, moved back home and opened South Market Bistro, a 36-seat restaurant that could easily be mistaken for a bistro in New York City with its exposed brick walls and long narrow dining room.
Mariola, 33, had spent several years working as a sous chef at the former Parker’s New American Bistro in Cleveland, where he found a mentor in chef Parker Bosley, whose commitment to local and sustainable foods in Ohio is well known.
Though just in his early 20s at the time, Mariola knew he wanted to open the kind of place that echoed the small bistros and cafes with seats for just 12 or 15 that he experienced in France, where the food was prepared according to what was seasonally freshest.
Six years later, Mariola followed the Bistro with City Square Steakhouse across the street, serving steaks and burgers and giving downtown an outdoor dining patio in the restored Germania Hall building.
A strong believer in downtown redevelopment, Mariola is happy to see the town bustling and is always looking to encourage new businesses, including one of downtown’s newest places, Spoon Market & Deli, next door to South Market Bistro.
Owners Adam Nussbaum and Jordan Smith are actually operating two separate businesses under one awning.
Nussbaum, 31, a butcher, had been working at Wooster’s Westwood Market since he was in high school. While he knew he was ready to branch out, he wasn’t sure that the kind of boutique butcher shop he had in mind would survive on its own.
At the same time, Smith, 30, was looking for a new venture after moving back home to Wooster from Columbus, where she had spent the past 12 years working in restaurants. With backing from her father, Jeff Smith, she envisioned a gourmet market.
To Mariola, the two ideas seemed like a natural fit, and he suggested the pair collaborate.
Spoon Market opened about six weeks ago, with Nussbaum in the back, and Smith in the front. He cuts meat to order, and makes and smokes his own sausage, while Smith bakes artisan breads, sells deli sandwiches and salads, and offers upscale grocery items like imported cheeses, European butters, creme fraiche and craft beer.
When it comes to food, there’s not much that downtown Wooster is lacking.
There’s a steakhouse in the former Wayne County Jail, which was renovated into Olde Jaol Restaurant and Tavern in the 1990s, and there are three restaurants in one at 359 W. Liberty St.: The traditional menu of T.J.’s Restaurant, a Wooster staple since 1964, shares space with sister restaurants C.W. Burgersten’s (sandwiches, burgers and wings) and Melvin’s Brick Oven & Bakery (wood-fired pizzas and bread).
The SoMar Wine Cellars on South Market Street offers a sophisticated space for sipping a glass or shopping for a bottle. Farther north on Market Street, Rick and Cheryl Davis opened Today’s Kitchen Store about 10 months ago. They sell high-end cookware, cookbooks, gourmet food and gadgetry, and offer a full slate of cooking classes each month.
They opened their business in the heart of Market Square, across from the Everything Rubbermaid store, and share a block with Omahoma Bob’s Barbeque, and the Tulipan Hungarian Pastry & Coffee Shop.
Tulipan owner Elizabeth Lakatos is in her seventh year baking her native Hungarian pastry in a small coffee shop. She moved to Wooster 30 years ago, and always nurtured the idea of one day having her own business in the classic “American dream” style.
She found space in a building renovated by downtown developer Bill Erdos. Her display case is filled with nut rolls, strudels and authentic Hungarian Dobos Torte, and she also offers soups, rolled omelettes and European-style open face sandwiches, featuring slices of whole wheat bread slathered with cheese spreads, pâtés or seafood spreads.
At Omahoma Bob’s, the atmosphere is casual and the barbecue tender from its slow smoking process. There are bottles of sauce on the table for diners who prefer the sticky to the smoky.
If you ask downtown Wooster shopkeepers where to get lunch, Bob’s is frequently recommended, along with the Broken Rocks Cafe & Bakery.
Glen and Lisa Grumbling have been baking their sourdough bread at Broken Rocks on East Liberty Street since 2000. The restaurant gets its name from a spot on the shore of Lake Huron in Michigan, where Grumbling collected the wild grapes that he used to create his sourdough starter for the restaurant’s signature bread.
The bustling restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner, offering a menu of sandwiches, salads, pasta and pizza, with most items $12.95 or under.
If there’s one thing there’s no shortage of in Wooster, it is exceptional bread.
Farther down East Liberty Street, German native Sofie Dittman has been baking European-style breads and pastries since opening the Bake Haus in February. She also has a large selection of coffee and tea, and offers sandwiches and other lunch items.
Dittman began baking at home after losing her job in 2009, and was selling her breads at Wooster’s Local Roots Market. She quickly outgrew her own kitchen and began looking for a place to set up shop.
Her German pretzel rolls are as beautiful to look at as they are tasty to eat, and her sourdough rye, which uses a light rye flour, is chewy and rustic without the caraway seeds. You’ll also find her breads being served in the dining room of the Wooster Inn.
Local Roots Market, which opened 18 months ago on South Walnut Street, is something you won’t find in most downtowns. The market sells only local products. Anyone can shop at Local Roots, but to sell here, you must be a member of the cooperative and you must be local to Ohio.
The displays of produce will catch your eye — fresh zucchini, giant bulbs of garlic and freshly dug onions. The freezer cases are filled with local beef, lamb and poultry, and baked goods and honey fill the shelves, along with cheese, butter and milk from Hartzler’s Dairy in Wooster in the cases.
While most of the offerings are food, there is a selection of pottery, purses, soap and other handmade artisan items for sale. The market also serves as a community meeting place, where cooking and gardening classes often are held.
Marketing Manager Jessica Eikleberry said the market has more than 650 member-producers, about 165 of which supply items on a regular basis. “All of our members are from Ohio. Most of them are from Wayne, Holmes and Ashland counties,” she said.
Recently, the market opened a cafe, which offers sandwiches and other light fare. The market is open Thursday through Saturday, but Eikleberry said in the near future, Local Roots hopes to expand to six days a week.
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.