Smoking hot: Proof Barbecue’s resilient journey to Ohio City


What does it take to turn a near-COVID-19 pandemic casualty into a thriving success story? For Proof Barbecue, which opened on March 22 at 4116 Lorain Ave. in Ohio City, the answer lies in resilience, reinvention, and a whole lot of smoked meat.    

Having launched in Tremont a mere three weeks before the COVID-19 shutdown in 2020, Proof co-owner Dave Ferrante and general manager Jay Casey faced an uphill battle in re-opening after the lockdown—both figuratively and literally. They were operating out of the basement level of a three-story building, with a window looking up to the sidewalk and out of sight of potential passersby and diners.

Proof smokes their brisket and pork overnight for 14 hoursProof smokes their brisket and pork overnight for 14 hoursDespite quickly earning an avid social media following and accolades for its food in the subsequent months, the restaurant owners found themselves unable to grow Proof as they had hoped—with significant hurdles stemming from the constraints of its location, explains Casey.

“To get from the kitchen downstairs to the back patio was a 75-step walk each time you wanted to get the food to the table,” he recalls. “[We] couldn't put in a back entrance, and the kitchen was very small.”

Instead of closing the business permanently, Ferrante decided to give Proof what he felt it needed to succeed—a change of scenery.

Casey remembers the moment when Ferrante took him to see Ferrante’s newly-purchased building at the corner of Lorain Avenue and West 41st Street—the former home of popular, decades-old Nick’s Diner, which had quietly closed in 2021.

“He said, ‘Why don't we give chef Brandon [Lassiter] a great spot with the kitchen he deserves and put it all on one level,’” Casey recalls.

Casey says he was immediately excited. “We love this neighborhood—I used to come to the Hot Dog Inn right down the street back in the day,” says the Cleveland native and restaurant veteran, who has worked for popular local places like Salmon Dave’s, Music Box Supper Club, and Stone Mad Pub.

Now, Proof's former Tremont location has been transformed into a perfectly fitting late-night lounge experience, while 16 months after closing, Proof has reopened in Ohio City.

What excites chef Lassiter the most about the new location is its visibilityWhat excites chef Lassiter the most about the new location is its visibilityGone are the Nick’s Diner fish tank, eclectic retro decor, and checkerboard floors. In its place is the impeccably clean and spacious Proof. The new space is almost double its original location’s space with minimalist brick and wood walls and cozy black velvet-upholstered seats.

Other design standouts include brand-new bathrooms, a wall adorned with vintage concert and music posters that pay homage to Nick's record wall, and a large patio housing Proof’s smoker.

“There's no pretense,” asserts Casey. “It's just a barbecue space with some beers and some drinks, if you'd like, and we priced it the same way too. The drinks are below $9.”

Currently, the restaurant seats 52, including a semi-private back room with its own television that can accommodate 16 guests. Casey suggests this area could also serve well for small events, like a neighborhood book club. Further expansion plans are already underway for an outdoor bar and additional seating on the patio as the summer season approaches.

Remaining mindful of the neighborhood’s feedback is important to Casey and the team. “We first pitched to the Block Club in July, brought them brisket, mac and cheese, and coleslaw,” he recounts. “Their concern was that they’ll go to the orchestra or a show or movie on a Friday night, and when they come back at 10-10:15, there’s no food.”

For that reason, Proof’s kitchen is open for dine-in and take-out on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 4 p.m. to10p.m.; on Fridays from 4 p.m. to11 p.m.; Saturdays from 12 p.m. to11 p.m.; and on Sundays from 12 p.m. to 8 p.m. The bar closes two hours after the kitchen closes.

What excites chef Lassiter the most about the new location is its visibility, he says. “At our last location, nobody could see us. Now we're standing out and we're not sharing a space with two other places. Now we can grow and do what we need to.”

Lassiter's culinary journey began at the age of 15, and he has since honed his skills at esteemed hotels and resorts, including The Greenbrier in West Virginia, and the Ritz Carlton in West Palm Beach, Florida, and Metropolitan at the 9, and the Renaissance Hotel in Cleveland. Following a pandemic-elated lay-off, Lassiter found his place at Proof.

While his reopening menu leans more towards tradition, Lassiter says he plans to incorporate dishes inspired by various cuisines around Cleveland, including Asian, Middle Eastern, and Puerto Rican flavors.

The goal with Proof is to take the cultures and neighborhoods of Cleveland and bring those flavors into barbecueThe goal with Proof is to take the cultures and neighborhoods of Cleveland and bring those flavors into barbecue“The goal with Proof is to take the cultures and neighborhoods of Cleveland and bring those flavors into barbecue—to help define what Cleveland barbecue is,” he says. “There's a lot of flavor profiles that we're going to slowly bring in.”

The current menu boasts barbecue staples like smoked wings ($13), pork ribs ($18/$30), fried green tomatoes ($12), mac and cheese ($6), house-made sauces, and, of course, house barbecue by the half-pound starting at $14.

“We smoke our brisket and pork overnight for 14 hours,” Lassiter explains. “We have a big smoker out back, and we use a mix of cherry and hickory. We smoke chicken daily, marinated with fresh herbs, garlic, and oil. For vegetarians, the cauliflower is tossed with Moroccan barbecue spice, smoked, and then seared on the flat top for service. Just give you a little char on there.”

Casey says Proof has been an instant hit since opening in March. “It's been a lot of fun and we've had a great time so far,” he says excitedly. “People have been really nice and social media’s been great, which is fantastic.”

Diners second Casey’s sentiment. “If you like smoked meat and an eager staff who aims to please and engage with you, Proof is your spot,” shares recent patron and long-time Ohio City resident Shawn Brewster. “The wings are fantastic. They’re smoked, but not with an overly smoky flavor. The mac and cheese was perfect, and the brisket was on point. It’s a great addition to the already stacked Lorain neighborhood.”

Proof is now open five days a week for dine-in and take-out at 4116 Lorain Ave. The restaurant does not accept reservations. Free parking is always available in the May Dugan Center directly behind the restaurant. For a full look at Proof’s menu and hours, visit proofcleveland.com.

About the Author: Rebecca Cahill

Rebecca Cahill is a freelance writer who is thrilled to contribute to FreshWater Cleveland, sharing the stories of the people and places that make our fine Forest City flourish and grow.