The face-lift has been completed, the bandages are off, and the patient is more beautiful than ever. The massive $23-million redevelopment of Cleveland's legendary Shaker Square that began more than a year-and-a-half ago will be commemorated with a grand re-opening the weekend of May 18.
Think of it as a fitting occasion to check out what's new -- and what still remains -- at the crown jewel of Northeastern Ohio shopping centers.
Built in the late 1920s and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the property bordering Shaker Heights on Cleveland's East Side consists of four colonial, Georgian-style brick buildings resting on Shaker and Moreland boulevards.
Touted as the second-oldest plaza of its kind in America, Shaker Square is considered a masterpiece of urban design.
The good news is that the renovation has left the original layout intact (an octagon of low-rise buildings flanked by a handsomely proportioned civic green), and even enhanced its luster.
Books: The Square's most prominent new anchor store is Joseph-Beth Booksellers, the very antithesis of corporate-owned, institutionalized chain bookstores. The warm, cozy atmosphere of Joseph-Beth, with its fireplaces, couches and lounge chairs, is a refreshing change-of-pace from the cold impersonality of some modern stores.
Attached to the store (but with separate entrances) are a stand-alone coffeehouse and Bronte, a Novel Bistro. Bronte is a gourmet eatery that serves up delicious food at surprisingly affordable prices.
Open for lunch and dinner, the elegant but unfussy dining room offers such savory treats as acorn squash ravioli in a nutmeg cream sauce; sun-dried tomato, roasted garlic, and basil risotto with shrimp; and tomato braised lamb shank on a bed of rosemary white beans. And if you're looking for a quick bite, the crabcake sandwich on wheatberry bread served with a side of Red Bliss potato salad (a Bronte specialty) is unbeatable.
Wild Oats: Another notable new tenant on the Square is the second Cleveland location of Wild Oats Community Market, the fast-growing chain devoted to upscale organic/health food products.
Offering 190 varieties of organic produce (locally grown by small, family-run farms in most cases); its own Spice Hunter line of herbs and spices; bulk foods and liquids (from granola to extra-virgin olive oil); an in-house library; and a community center for meetings, cooking demonstrations and outreach programs, this is truly a store that has it all.
Wild Oats offers its own food court with a juice and java bar; bakery; cheese department; and a bevy of prepared foods in their Dinner-A-Go-Go section like blackened catfish; mozzarella pesto salad; and scrumptious mini German chocolate cakes for just $2.99 each.
Chocolates: Pittsburgh's pre-eminent candy maker, Betsy Ann Chocolates, continues its Cleveland invasion with their recently-opened Shaker Square location. Owned and operated by the Paras family for over 65 years, Betsy Ann sells hand-made goodies with a mom-and-pop touch.
Its signature candy is the renowned International Classic and American Original truffles. This chocolate creation comes in a variety of flavors, including amaretto, grand marnier, Jamaican rum, raspberry chambord, pecan caramel, crunchy peanut butter and double dark chocolate. The truffles are pricey ($36 for an assorted 18-piece box), but worth every cent. This summer, Betsy Ann's will become a full-service ice cream parlor as well, stocking its own line of frozen treats.
Theater: Built in 1937 and designed by John Eberson, the fabled movie palace architect, the beloved Colony Theater was the grand dame of Shaker Square. Renamed Shaker Square Cinemas after an extensive and costly make-over, the six-screen, all-stadium-seating multiplex has miraculously retained much of its former grandeur. Now run by the proprietors of Cleveland Heights' popular Cedar Lee, the theater showcases a mix of art-house and commercial fare.
A great place to stop for dessert after the show is Yours Truly, a casual, friendly spot whose malts, milkshakes, and root beer floats are fast becoming legendary on the Square. Or, try a hot or cold espresso drink with a slice of sinfully rich chocolate chip cookie-based Kentucky Pie, bursting with yummy roasted pecans.
While there was nothing wrong with the quaint old Shaker Square, which had the charm of a favorite dowager aunt, the spiffy new version is fast on its way to becoming the most talked-about, all-ages-friendly entertainment destination in town.