Akron’s favorite cantina proves I-77 runs both ways
words and photos by Patrick J. Worden
The change has been subtle and slow, so you can be forgiven if you didn’t notice the ground itself shifting under your feet. But it did—there’s been an altering of the cultural center-of-gravity in our region. Akron has emerged from a supporting role to one co-equal with our metropolitan neighbor to the north. At times we’re even taking the lead.
The new dynamic can be seen, in part, in the flow of talent running south to north along Interstate 77. You might recall the most dramatic instance of this, just a few months ago, when Cleveland nearly lost itself in the joy of shedding perennial sports-underdog status, and of at last being a city of champions. You might recall that at the center of this celebration was “just a kid from Akron.”
This is but a single, shining example.
Another way in which the Summit County seat is bringing it to Cuyahoga is the northward trajectory of Neuvo, the downtown Akron cantina and tequila bar of choice. Nuevo numero uno, which owners Zack and Lisa Hirt opened in 2014 at the corner of E. Mill and S. High Streets, quickly established itself as a hip, casual destination and purveyor of cutting-edge modern Mexican cuisine. With an agreeable and eye-catching interior design, an inviting roof-top deck, and a tequila selection sure to sate the thirstiest connoisseur, Neuvo has in near record time risen to enviable loftiness in Akron’s culinary hierarchy.
When asked about Nuevo’s speedy ascent, Executive Chef and co-founder Zack Hirt answered simply, “Akron wanted this.”
Recognizing, then, that what’s wildly popular in Akron has at least a betting chance for success in Cleveland, the Hirts decided to “clone ourselves,” as Hirt put it. In early 2015 they began talks with lakefront developers to lease a site under construction on the East Ninth Street Pier, close to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
If a restaurant’s location is paramount—and the new Nuevo’s expansive view of Lake Erie insists it is—then timing is only marginally less so. The Hirts’ timing was impeccable: Construction was completed just in time for a ‘soft opening,’ hosted by the Hirts and jointly catered by the creme of Cleveland’s culinary elite, during the Republican National Convention in late July. This served to introduce the Neuvo experience to Cleveland diners and build enough buzz for a very successful grand opening a few weeks later in August.
Referring to the relatively rare phenomenon of Akron-to-Cleveland expansion, Hirt says it was a natural outcome of Cleveland’s culinary homogeneity. “Cleveland was saturated,” he says, by a handful of celebrity chefs, each owning five or six restaurants throughout the city. Variety suffered. Diners began looking to the suburbs, and to the little sister to the south, for something new.
The result for Neuvo has been a growth of its festive brand and an expansion into a nearby and much larger market. For all of Akron, and especially for our dreamers, makers, and would-be entrepreneurs, it’s an intriguing example to emulate. Cleveland need no longer be seen as an outsized, arguably intimidating neighbor. We can now begin looking to it as a land of opportunity.
That said, and with no offense intended to the metropolis on the lake, we’ll urge those Akronites who seek a Cleveland fortune to always remember from whence they came. As for Neuvo, Hirt says this will never be an issue. Wherever Neuvo expands (and further expansion, according to Hirt, is categorically not ruled out), the Akron location will always be primero.
“Akron is our flagship,” he said.
Pat Worden recommends the Neuvo mule with jalapeño-infused tequila, and he almost never speaks in the third person.