Comfort Food in Cleveland (diners, burgers, pierogies, etc)
For hamburgers, there's only one place that I've found: Buckeye Beer Engine. The patty has flavor. It's cooked to order accurately. The bun is a good complement to the burger. They've got a lot of "creative" burgers on the menu. I've tried a couple and they're good but I think I'm a burger conservative. I like mustard, american and maybe pickles or onions. Lots of their other food is great and none it is fancy. Onion rings, tomato soup, cheddar ale soup.
For BBQ, my long time favorite has always been Hot Sauce Williams. Great ribs. Great Polish boy (=spicy sausage sandwich with fries, pulled pork and cole slaw all drowning in sauce). Recently, I've made a couple visits to Rotuno's. It's about 50 min west from where I live or I'd go more often. I've had the brisket and the baby backs. Both worth the drive. They also have turkey, sausage, chicken, pulled pork and ???
Buckeye Beer Engine
15315 Madison Ave, Lakewood, OH 44107
Hot Sauce Williams Barbecue
3770 Lee Rd, Cleveland, OH 44128
Rotunos Texas Style Barbeque
515 Abbe Rd N, Elyria, OH 44035
Well, as often happens during the holidays, I overestimated the amount of free time (and room in my belly) that I would have during my Cleveland visit. I did, however, manage to make it to the Hot Sauce Williams joint on Lee Rd. (although this was more of a take-out place, not the restaurant version featured on the Anthony Bourdain show). It was well worth the trip- haven't had BBQ like that since I lived on the South Side of Chicago. I had a polish boy and a shoulder sandwich. The former was definitely the highlight - spicy grilled polish smothered in that tangy sauce, slaw, and fries. Messiest thing I've eaten in a long time, but incredibly cheap and soooo tasty. I ate like a king for 8 bucks (and indeed, had too much food - next time I'll just order to polish boy with shoulder and have the best of both worlds). Will definitely go back, although I may try the sit-down version... Thanks for the rec!
Lolita has an awesome burger, available only during happy hours. Also available as a happy hour item (and all the time) is the terrific mac 'n cheese. And every Tuesday night is a pig roast that is the definition of comfort food!
Sokolowski's University Inn is a subject of great debate in Cleveland (see http://www.cleveland.com/forums/food/, post # 19670), but it serves all of the types of food you're looking for. I've never been; people seem to either love it or hate it.
You can sample a wide variety of Eastern European delights at the West Side Market, open MWFSat, as well as amazingly good falafel and Cambodian snacks.
Another great choice is Bar Cento, which features thin crusted pizza, but has a great burger, the most awesome frites, and a modest but comfort-oriented menu.
Sokolowski's University Inn
1201 University Rd, Cleveland, OH 44113
900 Literary Rd, Cleveland, OH 44113
West Side Market
1979 W 25th St, Cleveland, OH
1948 West 25th Street, Cleveland, OH 44115
Try the Little Bar & Grill for burgers, it's just a little dive bar but the burgers are great.
614 Frankfort Ave
Cleveland, OH 44113
I also suggest Lola for lunch - Chef Symon makes a homemade bologna sandwich that is out of this world and is only on the lunch menu. It's really great, with fried egg, on english muffin, served with the great Lola fries.
I also suggest Sterle's slovenian house for schnitzel, etc. They were recently written up as an old Cleveland favorite:
I also recommend Melt in Lakewood, but either for very early dinner or for lunch because the waits at dinnertime are intolerably long. But v. good, with homemade fries and a variety of fun grilled cheeses, including one with pierogis on it. www.meltbarandgrilled.com
For an unusual but great "comfort food" meal, I suggest the barbequed spaghetti at the Brew Kettle in Stronsgville (also great beer if you're a beer drinker). www.thebrewkettle.com
in addition to the grilled cheese sandwiches, melt makes wonderful burgers. i finally tried one, and it's going to be hard to order anything else. the meat was so juicy and very smoky, and since the patty is served on their great, thick-cut sourdough, you don't have any bun disintegration issues. fries and sweet/sour vinegar slaw were awesome, as always. the only downside was the wait: 40 minutes at 1pm on a monday. ouch! i'm assuming the holidays had something to do with that, but the place is generally packed 24/7.
as for diners, i highly recommend big al's on larchmere. we've been going for years, and no other place comes close imho. it's a must-visit when i'm in town. for more upscale comfort food, we occasionally hit mom's diner on miles road. for jewish comfort food, it's all about jack's deli at cedar and green rds.
Unfortunately wl, the holidays had nothing to do with the wait time you experienced. Not sure if that was for a table (typical, if not a short wait anytime around a normal meal time) or for your food (very typical, sometimes longer), but wait times are a big problem with Melt, that's why I suggest going during slower times. The wait for a table during lunchtime has improved somewhat since they opened up another side, but the kitchen remains as tiny as it was so there are only like 2 people in there cooking all the food, so now you have more people waiting for food than there were before because they increased their seating capacity but didn't expand the kitchen. Generally speaking, there can be a 3 hour wait for a table on a weekend night as early as 6pm and then you have to wait an hour for your food.
Still, I maintain if you have the time and are patient it's worth the wait, if you can go during off-hours.