Known internationally for his appearances on the Food Network, his title as Iron Chef and one of the hosts of ABC’s “The Chew,” Chef Michael Symon opened the doors to his premiere restaurant concept, Lola Bistro, on his home turf back in 1997. Nineteen years later, his latest project, Mabel’s BBQ, is the new kid on the block (literally, right next door) on Cleveland’s East Fourth Street.
Proud of his culinary roots in the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, the restaurateur seeks to put Cleveland-style barbecue on the map, emphasizing the bold Eastern European flavors beloved by the city’s Polish-American heritage. For such a departure from more popularized barbecue staples, it was essential that Mabel’s represented not only the cuisine of growing up in Cleveland but, just as importantly, the feeling.
To achieve this, Symon partnered with Cleveland-based Richardson Design – a firm the chef has worked with on several of his other restaurant designs – to create a truly authentic backyard barbecue experience.
“In terms of the design concept, we worked to develop what barbecue means to the context of Cleveland, so everything from the backyard to the union halls … We combined these influences to give people a sense of what it means to barbecue in Cleveland,” says Scott Richardson, design principal, Richardson Design.
Mark Steele, Columbus, Ohio
Hosting this downtown barbecue is the man himself: A large, backlit photo of Symon and his family sits above the main floor on the restaurant’s mezzanine, welcoming diners. To elevate the picnic aesthetic for Mabel’s urban locale, familiar vintage cookout elements were adapted in an understated way: a custom bar resembling a retro Coleman cooler; folding wooden chairs reminiscent of those pulled out of the garage just for gatherings; and a long communal table for guests to gather ’round and dig in.
Conceptual influences, such as vertical lines that reference matchsticks, a mustard and smoke-inspired color palette, an oversized neon sign the color of red-hot embers, and interspersed automotive-style lights evocative of summer nights barbecuing by headlights, pull together Mabel’s overarching spirit of nostalgia.
The building itself – now nestled in a trendy residential and entertainment district – dates back to the turn of the 20th Century, when it originated as an F.W. Woolworth five-and-dime store. Accommodating the kitchen and dining area within its long, narrow space presented a challenge: “We could only fit a few rows of tables,” explains Richardson. “From a culinary standpoint, if we were to build the entire kitchen on the first floor, the dining room would have been very small.” To make more room for first-floor seating without eliminating cooking space, the barbecue smokers were tucked away on the second floor, and the mezzanine level was utilized to provide additional seating.
Inserted throughout are discreet references to Symon himself, signifying just how close this new concept is to his heart. The entrance’s neon sign proclaiming “EAT MORE MEAT” is the same catchphrase Symon has tattooed on his body. Behind the antique workbench hostess table sits a custom leather panel fabricated from vintage belts, meant to symbolize his love of motorcycles. Hanging on a wall, a piece of 3-D artwork comprising multicolored matchsticks depicts his late bullmastiff, Mabel, after whom the restaurant was named.
“At one point, he said it was his gift to the city, creating this Cleveland barbecue,” says Richardson. And not only have sales far exceeded expectations since opening, he says, but the real joy has been in seeing the city revel in the nostalgia of the food and the restaurant’s Cleveland-inspired design.
Mabel’s BBQ, Cleveland
Richardson Design, Cleveland: Scott Richardson, owner, principal designer; Kristie Oldham, design and trend director; Garrett Thompson, creative director; Amanda Stasko, senior designer and team strategist.
David A. Levy & Associates, Akron, Ohio
Fortney & Weygandt Inc., Cleveland
Ambia Lighting, Newport, Ky.
Bob Halper, Cleveland (custom pendants)
Barn Light Electric, Titusville, Fla.
Schoolhouse Electric, New York
Ylighting, Walnut Creek, Calif.
Intense Lighting, Anaheim, Calif.
Visual Lighting Technologies, Lake Forest, Calif.
Byiba, Richland, Mich.
Selux, Highland, N.Y.
Hardwood Solutions, Wilmot, Ohio
Fritztile, Exton, Pa. (floor tile)
Richardson Design, Cleveland (identity and brand experience)
Signature Signage Co., Cleveland (exterior sign)
Jeffry Chiplis, Cleveland (neon sign)
TrueChoice Graphics, Plain City, Ohio (menu letters)
Classic Metal Studios, Cleveland (metal Mabel's interior sign)
reSAWN Timber Co., Cleveland (charred wood)
Thomas Brick Co., Cleveland (distributor)
McIntyre Tile, Healdsburg, Calif. (glazed thin brick)
Daltile, Brooklyn Heights, Ohio (restroom wall tile)
MDC, Glendale Heights, Ill. (acrylic photo panels)
Haley Cavotta, Cleveland Heights, Ohio (decorative paint)
Mio Metals, Petaluma, Calif.
Rino’s Working Shop, Cleveland
Classic Metal Studios, Cleveland
Alu, New York
Fount Leather, Cleveland (leather belt wall)
Rejuvination, Portland, Ore. (hostess stand)
Photography: Mark Steele, Columbus, Ohio