We write these words not to encourage the fine proprietors of Over-the-Rhine staple Senate to raise their prices but to acknowledge that without such a deal many of us would not often indulge in such fare. The “$25 wood-grilled, dry-aged ribeye” — which costs just $24 — with marrow butter and truffle fries is kind of like getting half-off a badass fancy meal. You can spend the other 20 bucks on the restaurant’s excellent beer, wine and cocktail lists. Or, if you’re one of those people who uses a budget app to make yourself feel guilty about how often you eat out, go with the $17 seared scallops or slum it with a $10 award-winning street dog until you’re deserving of the full steak treatment. Senate, 1212 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-2020, senatepub.com.
Some might argue that any good restaurant on the West Side is a hidden gem, but Sakura truly takes the cake. Located off I-74, this Japanese steakhouse is really hard to find from the street and must be accessed from Old Rybolt Road past the BP gas station or via Rybolt Road past the Holiday Inn, near the closed (we hope) Imperial House Hotel. The adventure continues inside, where patrons can choose from a seat at a Teppanyaki grill table or a spot at the sushi bar for classic rolls and rice dishes. If the music and lights emanating from the adjacent Hillside Gastropub tempt you, just head next door for drinks, jams and dad dancing. Sakura Steakhouse, 5510 Rybolt Road, Dent, 513-574-9666, searchable on Facebook.
Very few things beat waking up in the morning as a kid and sliding twin Pop-Tarts into the toaster for a morning jolt of sugar. Benjamin Arington, owner, creator and chef of Fat Ben’s Bakery, has taken that childhood nostalgia and updated it for 2017 (and for grown-ups) with the creation of his pastry pockets. The pockets are rectangular crusty pastries filled with classy flavor combos like strawberry cheesecake, blackberry thyme and pineapple rosemary. And if you don’t feel like adulting quite yet, Arington also offers flavors like milk and cereal, chocolate PB fudge and Girl Scout Cookie. While you can only order the addictive pastry pockets online for now, a Fat Ben’s storefront is coming soon. Fat Ben’s Bakery, 917-628-8202, fatbensbakery.com.
Neapolitan pizzeria A Tavola expanded their trattoria menu last year to include pastas — lasagna Bolognese, cacio e pepe and cannelloni — charcuterie and sandwiches. Of the sandwiches there is one vegetarian-friendly option and it’s a really good one: a fried artichoke sub. The sub is served on Sixteen Bricks’ ciabatta and topped with goat cheese, arugula, red onion, aceto balsamico and aioli. The artichoke hearts are lightly breaded and fried to make a delicate crumbly crust and then smooshed together with creamy cheese and aioli and a vinegary balsamic bite. Despite the fry, it feels fresh and light, but still comforting in that way only fried foods can be. A Tavola, 1220 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-246-0192; 7022 Miami Ave., Madeira, 513-272-0192, atavolapizza.com.
Before Julia Keister of Lil’s Bagels started baking and selling her “made with chutzpah” small-batch bagels at Covington’s farmers market (and Findlay Market, Hotel Covington, Covington Coffee Company, Trailhead Coffee, the Coffee Exchange, Bouquet…), Cincinnati experienced a dearth of these East Coast-style breakfast staples. Using a “sponge” starter (which makes the bagels satisfyingly NYC-chewy), Keister hand-rolls, boils and then bakes every bagel herself with interesting flavors including za’atar, everything and fruit bagels. She makes her own spreads, too, like pimento cheese, muhammara and a beet-based garden variety called Judy Garden. Every month, MainStrasse’s Crafts & Vines hosts a Lil’s bagel bar in which people can make their own bagel sandwiches. Here’s hoping she opens a brick-and-mortar deli soon. Lil’s Bagels, lilsbagels.com.
Baking in college helped James Avant IV manage his symptoms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Inspired by the cupcake Cinderella story in the comedy 2 Broke Girls, Avant took his helpful hobby and turned it into a successful business. OCD Cakes is a bakery with a mental health-awareness mission, based out of Findlay Kitchen, with cake flavors ranging from classic yellow and red velvet to matcha and orange cream. In 2016, Avant applied for the ArtWorks Big Pitch competition and won, using his $15,000 prize to open Bakeologie. Also located in the Findlay Kitchen, the newly opened Bakeologie offers community food-centric events including hands-on cooking classes with a focus on baking sweet and savory dishes to be enjoyed family-style. OCD Cakes and Bakeologie, Findlay Kitchen, 1719 Elm St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-375-1838, ocdcak.es, bakeologie.co.
Chef Ryan Santos’ Please, a new upscale American eatery tucked away on Clay Street in Over-the-Rhine, features fine dining à la carte and creative four-course tasting menus boasting dishes such as honey-brined cod with celery root or pasta-like enoki mushrooms cooked in walnut milk. Helmed as a gypsy pop-up concept since 2011, Santos opened his brick and mortar in November after private backing and a Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $35,000. Along with the food, one of the perks of eating at Please is the location. With an indigo exterior and a restaurant build-out that was recently featured in architecture magazine Dwell, the cozy space is note-perfect down to the very Instagrammable bathroom. Yes, the bathroom. Please’s bathroom’s colorful hand-painted tile and rounded mirror have sparked the #pleasepotty hashtag on social media. Along with the abstract backdrop, Please’s potent and creative cocktails, named after those who contributed to the Kickstarter, may also inspire taking selfies in strange places. Please, 1405 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-405-8859, pleasecincinnati.com.
Open in 1939 as Heine’s Café by Henry Boehmker, Herb & Thelma’s Tavern (the name comes from Henry’s son, who took over the enterprise) is situated on a bend in the road along Pike Street in Covington. The small drop-ceilinged dining room is what some may call a “hole in the wall,” but the simple and delectable burgers are made to order, served by an incredibly friendly staff and grilled by new owner Joe Fessler. The burgers are basic — a juicy meat patty topped with cheese, onions and pickles — and a short list of sides includes chili, soup or Husman’s chips. The joint recently added craft beer to its program of PBR, Bavarian’s and Budweiser. One note: Herb & Thelma’s is cash only, but burgers ring in at less than $5 (as does the fried bologna sandwich with cheese), so you only need about $10 for dinner and a drink. Herb & Thelma’s Tavern, 718 Pike St., Covington, Ky., 859-491-6984, facebook.com/herbnthelmastavern.
It didn’t take long for the sustainability-focused Sleepy Bee Café to become a booming breakfast nook in Oakley, where it opened its doors back in December 2013. Thankfully for ’burb-dwellers, owners Sandy Gross and John Hutton expanded upon that success, opening a second, larger location in Blue Ash right off of Kenwood Road. At 5,000 square feet, the eatery is nearly twice the size of its counterpart, seating 180 inside and even more on their spacious outdoor patio. You’ll find many of the same menu items no matter which location you choose — omelets made with local free-range eggs; gluten-free pancakes made with almond, quinoa and buckwheat flour; a local pasture-raised beef burger and vegetarian-friendly cauliflower falafel veggie burger. But the Blue Ash Smash is an exclusive homage to the neighborhood: scrambled eggs, potatoes, candied bacon, nectar sauce, pesto and pickled onions piled high on sourdough bread. Sleepy Bee Blue Ash, 9514 Kenwood Road, Blue Ash, 513-241-2339, sleepybeecafe.com.
Dolsot bibimbap is a Korean dish served in a hot stone bowl with rice, assorted veggies, a sunny-side-up egg and some type of protein — usually tofu, pork or beef. It’s served to you steaming hot and then you mush up all the ingredients with gochujang chili pepper paste, toasting the ingredients on the side of the stone bowl in the process. In Cincinnati we’re lucky to have multiple Asian eateries that serve delicious bibimbap — Riverside Korean, Sung Korean Bistro, Stone Bowl, etc. — but Izen’s Drunken Bento stands out from the crowd for its unassuming façade and college-friendly price point. Nestled in the student area of Clifton Heights, Izen’s casual décor (there’s a wall of exposed textured 2-by-4 beams you can graffiti) complements its selection of fresh sushi, $6 ramen and more than a dozen Korean entrées at less than $15, including dolsot bibimbap for $11 — a big hot bowl of rice, carrots, soybean sprouts, shiitake mushroom, zucchini, spinach and protein. Izen’s Drunken Bento, 212 W. McMillan St., Clifton Heights, 513-381-5905, searchable on Facebook.