100 things to do in Cleveland before you die: put Froot Loops on your hot dog at the Happy Dog
If we were playing a food association game, and I said, peanut butter, you’d probably say “jelly.” If I said “hot dog,” you’d say “ketchup.” Maybe “mustard.” Unless you’re a regular of the Happy Dog, in which case, you’d say, “all of the above...with Froot Loops.” The cereal is one of 50 different hot dog toppings offered by the Happy Dog, and it’s why author Nikki Delamotte put a visit to the West Side corner bar on her list of 100 Things to Do in Cleveland Before You Die.
“I always get the macaroni and cheese, I always get onions and siracha," she told me during a recent visit to the hangout's original West Side location. Always means always for Delamotte. She hasn't veered from her standard order to try the Froot Loops, even though her book urges others to give the rainbow-hued cereal a go.
"So you haven't tried the Froot Loops?" I asked her.
"It's always been on my to-do list," Delamotte said. “There’s alien relish and things like that. So, you can make a different combination every time and never get bored.”
It's the first Friday of the month, which means soul music spun by DJ Lawrence Caswell, my ideastream colleague. He’s held the monthly gig for seven years, but says he’d hang out here anyway.
“I like old Cleveland bars," said Caswell, raising his voice to be heard over the music. "Those are the kinds of bars where I can just sit and drink and talk to random old dudes at the bar. And this is that kind of bar."
There’s a comfortable, worn shoe feel to the place. Wood paneling. Black vinyl booths. Pinball machines. And a race track oval-shaped wooden bar, with chrome-edged stools. Sean Watterson, 48, bought the place with a friend, Sean Kilbane, in 2008.
"I thought we would do it and fail within a couple of years but have fun in failing," he told me at the Happy Dog's East Side location at the Euclid Tavern. "We honestly didn’t know we’d succeed at it."
Kilbane died in a freak accident at the bar in 2014. Watterson says he still can't believe it. The Seans met as stock brokers in Cleveland. Watterson went on to become a lawyer and tracked terrorism financing for the fedeal Securities and Exchange Commission. He says their lack of knowledge about the bar business freed them to take risks, like offering a night of chamber music played by members of the Cleveland Orchestra.
"It was a Wednesday night, I think. We had no idea whether anybody would show or not, but it was the Cleveland Orchestra, so we should have known?" said Watterson. "We had a line around the block. And our big take away from that was not, 'Let’s do that again' – I mean, we did – the takeaway was, that could’ve failed. That’s what made it interesting. So we kept trying things that we thought might fail.”
That’s led to monthly science and foreign policy talks, poetry slams and storytelling. It’s meant a new stand at Progressive Field, and a new hot dog, the Slider Dog, topped with mac and cheese, bacon and Froot Loops. The comination was praised and punished on social media.
Back at the bar, regular Andrew Stuart offers a tip on navigating the Happy Dog menu:
"I usually find one of their toppings and try to get something to work with it?" he said, chuckling. "And this time it was the Bugles, so this time I got the…was it the vegan dog?" He turned to Louisa Hoffman and two other friends for help remembering his order, but just then, the waiter showed up. his three friends for help remembering his order, but the waiter showed up.
"The Bugle Boy?" he said, holding up the red plastic basket holding Stuart's order. Hoffman got "all sorts of things" on her hot dog: bacon, a fried egg, coleslaw and garlicky aioli.
"And a plain dog," the waiter said, finishing the dispersal of food by placing an undressed hot dog in front of Leah Dresser.
"Wait...wait a second!" I stammered. "You got a plain hot dog?!"
"I know! I'm sorry! I'm from Indiana, and that's why!" Dresser laughed, by way of explanation. "I was scared, I just had to get plain! I’ll put a sauce on it!"
Just one sauce? C’mon, it’s the Happy Dog, where risks are meant to be taken, not avoided. It’s one of the cultural highlights of Cleveland worth experiencing before you move, or die.