Sliced meat, cooked well, piled high, it's an American tradition.
For those that haven’t had the pleasure of a food tour through Cleveland, the prevalence of amazing diners and regional favorites from around the world may come as a bit of a surprise. Cleveland is an old town with deep roots and any city that has had that much time to develop brings with it decades of food history refined to a set of all-time greats. Slyman’s is as Cleveland as Cleveland gets, a diner with a well-earned reputation for world-class corned beef opened in 1964 by the same family that owns and runs the diner today.
To clarify immediately, a quick search for Slyman’s locations will yield a few different options, including both the original downtown location on St. Clair Avenue as well as a handful of other suburban spins on the theme operated as a somewhat separate venture. We’re talking about the original here, an unassuming storefront along a stretch of road from which the downtown city skyline feels pretty far away. This isn’t a deli at the foot of a bustling downtown building, rather a stopover on the outskirts of the city originally built to cater to the industry workers that surround the diner.
Slyman’s is a brick building in a sparse part of town, its classic red sign proclaiming the quality of the corned beef inside easily seen from blocks away. Across the street, a chain link fence, a couple blocks way, the highway. The brick façade is broken up by sets of opaque glass block windows, a custom neon sign just visible inside inscribed with the name of the diner and its 1964 opening date. It would not be uncommon at lunch time to see a line stretch from the door out front along the block outside, but be sure to check whether the line represents to-go orders, dine-in or both.
Inside, there’s probably a Seinfeld soup reference to be made, the flat top kitchen at left serving as the immediate stopping point, flanked by a handful of signs that direct visitors to separate lines for to-go order placement & to-go order pickup. Dining in? Find an open table and take a seat. The bustle inside for a first-timer can make it feel like an order-at-the-counter type of situation. It is not and snagging an empty table if you find one around lunch time is critical.
The front room also features a short counter in back, typically packed, but well worth seeking out given its proximity to delicious corned beef and the show of facilitating a popular diner operation like Slyman’s. A secondary room to the right of the front door holds the bulk of the seating, mostly organized as 4-up short tables. The walls aren’t caked with decorations and awards, but they do appear sporadically around the space, including a handful of mounted best-of articles singing Slyman’s praises.
The phrase “we’re famous for” can be a double-edged sword, a clear indicator of the specialty of the house but also a pair of handcuffs that might prevent first-timers from trying something else. A visit to Slyman’s is not a time to ponder this existential tug of war. Get the corned beef, either on its own or part of the signature Reuben. Every ad for a deli, every movie depiction of a giant sandwich, hell, the rack of ribs put on the Flintstones’ car, they’re all homages to a sandwich like the Slyman’s corned beef, packed high, no filler. There are other options as equally stacked, including pastrami, turkey & roast beef, and they’re well worth a follow-on visit, but the corned beef is a clear must have.
Beyond the sandwich staples, the menu does provide some unexpected depth, both through standards like hamburgers and hot dogs but more interestingly through a breakfast menu available until 11 AM (at last visit). The classic breakfast favorites are of course available, but it should come as no surprise that the largest portion of the breakfast menu is devoted to corned beef-based offerings, including a fantastic corned beef hash offering. For lunch, don’t sleep on the hearty dinner platters almost hidden at the bottom of the menu. These are closed-face, gravy-smothered spins on a few of the classic sandwich offerings that are difficult to say no to.
The Slyman’s legacy speaks for itself, a family-owned institution in a less-trafficked part of Cleveland with a few decades of well-earned reputation under its belt. The words of advice here are clear. Head over a little earlier than you otherwise might. Snag the first table you find. And, whatever you do, get yourself some corned beef.