Located in the south central area of Over-the-Rhine, during the past few years the Gateway has become a dining mecca. It’s home to some of the hippest new eateries in town, with rampant buzz amongst the Twitterati and lines out the doors on weekend nights.
Seems like a brand new hot spot, right? A phoenix rising from the ashes of the 2001 riots?
In truth it’s reminiscent of a glory day that none of us experienced — the late 1800s.
I checked with an authority on Over-the-Rhine development — Mr. Cincinnati himself, Jim Tarbell — to find out what the dining scene had been like on Vine Street from Central Parkway up to Liberty before we started quaffing Belgian ales and munching on gourmet hot dogs. He went straight to the wayback machine.
“At the turn of the century, Vine Street had more saloons per square foot than any street in America — 136,” Tarbell told me. “And it had more people per square mile. There were opera houses and vaudeville shows up and down the street, with apartments upstairs in all the buildings. It was so crowded that merchants had to get deliveries of beer through tunnels under the streets.”
Cincinnati was the Queen City, with steamboats bringing passengers to the riverbank and streetcars moving them around the bustling basin that was the center of the city. The German brewing families, like the Lackmans, owned taverns where they sold steins of their own beer for a nickel and lured customers with the promise of a “Free Wienerwurst with Every Drink.”
Now that’s not an offer you’re likely to get in any of the new Gateway eateries, but in many ways this neighborhood’s makeover is possible only because its past has been respected and many of its buildings preserved. The intact architecture creates a unique streetscape — an innate character, a creative energy. The density creates an urban coziness that encourages patrons to try a drink here, a handmade pizza there and coffee after dinner right across the street. If A Tavola is full, you can pop over to Taste of Belgium without moving your car.
When Daniel and Lana Wright opened Abigail Street — an amazing eatery that I gave a rave review in December — they brought back the historic name of 12th Street, named for Abigail Cutter, who in 1831, with her husband William Woodward, founded the first public high school west of the Allegheny Mountains.
So what happened between the time of Abigail Street’s past and its present? Between Herman Lackman’s family saloon of the 1800s and the Lackman Rock Bar of today? As Tarbell says, history runs its course. The German immigrants grew wealthier and moved up Cincinnati’s hills to new neighborhoods. During World War I the city changed the names of some of the streets in Over-the-Rhine to downplay the area’s heritage, and after World War II, when Appalachians came north to work in Cincinnati’s factories, they claimed the basin area as their own.
“They had a strong work ethic,” Tarbell explains. “They would work a day job, and then run the bars on Vine Street at night. Places like Rothenberg’s became Pappy’s, with great music, beer and a social experience for a whole new set of immigrants.”
There were 1,500 business licenses in Over-the-Rhine in the 1970s. Grocery stores like Glossingers and Alberts, and eateries like Stengers and Tuckers, had already been in business for a generation or two. The Bank Café, at the corner of 12th and Vine streets, was still open but had faded from the day when bank presidents and workingmen alike would crowd its long lunch counter to enjoy the blue plate special. When the Appalachian residents of Over-the-Rhine could afford to move out to Elmwood Place and Price Hill, the population density fell in OTR, and businesses struggled to survive. Buildings were neglected, and many were lost.
After the riots in 2001, I remember the sense of relief I felt when I saw that the buildings in Over-the-Rhine were still there — that they hadn’t burned during the upheaval. But, more than ever before, they were vacant and vulnerable. One of the first glimmers of hope on Vine Street was the flowering window boxes that Tarbell worked to install. I tried to give him credit for the project, and he hesitated to take it.
“That was an emotional moment. People were reeling from what had happened. We needed something positive to focus on, and many people did many positive things. I wanted to get people out from under a cloud, quickly, to give people a new idea of what Over-the-Rhine was all about — to change the way people thought about it.”
Whether the window boxes really were the spark, or whether that’s just my memory, there was a positive tipping point. As Tarbell says, rather mischievously: “We finally got the rascals south of Central Parkway to recognize the importance of the area north of Central Parkway.”
A non-profit entity, Cincinnati Center City Development Corporation (3CDC), moved into the Bank Café and started to strategically focus on residential and commercial development in the Gateway. Rebuilding the residential base would give businesses the customer base they’d need to grow. As an article on the Northpointe group’s website mentions, Cincinnati began taking “the urban elbow grease path — one walkable urban block at a time.”
Bringing back the beer, the buildings, the streetcar and the people to ride it, the Gateway Quarter’s recent successes are bridging the area’s storied past with a bright future. From wienerwurst to waffles, long may it reign. ©
Food and Drink In the Gateway
1215 Wine Bar & Coffee Lab – Tazza Mia coffee, wine and light fare from Cooking with Caitlin’s Caitlin MacEachen Steininger
1215 Vine St., 513-381-1388
Abigail Street – wine bar featuring small plates with a Mediterranean flavor
1214 Vine St., 513-421-4040, abigailstreet.com
Bakersfield – whiskey, tequila, tacos and don’t forget the tortas
1213 Vine St., 513-579-0446, bakersfieldotr.com
Enzo’s – coffee, breakfast and lunch weekdays
1106 Race St., 513-579-1106, enzosotr.com
The Lackman – classic corner pub, quality drinks and bar nibbles
1237 Vine St., 513-381-0741, lackmanbar.com
Lavomatic Cafe – casual elegance seven days a week
1211 Vine St., 513-621-1999, lavomaticcafe.com
Lucy Blue Pizza – pizza for late night, plus lunch buffet
1128 Walnut St., 513-241-8350, lucybluepizza.com
Senate – gourmet hot dogs and upscale street fare
1212 Vine St., 513-421-2020, senatepub.com
Taste of Belgium Bistro – Belgian waffles and more, from breakfast through dinner
1135 Vine St., 513-381-4607, authenticwaffle.com
A Tavola – wood-fired pizza and small plates
1220 Vine St., 513-246-0192, atavolapizza.com
Venice On Vine – pizza in a casual setting, providing job training for local residents
1301 Vine St., 513-221-7020, powerinspiresprogress.com