Popular Northside brewery/venue Urban Artifact attracts a crowd with fresh beer and mostly free live music — it even has a Swing dance night on certain Sunday afternoons, and longtime local favorites the Blue Wisp Big Band perform every Wednesday. Its appeal also expands beyond the expected age range for a “bar.” The brewery has a huge selection of board games and allows kids in with accompanying adults, so some evenings can turn into genuine family affairs, especially on warmer nights, with parents letting their kids run around in the yard between the converted church and the rectory buildings. And you thought the only options for “beer-assisted family game night” were at home or at an overcrowded Dave and Buster’s. Urban Artifact, 1660 Blue Rock St., Northside, 513-620-4729, artifactbeer.com.
Shopping locally is a great way to avoid those nightmarish day-after-Thanksgiving (aka “Black Friday”) sales at the mall or chain retail outlet stores. And if the person you’re buying a present for is a big music fan, Cincinnati musicians are now regularly providing some cool Black Friday options for your gift list. Timed to Record Store Day’s nationwide Black Friday alternative, local record shops in 2016 offered exclusives from local artists like Country singer/songwriter Jeremy Pinnell (who reissued an expanded vinyl version of his stellar OH/KY album) and Wussy (which put out the rare Funeral Dress II acoustic album on vinyl for the first time). Legendary downtown bar Arnold’s Bar and Grill and Neltner Small Batch Records also teamed up for a great local-music holiday compilation (issued on vinyl), featuring Christmas-themed songs by Honey and Houston, The Part-Time Gentlemen, The Tillers and many other superb Roots/Americana acts.
Mecca OTR, a new no-frills, local-artist-decorated bar in Over-the-Rhine, specializes in a cocktail called a Chunker. Basically, the drink involves taking a tiny airplane bottle of liquor and placing it upside down in the mouth of a full can of San Pellegrino sparkling water. A machine called an arbor press widens the mouth of a can so the bottle can slowly drip into it, allowing you to mix rum, gin, vodka or bourbon with flavored San Pellegrino. The idea came from Genuine Liquorette in New York City, which does a similar thing called a Cha-Chunker. Mecca OTR, 1429 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine, facebook.com/meccaotr.
It was a good summer for music in Greater Cincinnati, particularly if your favorite song was the Paul McCartney/Wings James Bond theme song “Live and Let Die.” In early July of 2016, McCartney and Guns N’ Roses performed along the riverfront within five days of each other, so if you were a super-fan of the tune — as well as punctuating fireworks — you were in heaven. GNR played the song (a longtime centerpiece of the reunited band’s set) at Paul Brown Stadium on July 6, while the former Beatle pulled out his standby jam (which we’re pretty sure he still plays purely for the pyrotechnics) at U.S. Bank Arena on July 10.
Cincinnati has gotten increasingly good about honoring its rich musical history, thanks to increasingly “woke” politicians (including Mayor John Cranley) and organizations like the Cincinnati Music Heritage Foundation. In the past couple of years, the city has helped honor the 11 fans killed before a 1979 Who concert at Riverfront Coliseum with a historical marker and staved off attempts to tear down the original King Records building in Evanston. At the beginning of 2017, three artists closely associated with King, the revolutionary local label that released seminal Country, Bluegrass, Soul and R&B recordings between 1943-1971, were honored with intersections re-named after them, making it possible for music history buffs to cruise the East Side of Cincinnati and visit Philip Paul Place, Bootsy Collins Way and Otis Williams Place within just a few minutes.
Who doesn’t want to drink fancy drinks in a blinging Art-Deco palace? Well, maybe people who don’t drink, which is totally fine. You should still go to Orchids at Palm Court’s bar and get some appetizers concocted by AAA five-diamond chef Todd Kelly and take in one of the most ornate locations in Cincinnati. If you are an imbiber, watching the bartenders assemble their take on the Old Fashioned is an experience in itself. Blending culinary innovation and classic mixology, simple syrup and bitters are frozen inside the Old Fashioned’s ice cubes and blended with chef’s choice bourbon; the flavor changes as the ice melts. Part of Cincinnati history, the bar holds court at the heart of the Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza Hotel in Carew Tower, which was constructed in the dawning days of the 1930s. Resplendent in rosewood, marble and angular, crystalline light fixtures, hanging out under Orchids’ soaring green and silver roof would be worth it even if the drinks weren’t excellent. Luckily, they are. Orchids at Palm Court, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-421-9100, orchidsatpalmcourt.com.
In case you didn’t notice, Covington is flourishing, especially on Madison Avenue. In September of last year, Hotel Covington and its Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar opened their doors. In November, cocktail bar The Hannaford opened, joining the taproom at nearby Braxton Brewing Company as a cool neighborhood hangout. It’s easy to hit up all three places in a short span of time to work up an appetite for Coppin’s new late-night food window The Walk Up. The Hannaford, 619 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., thehannaford.com; Coppin’s Restaurant & Bar, 683 Madison Ave., Covington, Ky., hotelcovington.com/dining/coppins; Braxton Brewing Company, 27 W. Seventh St., Covington, Ky., braxtonbrewing.com.
Visiting OTR cocktail lounge Japp’s is already a bit like walking into an era gone by, the space’s sprawling, high ceilings reflecting the low light back down upon your friendly, hip server. So when proprietor Molly Wellmann added a snack menu last year, it was expected to be crafted with as much care as her historically inspired cocktail lists. The food offerings are comprised of small “contemporary bites,” including deviled egg yolk mousse, citrus-serrano pickled shrimp and dark chocolate truffles. The snacks come from another of Wellmann’s Brands’ establishments, a more recent venture on Republic Street called Bottle & Basket, which offers freshly prepared grab-and-go food and essential groceries. If you’re all set to spend the better part of $10 on a carefully crafted cocktail, what’s another $4 for some corn nuts and roasted kale dust? Japp’s, 1136 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-1524, wellmannsbrands.com.
Mita’s is chef and owner Jose Salazar’s tribute to his Colombian grandmother’s spirit — his mamita — and to Spanish and Latin American food and drink. Like Latin culture itself, the restaurant is fun, designed with Moroccan-influenced tiles, architectural columns and concrete, plus one-of-a-kind lighting. The atmosphere is lively, especially at the bar — a great place to get familiar with mezcal, the smoky agave spirit-of-the-moment, and cachaça, a Brazilian spirit made with fermented sugarcane. The inventive Mezcal Manhattan is getting lots of buzz, with mole bitters and maraschino, but the Central and South American classics are as close to traditional as you can get. Hemingway’s Papa Doble pays tribute to the author with a take on his favorite Cuban daiquiri recipe, and the Caipirinha, a frothy and citrusy cocktail made with rum-like cachaça, lime and sugar. It’s the national cocktail of Brazil, and what the locals drink as the sun goes down, making it perfect for a post-work happy hour. Mita’s, 501 Race St., Downtown, 513-421-6482, mitas.co.
The Approximate Knowledge Institute of Cincinnati, a local pub-trivia company helmed by Justin Schafer, is one of the only independent trivia creators in the city. Each week, Schafer conceptualizes and writes entire trivia games — including a name-that-tune halftime — for his group to present at multiple area bars, including the Northside Yacht Club, Queen City Radio, Ché and Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition. Teams can wager points based on confidence in their answers, and the top three winners take home prizes. Most Approximate Knowledge Institute nights include two separate games to accommodate all types of quizmasters: an early round for happy-hour bargoers and a late round for normal-bar-hour drinkers. Approximate Knowledge Institute of Cincinnati, facebook.com/nsyctrivia.