Best Of 2018

Coupling New Order’s chugging New Wave instrumentation with The Cure’s baroque melodrama, Cincinnati’s Skeleton Hands tinge their songcraft with bruise-colored flush. The duo’s latest effort, Wake, dropped 10 days ahead of Halloween, the perfect time to wallow in repurposed Reagan-era angst while taking a neighborhood stroll, and admiring your neighbors’ ghastly holiday decor. Hop onto Skeleton Hands’ Bandcamp page, give “Gardens” a spin and guard yourself against the urge to apply embarrassing amounts of eyeliner. Skeleton Hands, skeletonhands.bandcamp.com.

Music & Nightlife
Illustration: David Wilson


2. Northside Yacht Club

3. The Video Archive

2. MOTR Pub

3. Queen City Exchange

2. Overlook Lodge

3. Dutch’s

2. Back Porch Saloon

3. Fox & Hound

2. Molly Malone’s Irish Pub & Restaurant

3. Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar

2. Knotty Pine Rock Club & Tiki Bar

3. The Crow’s Nest

2. Bogart’s

3. Southgate House Revival

2. Madison Theater

3. Woodward Theater

2. Arnold’s Bar and Grill

3. Below Zero Lounge

2. Valerie Diehl (Old Kentucky Bourbon Bar)

3. Nonta Perkins (MOTR Pub)

2. Chris Stokley (MadTree Brewing)

3. Bennett Cooper (16-Bit Bar+Arcade)

2. 16-Bit Bar+Arcade/ The Comet (TIE)

3. Higher Gravity

2. Queen City Exchange

3. 16-Bit Bar+Arcade

Best Arcade and Drink Curation Inside a Bar
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Arcade and Drink Curation Inside a Bar
Hailey Bollinger

Cincinnati is lucky to have two solid arcade bars, about which sweeping generalizations can be made. Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition is the nerdier, more nuanced arcade-first, bar-second destination in the city that presents a carefully selected array of arcade cabinets for a discerning crowd of old-school connoisseurs. 16-Bit Bar+Arcade, however, is a more drinks-driven business that utilizes nostalgia and video games as a means to differentiate itself from other bars in OTR, leaning on the popular opinion of patrons who relish the novelty. Both arcade bars serve their functions with gusto. 16-Bit is more likely to innovate cocktail trends with their industry-savvy staff (their bartender Mike Hamer is one of the best mixologists in the neighborhood), but the owner/operator of Arcade Legacy, Jesse Baker, is an omnipresent force in his multiple Arcade Legacy locations, thus making him a cultural leader for local video gamers. His influence dictates the available games, which include classics from yesteryear, like Arkanoid and Tempest, and the cutting edge of arcade culture, like Killer Queen, which can accommodate 10 players in one game. Visit both arcade bars to see what you think, but know that children are only allowed on scheduled days during specific hours at both locations, so check their respective calendars before you load up the family wagon. Arcade Legacy: Bar Edition, 3929 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, arcadelegacyohio.com/bar-edition; 16-Bit Bar+Arcade, 1331 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine, 16-bitbar.com/cincy. 

If you’re feeling like trivia and karaoke are played out, go grandma-style with bar bingo at Queen City Exchange. Every Thursday night — aka Thirsty Thursday — they host a very friendly bingo session, with prizes given out at the end of each round. If that’s not enough gaming for you, the bar itself is interactive. Inspired by a stock market theme, “dynamically priced” beers are available for anywhere from $3.50 to $9, all based on customer demand — making it one of the few places in which people are actually hoping for a stock market crash. Queen City Exchange, 32 W. Court St., Downtown, queencityexchange.com.

Best Bar Blue Plate Special
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Bar Blue Plate Special
Hailey Bollinger

Longfellow is Over-the-Rhine’s coolest neighborhood “dive” — a comfy Cheers with a U-shaped center bar, easygoing bartenders and great music (you’ll hear everything from classic Punk to ’80s Pop and Hip Hop). The cocktails are killer and so is the food menu. Both showcase the life of the owner, Mike Stankovich, who has a Southern and Italian background — he grew up eating cornbread and rolling out homemade ravioli. Combine that with his experience traveling through Europe and Japan and his stint in New York bartending, and there you have it. For cocktails, there’s the super popular Spruce Goose, a wicked mix of barrel-aged gin, honey, lime, bitters and tonic — a recipe Stankovich brought with him from Brooklyn; and the Shiso Painkiller, an islandy combination of navy rum, shiso, orange, coconut and nutmeg. There’s also a nice selection of sake, cider, wine and beer from across the globe. And we haven’t even gotten to the food. The menu is subject to change but offers late-night Babushka Pierogies, peanut butter and tahini sandwiches, cottage cheese (great!), Francophile radishes with scoopable butter and a Blue Plate Special during happy hour Tuesday through Friday: a 16-ounce tall boy beer with your choice of a scrap sandwich or liverwurst with potato chips. If you want more white collar than blue plate, do the caviar service for $10 with bowfin roe. Longfellow, 1233 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine, longfellowbar.com.

A couple years ago, Northsiders lost their damn minds when rumors spread about an Applebee’s infiltrating their hip local digs. Of course, it was just a prank (actual fake news, one might argue), but no one quite got past it. So when folks in the neighborhood saw a bus bench ad on Hamilton Avenue promoting a Northside Applebee’s Bar & Grill “coming soon” to Spring Grove Avenue in late October, the buzz began again. Of course, this was yet another joke, perfectly executed by the Northside Yacht Club on Halloween weekend. NSYC transformed into the neighborhood-friendly chain restaurant — the best Halloween costume ever, by our estimation — complete with authentic signage, a host stand, new website and a menu of Appleteasers (including mozzarella sticks), ’Bee’s-inspired craft cocktails and desserts. Patrons could check out the temporarily transformed bar that Friday and Saturday, but by Sunday brunch, the Yacht Club was back in its original form, as if it was all a dream. Northside Yacht Club, 4227 Spring Grove Ave., Northside, northsideyachtclub.com

Breweries love to make fruit beers. However, not all of them use real fruit — a lot of them are just fruit flavored — and there’s a gulf of difference between artificial flavoring and the real thing. Urban Artifact’s Midwest Fruit Tart series is brewed using only real fruit, like blackberries, key limes and peaches. Love Letter is one of the best because it’s brewed with 3,000 pounds of peaches, which means each can contains about half a peach. It tastes just like fresh peach juice, except carbonated and with booze — imagine a brunch-time bellini in a can or a glass. It’s tart, but with a nice mouthfeel. The hand-drawn art on the can features a quill and ink jar with a peach-colored background that resembles the stone fruit. Both the can design and the beer are works of delicious art. Urban Artifact, 1660 Blue Rock St., Northside, 513-620-4729, artifactbeer.com. 

Nothing says “night at the bar” like the sweet sounds of the Piano Man, Billy Joel. The appeal of his sing-along Soft Rock spans human archetypes and generations — you’re just as likely to find a suburban mom belting to the bar closer as you are an ironic hipster. And as the tunes of Billy Joel appeal to many a human, so does the Lackman’s Joel-themed cocktail menu. There’s the Real Estate Novelist, with bourbon, lemon, blackberry purée, Cardamaro Amaro and bubbly. The Old Man Sitting Next to Me, with Beefeater gin, housemade tonic, lemon-ginger ice and lime. And the John at the Bar, Del Maguey mezcal, agave, lemon, smoked hot sauce and a beer sidecar — with a bonus joke etched on the menu: “Sorry, he didn’t get you this one for free.” Will these themed craft cocktails be here forever? Will Billy Joel? The Lackman, 1237 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, lackmanbar.com.