I can’t remember the first time I went to Whiskey Island. Sometime in my mid 20s, that much I’m pretty sure of. In fact, there’s not much I can recall from many of those visits. Fuzzy memories at best (but good times had by all).
My visit last month, on behalf of Metromix, was quite different from previous trips. I had my daughter with me and ordered a virgin Bloody Mary for starters. But what hasn’t changed was the fantastic people watching and thankful feeling that summer is back in Cleveland and there aren’t many better places to be during this time than close to the water – if not right on.
Steve Schimoler, the chef behind Crop Bistro and Chef Jam, has a reputation for not taking himself too seriously and for knowing how to have a good time. So it’s quite fitting that he’s the man behind Cropicana on Whiskey Island, which took over the former Sunset Grille this past May. Schimoler, and his wife-partner Jackie, spruced up the place, added some good eats and created an environment where the sole focus is to enjoy every laid-back minute of Cleveland’s summer.
Food: Although one of Cleveland’s most well-respected chefs is behind Cropicana, the food is not the main driver here. This is not a foodie destination, nor is it a smaller version of his beloved Crop. That being said, the food is much improved from the Sunset Grille days. The main motivation to head to Cropicana is to enjoy the outdoors, water, relaxed surroundings and live music. Grub is likely ordered only after a few cocktails.
But for those that do dive into the food first, they likely won’t be too disappointed. The menu is simple, since nearly everything is cooked and prepared outdoors and can be accessed via the white board above the cash register.
Though slightly dry, we enjoyed the wonderful flavor of the half slab of the smoked cherry chipotle ribs ($14), served with a generous helping of fries and Carolina slaw. Next time, we’ll likely forgo the caprese sandwich with basil aioli (it unfortunately featured stale bread) for the popular fish tacos (two for $8) and chile lime popcorn ($6).
The menu is rounded off with smoked jumbo wings, a couple sandwiches, including an Angus cheeseburger, salads and an all-beef hotdog. With the exception of the ribs, everything is less than $10.
Libations and décor: This menu is likely the more popular one at Cropicana.
Sure, the surroundings aren’t necessarily picturesque, particularly when en route, and the grounds are in need of some TLC, but after what feels like an endless winter, it’s a welcome sight to Clevelanders. Surrounded by the marina and Wendy Park, Cropicana overlooks boats and boaters. But you’ll likely find more non-boaters taking advantage of the Buffett-like fun. The crowd is always eclectic, from after-work happy hours, to bikers, dog owners with pets in tow, volleyball enthusiasts (and those that try), families to twenty-somethings soaking up the sun. But the one thing they all have in common is that they can’t get enough of the laid-back atmosphere, thanks to the lake, live music and endless flow of summer cocktails (a full bar, plus specialty cocktails—all the summertime-approved drinks you’d imagine and then some).
Bottom line: Martha’s Vineyard it is not. But Whiskey Island and Wendy Park have long had a special place in Clevelanders’ hearts and been atop many summertime to-do lists. And Cropicana appears to have smoothly and successfully settled into its new digs and quickly embraced by all.