Welcome to the 2008 "Where to Eat" Dining Guide, CityBeat's annual springtime roundup of great restaurants in Greater Cincinnati. It's our food writers' chance to share their knowledge in one fell swoop after doling it out in the weekly pages of CityBeat.
Following the tradition that started in 2005, rather than bringing you an A to Z list of 900-some places to get a meal in the city, we've created a list of 250-plus restaurants to really enjoy yourself. These are the places our food writers recommend to family and friends over and over when asked the eternal question, "Where's a good place to eat around here?"
Our favorite spots are organized by cuisine and include notations if they won a readers poll category in the 2008 Best of Cincinnati issue.
It's a very subjective approach to Greater Cincinnati's restaurant scene, we know, and some worthy spots are always left out, particularly newly opened restaurants. But much of CityBeat's restaurant coverage is based on our writers' reviews and critical opinions, and this "Where to Eat" guide flows from those reviews.
If we missed a new spot that should belong, we'll be reviewing it soon.
A new feature in this year's guide is "Favorite Tables," a profile of intriguing tables at 12 selected restaurants starting below this introduction.
Also check out the updates with area chefs and restaurant owners who have been featured recently in CityBeat's "Look Who's Eating" profiles. We have information on new menus at fresh, The Hideaway and Tink's Café and news about Allyn's Cafe, The Bonbonerie, Daveed's at 934, Dean's Mediterranean Imports, Goodies and The Wine C.A.R.T.
We'd like to thank our food writers -- Lora Arduser, Anne Mitchell and Heather Smith -- for their enthusiastic willingness to plunge in to every meal, asking questions, dissecting challenging sauces and deconstructing complex entrees in order to report back their findings. And we thank Stephen Carter-Novotni, Rebecca Carter-Novotni, Danny Cross, Julie Mullins and Maija Zummo for their work tracking down and confirming the listings information.
Get out and try one of these great restaurants soon. Your table is waiting.
-- John Fox, Editor
-- Jason Gargano, Arts & Entertainment Editor
Cuisine: Family-style Italian (i.e., huge dishes) with meals for singles as well
Table: The Pope Table is where you can spin a bust of Pope Benedict XVI on a Lazy Susan and enjoy candid photos of popes and bishops. (Play "Guess That Bishop!") The table seats 12-18 and has been known to hold up to 22 for large parties, including visiting nuns and priests. You should ask for reservations.
Nickname: The Pope Table
What Makes This Table Unique: You can get pretty rowdy without getting kicked out. The Pope is located at the back of the restaurant in his own room but faces server traffic, so everyone stops by and says "hi."
Why I Love This Table: The fact that you never know how people will react to a bust of the Pope who looks like a cross between Anthony Hopkins and Jimmy Cagney and stares at you throughout your meal. Our server had experienced the following: A lot of stripping, some covering up of the Pope (diners will put a coat over his head, either in reverence or discomfort) and a lot of drinking (even when nuns and priests visit).
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: A lot of drinking (which can be good for tips), fun groups and the element of surprise. Not quite as fun, however, when the diners poke the Pope's forehead with utensils or ask the servers to strip for them.
Location: 810 Matson Place in the Queens Tower, Price Hill, 513-2251-6467
Cuisine: Northern Italian
Table: While pretty much every seat in the house is stellar, the most unique perch are the middle tables on the third tier of the main dining area.
Nickname: The View
What Makes This Table Unique: In addition to Primavista's signature view of downtown Cincinnati, one has the entire main dining room laid out before them, all the better to survey the largely upscale patrons, many of whom are regulars celebrating a special occasion. (The couple next to me on a recent visit was celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary.)
Why I Love This Table: Perhaps just as impressive as the view, the superior selection of wines and the sublime Italian dishes, each of the small, two-person third-tier tables have diners sit side by side, all the better to cozy up to that someone special.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: The staff loves it because they have easy access to diners. The staff hates it sometimes because they feel like they're blocking diners' view.
Teller's of Hyde Park
Location: 2710 Erie Ave., Hyde Park, 513-321-4721
Cuisine: Upscale, eclectic and slightly gourmet
Table: A refurbished, working bank vault with four tables that's a private room in this historic landmark restaurant. Seats parties of four to six, though you can also reserve the entire room for rehearsal dinners, bridal showers, etc. You should ask for reservations, even for two.
Nickname: The Vault. As our server said, "We just all call it The Vault like you do, although I suppose I could start a rumor and rename it The Dungeon."
What Makes This Table Unique: Vault tables have booths and plush and comfy chairs, perfect for a Sunday brunch spent relaxing and drinking mimosas. Some Sunday morning diners can be found engaging in intellectual conversation and reading from big leather books.
Why I Love This Table: The sleek décor with brown leather booths and overstuffed chairs make me feel like a Harvard Business School student, smoking a cigar on invitation to the Faculty Club. Though not so patriarchal and ostentatious, the room does have hints of corduroy and Machiavelli without the Tufted Chesterfield chairs, cigars and fireplace. When I shared this with our waiter, he said, "I feel so refined now, but shouldn't there be an animal head on the wall or something?"
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: When they work in The Vault, they have only four tables, max, so tip them well.
Outdoors at Findlay Market
Location: Elder and Race Streets, Over-the-Rhine, www.findlaymarket.org
Cuisine: Very eclectic
Table: Grab any table on a Saturday, and you can spend hours watching the crowd, listening to music and, most importantly, dining. There are more ready-to-eat options at Findlay Market now than ever before, including Belgian waffles, Bean Haus coffee, soul food from Miss Helen's Grill, big breakfasts from Aunt Flora's Cobblers, vegetarian empanadas from the cookie stand, hot grilled sausages at Eckerlin's and now Bouchard's. The pastry chef at the Reserve at Newport on the Levee has opened Bouchard's and is serving up baked goods, custom-made pizzas for just $5 no matter what toppings you choose and a hot pasta bar.
What Makes This Table Unique: There are indoor and outdoor tables, but I like the sunny southern side of the Markethouse on Essen Strasse, near the "German Hysteria" historical marker. There's usually some piping hot R&B drifting out of Mr. Pig, along with the barbecue smoke. You can sit solo, but it's more fun to share the table and the goodies.
Why I Love This Table: This is Findlay Market. All of life is here.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: Buy the groceries you came for before you sit down and pig out. Afterwards, you're not as tempted by all those nutritious veggies.
Location: 520 Vine St., Downtown, 513-721-VITE
Cuisine: Modern Italian
Table: Two low tables on the second floor terrace, surrounded by comfortable couches, that look out at the Tyler-Davidson Fountain on Fountain Square. You can scope out the action on the square while enjoying Happy Hour, lunch or dinner.
Nickname: The Fountain Lounge
What Makes This Table Unique: There's no better view of the renovated Fountain Square than from this perch, which is about eye level with the Genius of Water atop the fountain. Since Via Vite opened in October, these past few weeks have been the first chance the restaurant owners have had to break out the patio furniture and test drive their terrace. Assistant Manager Marcus Thurmond says they've been pleasantly surprised at how popular these tables have become. Via Vite has begun late night Happy Hours (10 p.m.-1 a.m. Monday-Thursday and 11 p.m.-2 a.m. Friday-Saturday) that grab crowds after a show at the Aronoff Center or after other nearby restaurants close.
Why I Love This Table: Once you sink down into the couches and try a pizza and half-priced drink at Happy Hour, you really don't want to move. Once they start offering DJ music in the evenings, as Thurmond says they're planning to do, you'll never leave.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: Thurmond says a lot of the Via Vite staff love to hang out in this couch area when their shifts are done, and their late-night Happy Hour has attracted a restaurant industry crowd. So it's like home away from home for much of the staff. The downside to a super-comfy couch area is people don't want to leave and, well, the tables don't get turned that often.
Location: 1077 Celestial St., Mount Adams, 513-721-5456
Cuisine: Famous for pork chops (not surprisingly) but also offers entrees such as Filet Mignon and upscale apps, pub sandwiches and pastas.
Table: The Kiln Room of historic Rookwood Pottery, one of the first businesses run by a woman, started in 1879. Rookwood soon became famous for its pottery made from the clay of the Ohio River and is still a tourist destination. (Some people come from out of town just to eat in the Kiln Room.)
Nickname: The Kiln
What Makes This Table Unique: The three Kiln rooms, where pottery was once fired, now provide a cozy, private dining experience far from the usual restaurant noise.
Why I Love This Table: The Kiln is the perfect place to have private conversations with significant others or friends because you're completely sequestered from the rest of the restaurant. So next time you want to kvetch to your significant other about work troubles, or your friend discovers her SO is cheating and calls you for that glass of wine, think "kiln." Also think kiln for atmosphere. The portals at the bottom of the kiln are great fun for little kids and inebriated adults to "squeeze and peek through" for fun. Dim lighting, colorful murals and a funky dome shape definitely make for an otherworldly dining experience.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: Our server said she loves this table because of its history and says she loves working for owner and longtime acquaintance Nick Longo, who also owns Nick's Chops and Chasers.
Location: 602 Vine St., Downtown, 513-381-3000
Cuisine: New American
Table: The Kitchen Table is, well, in the kitchen, of course! The dark cherry wood is covered with a linen table cloth and service plates similar to those in the dining room so that even though you're eating "downstairs" the service is definitely "upstairs."
Nickname: Chef Romuald Jung (aka Chef Romy) just calls it the Kitchen Table but he likes the idea of a nickname and is open to suggestions. Perhaps Table d'Aliments Excellents (the table of excellent food)?
What Makes This Table Unique: Restaurants draw a firm line between public and private lives, better known as the front and back of the house. We seldom get more than a fleeting glimpse of what goes on behind the scenes as a server hurries through a swinging stainless steel door. It takes a consummate professional and a magnanimous spirit to be willing to not only break this barrier but embrace the public into the private world of the fine dining kitchen. And what lies behind that swinging door? Chef says that if you've only seen Hell's Kitchen you're in for a surprise: "Most people are pretty much blown away by the cleanliness and the way we work. It's like an orchestra: No one is talking, and everyone knows what they have to do. It's a symphony. I love my guests, and having them in the kitchen here is like having them in the dining room at your house."
Why I Love This Table: When I think of kitchen tables I think of a place we spend time with those closest to us -- people who don't care if we straightened the house or washed our hair that day. People that just want to share our company, some good food and a laugh. That's how Chef Romy approaches his table. At his kitchen table he can combine his passion for food and enthusiasm for his guests. In the kitchen you can steal a few more minutes of his time to talk about food and life and have a good laugh. If you're lucky, he might even let you come behind the line with him and help stir the risotto.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: While Chef gets immediate gratification from his nightly dining room visits, he knows his staff doesn't have the same pleasure. He says the Kitchen Table gives them the chance to watch people enjoy the food they so expertly prepare.
Location: 3200 Madison Ave., Oakley, 513-542-2022
Cuisine: Elegant haute cuisine; new menu daily
Table: A plush, rust-colored banquette along the side wall and right in the middle. Seated in the banquette, you face all the action (and other patrons) in the demure, sophisticated and highly regarded restaurant. It also intimately faces your partner, sitting in a chair facing you.
What Makes This Table Unique: There are actually several such tables here, but the restaurant doesn't necessarily set or space them all for just two people. So it takes luck, the right night and usually a reservation to get one.
Why I Love This Table: It makes you an organic part of the restaurant. If you look to the right, you can look up and partially see the chefs in the open kitchen as they busily go about their work. You can also see the cookbooks -- a lovely designer touch -- at floor level just below the kitchen. To the left, you're staring out the huge glass windows to the street scene outside, including the arriving patrons. And best of all, you can watch the staff approach you with such wonderful dishes as smoked Gerber Farm chicken with wild mushroom risotto, spring leeks and black truffle or loup de mer (sea bass) with baby arugula and shaved mushroom salad with lemon oil.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: The attentive, confident staff, who love the food as much as you will and are eager to watch you love it, can see you salivating from afar as they approach. If you're really appreciative, as we were, they might reward you with an amuse bouche of ricotta and parmigiano reggiano-filled ravioli with butter, spring ramps and pecorino toscano. Just to watch your anticipation!
York Street Café
Location: 738 York St., Newport, 859-261-9675
Table: The Four Leaf Clover table is my favorite of the lucky patio tables at York Street. Owner Betsy Cunningham hand-painted these wood tables, each with a special symbol of good luck: a horseshoe, cherries, a wishbone and the elusive four-leaf clover.
Nickname: The Four-Leaf Clover
What Makes This Table Unique: Well, do ya feel lucky, punk? I do.
Why I Love This Table: As the sun drifts across York Street's cozy patio, a seat at the Clover table gives you an opportunity to enjoy Chef Curtis Paul's soon-to-be announced new menu or share old faves like the Mediterranean board, dirty hummus or a toastie sampler.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: The urban wildlife on the patio includes Daisy, the visiting tabby cat, as well as a mating pair of red-tailed hawks that nest in front of the flower shop. Just so the hawks don't catch Daisy, peace reigns in the kingdom.
Location: 441 Vine St. in the Carew Tower Arcade, Downtown, 513-621-1332
Cuisine: All-American diner fare for breakfast and lunch
Table: The best seat in the house is the end seat of the back counter, a spinnable stool at the Formica counter top -- perfect for a party of one.
Nickname: The Vantage Point
What Makes This Table Unique: It offers the best view in the house. You can see the diners, the cooks on the line, the great old photos of Cincinnati and the wonderful waitresses who've been here for years.
Why I Love This Table: Perched here, enjoying a goetta omelette, hash browns, an English muffin and maybe even a chocolate shake, you can get in a lively conversation with your fellow diners or just sit and listen to some mellow Nat King Cole.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: The staff love it because their regulars sit there.
Riverside Korean Restaurant
Location: 512 Madison Ave., Covington, 859-291-1484
Table: Middle wooden floor table with a glass top about 18 inches above the ground that accommodates five sitting on the floor. Rather than chairs, guests sit cross-legged on pink and green embroidered silk cushions. Some of the tables, including this one, have mirrors beside them. All of the floor tables are on a raised wooden platform and separated from the rest of the dining room by Korean style wood and paper partitions. You must remove your shoes before sitting at a floor table.
What Makes This Table Unique: Guests eat while sitting on the floor. For those who might find this uncomfortable, there's also more traditional "booth" seating.
Why I Love This Table: There's something soothing about Asian décor. The simplicity appeals to me, and the partitions, while literally paper-thin, give a feeling of privacy. It's also nice to dine barefoot and feels grounding to sit on the floor. Because of my Asian upbringing, it's also somewhat comforting for me to eat at a low table as we used to do at my grandparents' house.
Why the Staff Loves/Hates This Table: My server Brianna, who's been working there for about two years, says, "I don't mind the floor tables. The only thing that's different from a serving perspective is that I have to take my shoes off and have to serve at eye level. It's a little bit challenging. You have to be coordinated."