Best-of-Ohio-main

Best Of: Editors’ Picks 2017

Here are this year’s picks for the best places to visit, things to experience and memories to make. 

*See the list of 2017 Best Of Ohio Readers’ Picks winners here*

Dog Lounge 
Steffanie Sanchez changed puppy play spaces in Columbus with the opening of Tail Wags Playground last March. She says the inspiration for the city’s first indoor dog park came after visiting outdoor dog parks with her Welsh-and-cairn-terrier mix, Jake. “There were unpleasant things we saw,” Sanchez explains, “and this gave me the idea of what would be better, safer and more sanitary.” The 5,000-square-foot play space offers agility equipment, toys and more for the dogs to enjoy, while owners can kick back in a lounge area with comfortable seating, self-serve coffee and Wi-Fi. Sanchez has more than 300 regular members who pay either by the year or month, but there are $15 daily rates for first-timers. 1010 W. Fifth Ave., Columbus 43212, 614/867-5151, tailwagsplayground.com

Driving Range
If you’re more John Daly than Phil Mickelson, you’ll love Topgolf. This new three-story sport-entertainment center in West Chester, just north of Cincinnati, includes lively bars, a full-service restaurant, live music, shuffleboard and cornhole. “Anyone of any skill level can come in and have a good time, even people who don’t golf,” says marketing manager Anne Winegardner. When they aren’t eating, drinking or playing giant Jenga, players drive golf balls into a 215-yard field and compete against one another in categories such as distance and accuracy. Each ball has a microchip that reacts to target censors in the field, so you’ll know precisely who the winner is. Clubs are free to rent, so all you need to bring is your A-game. 9568 Water Front Dr., West Chester 45069, 513/342-6249, topgolf.com

Best-of---Mabels
New BBQ: Past the huge, glowing red sign just inside the door that commands you to “Eat More Meat,” visitors to Mabel’s BBQ get a chance to see what chef Michael Symon’s Cleveland-style barbecue is all about. Symon serves brisket, pork belly, turkey, ribs and kielbasa seasoned with Eastern European spices. The meats arrive at the table on a communal tray without sauce, so diners can pour on as much of Symon’s housemade variety as they’d like — a mix that features the Bertman Ball Park Mustard that dresses hot dogs down the street at the Cleveland Indians’ Progressive Field. The approach is a winner, and those who lovingly remember the long-gone Lawson convenience store chain will want to grab a side of Cracklin’: salt and vinegar pork rinds served with housemade Lawson chip dip. 2050 E. Fourth St., Cleveland 44115, 216/417-8823, mabelsbbq.com

Lighthouse Relocation
When the Port Clinton Lighthouse was taken out of service in 1952, marina owner Dave Jeremy was given a 5-gallon can of oil to burn it. Instead, he kept it on his property, and earlier this year, it was given back to the public and moved to Water Works Park in Port Clinton along the Lake Erie shore. The move was the culmination of five years of negotiations and more than $100,000 in restorations. “We know of only one other wooden pier head light in the lower Great Lakes — in Wisconsin,” says Rich Norgard, president of the Port Clinton Lighthouse Conservancy. “Gradually, they just all disappeared.” The 12,000-pound lighthouse was lifted onto a barge and floated down the Portage River to its current location in August. The lighthouse officially opened in September, and there are plans for more opportunities to tour the historic structure in 2017. 205 E. Perry St., Port Clinton 43452, 419/797-2504, portclintonlighthouse.org

Holiday Film Series
Athens’ 101-year-old Athena Cinema began its holiday classics film series in 2012, and this year it’s screening favorites such as “Elf,” “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Muppets Christmas Carol” — all for the low price of one nonperishable food item per person. “We wanted to create an event that could benefit those in need and offer a low-cost entertainment option for families during the holidays,” says Alexandra Kamody, director of the Athena Cinema. During the 2015 holiday season, the 10-day film series raised 986 pounds of food and $394 in cash donations for the Athens Food Pantry. 20 S. Court St., Athens 45701, 740/594-7382, athenacinema.com

Park Renovation
Cleveland’s Public Square got a $50 million makeover just in time for July’s Republican National Convention, but the overhaul had been talked about for years. Designed by New York’s James Corner Field Operations, the new look, which incorporates meandering pathways and a swooping green lawn along with a splash zone in the summer and an ice rink in the winter, brings a fresh energy to the high-profile piece of Cleveland real estate. “Public Square is a front door to the city of Cleveland,” says Sanaa Julien, CEO of programming and operations at Public Square. “Coming through the square gives you a glimpse into the city’s culture.” Public programming such as free concerts, art installations and walk-and-talks with city officials are among the offerings on tap for the city’s coolest new space. Public Square, Cleveland 44113, clevelandpublicsquare.com

Best-of-Tiny-Chapel
Tiny Chapel: The chapel covers just 200 square feet, but its miniature pews, stained glass windows and organ pipes in the choir loft give it an air of reverence, even if it is the size of a large backyard shed. “This chapel is mainly used for conducting weddings,” says co-owner Matthew Barbee. Built in 1972 and located on the former Lancaster horse farm that is now home to Barbee’s Rockmill Brewery, that chapel and its surrounding grounds offer great photo spots. “We’re nestled right against the Hocking River,” Barbee adds. The adjacent brewery’s tasting room, located in a former horse barn on the property, opened in 2011 and has 12 made-on-site craft beers on tap. “We encourage visitors to bring their own picnic to pair with our brews,” says Barbee. 5705 Lithopolis Rd. NW, Lancaster 43130, 740/205-8076, rockmillbrewery.com

History Lesson 
Sauder Village has entered a new era. The 40-building living-history farm and museum in Archbold, which opened in 1976 to replicate early life in Ohio, now offers a glimpse of what life was like in the Roaring Twenties. Period touches in the remodeled Grime Homestead include a crank telephone, Edison phonograph and a player piano proffering renditions of 1920s pop tunes. Guests are invited to help whip up a batch of tried-and-true recipes for oatmeal cookies and macaroni and cheese in the kitchen or partake in a game of croquet in the backyard. “Many of the challenges we’re still talking about began in the 1920s,” notes Sauder Village curator Tracie Evans. “Since the homestead opened two summers ago, we’ve enjoyed watching generations of families connect with the exhibition. It helps people understand what we can learn from the past and how we can apply what we’ve learned to the future.” 22611 St. Rte. 2, Archbold 43502, 800/590-9755, saudervillage.org

Grab-and-Go Lunch
Fast food takes on a new face at Alfie’s Wholesome Food in Granville. Located in the building that once housed Licking County’s first bank, the 400-square-foot eatery has just 10 indoor and 30 outdoor seats, making it a popular spot for those who want to take their meal to go as winter weather takes hold. Seasonal favorites include turkey meatloaf with a side of butternut squash made with cranberries and blue cheese, while the classic chicken salad made with apricots, almonds, paprika and basil reigns supreme year-round. The restaurant prides itself on using good-for-you ingredients, including locally raised chicken and housemade peanut butter. “We make everything from scratch, down to the mayo,” explains owner Sam Dodge. “We want you to be able to pronounce all the ingredients in your food.” 221 E. Broadway, Granville 43023, 740/321-1111, facebook.com/alfieswholesomefood

Best-Ofs---Donut-Trail
Sweet Ride: Butler County’s 85-mile route linking nine doughnut shops has attracted curious travelers from near and far since it was unveiled last January. “We’ve had visitors from Northern Ireland to Alaska,” says Tracy Kocher, director of marketing at the Butler County Visitors Bureau. Participants who get a Butler County Donut Trail passport stamped at each stop not only get to experience a combined 200-plus years of doughnut-making know-how, but also receive a free T-shirt to commemorate their travels. Trail explorers can get a map and passport via the visitors bureau’s website and at participating doughnut shops. As of Dec. 1, Kocher says 4,583 people had made all nine stops on the trail. gettothebc.com/donut-trail

Artistic Meditation
Soft music. Low light. Fine art. Vinyasa yoga. Each Thursday evening, the Columbus Museum of Art partners with Replenish: the Spa Co-Op to host Yoga@CMA, an hour of poses tailored to all skill levels. Classes are held in a different gallery each week to introduce participants to favorite paintings in the museum’s collection. Following the light-exercise session, the group reconvenes for a half hour of guided meditation next to “Spirit,” a 9-foot-wide barrel made of white oak, steel and wood, which conceptual artist and Houston native Mel Chin created in 1992 to represent the idea that we are ancestrally grounded to the earth. “People need downtime where they can turn everything off and reconnect with themselves,” says Kim Hopcraft, the museum’s director of visitor experience. “This is a beautiful, amazing space you wouldn’t think of as being a place to do the downward dog in.” 480 E. Broad St., Columbus 43215, 614/221-6801, columbusmuseum.org.

Outdoor Drama
Since it debuted in 1973, more than 2.5 million people have traveled to Chillicothe’s Sugarloaf Mountain Amphitheatre to see “Tecumseh!” the saga of the legendary Shawnee leader who fought to defend his Ohio homeland in the 1700s. With the help of 10 horses, 500 pounds of gunpowder, recorded narration by actor Graham Greene and a soundtrack by the London Symphony Orchestra, a cast of 60 presents this chapter of American history six nights a week each summer. In October, the Scioto Society received an Institute of Outdoor Theatre award for its success in bringing the drama to life season after season. “Surrounded by the forest, the water, the woodland path and the stars overhead, our audiences feel as though they’re part of one of the most dramatic turning points in Native American history,” says Jeremiah Waggoner, the show’s associate producer. “That’s the power of live theater you just can’t get from a film.” “Tecumseh!” will next be staged June 9 through Sept. 3. 5968 Marietta Rd., Chillicothe 45601, 866/775-0700, tecumsehdrama.com

Streetcar
Move over, Uber. There’s a new way to get around downtown Cincinnati. The electric streetcar returned to the city for the first time since 1951 when the Cincinnati Bell Connector debuted in September. The streetcar runs a continuous 3.6-mile loop connecting three of Cincinnati’s most popular neighborhoods — Downtown, The Banks and Over-the-Rhine — passing plenty of spots for eating, drinking, shopping and entertainment along the way. “It’s really easy to use, even if you don’t know the area,” says Southwest Ohio Regional Transit Authority spokesperson Brandy Jones. “It’s on a track, so you can’t get lost.” It’s $1 for a two-hour ticket or $2 for a day pass, and tickets can be purchased at stations near each stop or via the free Cincy EZRide mobile app. cincinnatibellconnector.com

Fashionable Hotel
Columbus’ Hotel LeVeque, which opens this month, is outfitted in elegance, starting with the staff uniforms developed by Liz Bourgeois, associate costume designer for the Broadway musical “Avenue Q.” The Columbus fashion designer created the midnight blue, white and silver tuxedo-and-tunic ensembles of silk, satin and denim to complement the art deco touches prevalent throughout the 89-year-old structure. Amenities in the 149-room Marriott boutique hotel include all-natural toiletries crafted by Columbus personal-care company Cliff Original and coloring books for grownups featuring pen-and-ink illustrations by local artist John Grosvenor. “Columbus was built on a strong foundation of entrepreneurial spirit,” Bourgeois says. “As a result, there’s an amazingly vital and bubbling arts scene filled with creative people from all over the world who make their living coming up with the next innovative idea.” 50 W. Broad St., Columbus 43215, 614/826-3525, hotellevequecolumbus.com

Civil War Re-enactment
Late this summer, more than 1,500 soldiers, civilians, ladies and horses will re-create the Battle of Antietam at the biennial Historic Zoar Civil War Re-enactment. Billed as the largest event of its kind in the state, each installment presents a different battle against the backdrop of the historic community that dates back to 1817. “The re-enactors get together and decide what they want to re-create,” explains Tammi Mackey-Shrum, director of Historic Zoar Village. “The setting of Zoar naturally lends itself to the Civil War era.” The battle draws as many spectators as participants, and events include an evening artillery demonstration and a real wedding in Civil War-period attire. “We usually don’t have trouble finding someone willing to get married during this event,” says Mackey-Shrum. Sept. 9–10; 198 Main St., Zoar 44697, 330/874-3011, zoarcivilwar.com

Hotel Art
A latticework of metal created by Cleveland artist Stephen Manka adorns the bright, spacious lobby of the Hilton Cleveland Downtown, giving a nod to the city’s industrial past. “A lot of the metalwork reflects Cleveland’s devotion to the steel market itself,” explains general manager Teri Agosta. Murals depicting Cleveland landmarks hang in most of the 600 rooms, and one mural welcomes visitors to the entrance of the adjacent convention center with a mosaic of 2,800 Instagram photos submitted by Clevelanders that melt into an image of the city skyline when viewed from afar. Of the 54 artists whose artwork is featured in the hotel, 46 call northeast Ohio home. “We wanted the building, both exterior and interior, to reflect Cleveland,” says Agosta. 100 Lakeside Ave. E., Cleveland 44114, 216/413-5000, hilton.com

Best-of-Flower-Farm
Flower Workshop: Even in winter, anemones and ranunculus silently take root in the hoop house at Morning Sun Flower Farm. Come spring, the 2-acre cut-flower farm in College Corner will be bursting with tulips, foxglove, delphinium and more. Mindy Francis Staton began planting at the farm last year to provide blooms for Two Little Buds, the Hamilton floral boutique she runs with her mother. Now, the flower farm hosts a Farm to Vase Workshop three times a year — an evening that includes cocktails, dinner, music and the chance for visitors to cut their own flowers and learn how to arrange a bouquet. “There’s a big difference between those flowers we’re growing and going to the wholesaler down the street,” says Staton. 10720 Morning Sun Rd., College Corner 45003, 513/737-8527, facebook.com/morningsunflowerfarm

Photo Op

The Spot — as it was named by mobile-photography sensation Eric Shanteau — has made Toledo’s Oak Openings a coveted location for selfies. In the 1940s, rows of massive pines were planted across the 5,000-acre preserve to stop erosion. Today, the trees serve as the perfect photo backdrop. Shanteau, a Maumee native who turned to photography as a way to cure his homesickness during his military service, was stunned to find such a gem near his home. “To see this cluster of trees … you almost stop in your tracks,” he says. Shanteau’s posts draw hundreds of likes, and he urges all to visit The Spot (accessible via a trail near Girdham and Monclova roads) for themselves. 4139 Girdham Rd., Swanton 43558, 419/407-9700, metroparkstoledo.com

Heritage Park

Historic renovation takes on new meaning at Mount Vernon’s Ariel-Foundation Park. The industrial ruins of the historic Pittsburgh Plate Glass factory, which closed in 1976, have been transformed into the centerpiece of a beautiful city park, complete with the 280-foot Rastin Observation Tower, three lakes, wooded paths and grassy terraces. The 250-acre park opened on July 4, 2015, and since then, the Tree of Life Labyrinth and the European-inspired brick remains of the factory have served as a serene backdrop for outdoor activity and relaxation. “It’s a place to reflect,” says Carrie Haver, executive director of Ariel-Foundation Park. “It really makes for beautiful pictures — it’s an incredible setting.” Open April 1–Nov. 15, although some areas are available year-round; Pittsburgh Avenue, Mount Vernon 43050, arielfoundationpark.org

Best-of---Field-of-Hope
Living Tribute: Glance north while driving through Avon along I-90 at the right time of year and you’ll catch a peek of a sea of cheery yellow blooms. The 50-acre sunflower field is Maria’s Field of Hope, planted in 2014 in memory of 7-year-old Maria McNamara, who died from glioma cancer. When Maria was diagnosed in 2006, her parents, Megan and Ed McNamara, created Prayers from Maria Children’s Glioma Cancer Foundation to raise awareness and funds to support research into the disease, which is the second-leading cause of cancer deaths in youths. “The field has done a tremendous amount of things, but one of the things it has done is it got people having a conversation and asking why is the field here, what is this about, who are these children,” says Megan McNamara. “It’s inspired by our daughter, but it’s for all the kids, and I know she would want it that way.” Jaycox Road, Avon 44011, prayersfrommaria.org

Observation Tower

Standing 50 feet high and built on a 60-foot perch above the water, Lake Erie Bluffs Metropark’s newly constructed tower offers guests a view that’s unrivaled along our state’s eastern shoreline. “Our observation tower offers 360-degree views of Lake Erie, the shoreline, the surrounding woods and wetlands,” explains Paul Palagyi, executive director and CEO of Lake Metroparks. The tower, which opened in August, is a boon for bird-watchers who frequent the area to catch glimpses of species such as bald eagle, merlin and white-eyed vireo. “Watchers come from all over the country,” adds Palagyi, “We see license plates from all surrounding states and beyond.” The observation tower is located at 2901 Clark Rd., Perry Twp. 44081, 440/358-7275, lakemetroparks.com

Food Trail
Comfort food favorites such as meatloaf, mac and cheese and turkey potpie draw adventurers from their winter slumber each January as the Hocking Hills region hosts its annual Comfort Food Cruise. Twelve restaurants scattered across the area will take part this year, including Pearl’s, Millstone BBQ, Olde Dutch Restaurant and Jack’s Steak House. “While driving from place to place, you pass many places to hike and work off that food,” says Karen Raymore, executive director of the Hocking Hills Tourism Association, who launched the cruise in 2014. “In the first year, we planned for 100 guests and ended up with 500. Last year we had around 700.” Tickets for the cruise, which runs the last three weekends in January, are $18, with $5 from each benefitting local food pantries. The event has raised $12,000 since its inception. The 2017 dates are Jan. 14–15, 21–22 and 28–29; explorehockinghills.com/comfortfoodcruise

Liquid Investment
There are few places where you’ll hear cheers when the market crashes, but Queen City Exchange is one of them. Beer prices in this new bar near Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood fluctuate in real time based on demand. So, a popular IPA might run you up to $9, while a lesser-known porter might only cost $3.50. “It’s like a game for people,” says co-owner Adam Stowe. “They come running to the bar.” Stowe opened Queen City Exchange with three of his friends, one of whom graduated from Yale University with a degree in economics. They serve an impressive collection of mostly local craft beers, with more than 40 taps. Ding, ding, ding. Bottoms up. 32 W. Court St., Cincinnati 45202, queencityexchange.com

Best-of-Museum-makeover
Museum Makeover: The former home of President Rutherford B. Hayes has had a big year, marking its centennial with a new name, the Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library and Museums, and the culmination of a five-year plan that included $1.6 million in renovations. “Our attendance has increased significantly, which has just been wonderful,” says director Christie Weininger. “We’ve really been hopping, and that’s exactly what we wanted to happen: to reach more people.” The most notable difference is the museum experience, a reflection of changing ways to design exhibits. Borrowing liberally from Hayes’ personal papers and offering interactive experiences — such as sitting at the replica of the Resolute Desk, which was gifted to Hayes by Queen Victoria of England in 1880 and now resides in the Oval Office — guests get a new perspective on our 19th president. “We try to offer more vivid imagery and show the complexity of the era,” Weininger says. “You hear his voice more.” Spiegel Grove, Fremont 43420, 419/332-4852, rbhayes.org