Best Of 2018

Best Arcade and Drink Curation Inside a Bar
click to enlarge HAILEY BOLLINGER
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
click to enlarge HAILEY BOLLINGER
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.

The ’90s are back in a very big way: From mom jeans and chokers to Roseanne and the Spice Girls, all of our favorite pre-millennium trends are rearing their ugly heads once again. And when it comes to adult beverages, it doesn’t get any more ’90s than Zima. The colorless malt beverage — or “clear beer” — almost exclusively consumed by underage drinkers during the Clinton era made a comeback in the Queen City (and beyond) last summer. MillerCoors released a limited run of the sweet stuff and suddenly, as if it were 1993, Zima was on the shelves of area liquor and convenience stores and being served at local bars — with Jolly Ranchers, of course! By now you’d be hard pressed to find a sixer of this “truly unique alcohol beverage” (that was really one of their original taglines), but we’ll always have the summer of ’17. 

Best Brewery for Dogs to Mix and Mingle
click to enlarge PHIL HEIDENREICH
Phil Heidenreich

Braxton Brewing Company prides itself on loving beer and innovation, but their real soft spot is for dogs, even the rambunctious ones. Employees dole out treats and lots of belly scratches for any pup that visits the taproom. Cross the river for the Revamp India Pale Ale, stay for the canine haven. It’s what all the cool dogs do. And if you’re looking for beer with more attitude, stop by Braxton Labs. While the original Braxton has the feeling of a Midwestern garage — a place that holds memories, nuts, bolts and beer — Braxton’s second “lab” location has opened the doors to innovation. Located in the Party Source mega liquor store, the lab features 40 taps dedicated to the brand’s most unique offerings, as well as brews from across the U.S. and around the world. It’s a place for curious craft enthusiasts and anyone excited to try something new. Experimental beers include a cucumber wit, cherry saison and coffee-vanilla milk stout. The outdoor AstroTurf beirgarten is a place to spark conversation, make friends and play giant Connect Four. Braxton Brewery, 27 W. Seventh St., Covington; Braxton Labs, 95 Riviera Drive, Bellevue, braxtonbrewing.com.

Best Cocktail for Split Personalities
click to enlarge HAILEY BOLLINGER
Hailey Bollinger

It’s no secret that the Bar at Palm Court is one of the best places in the city to grab a cocktail, blending artful alcohol creations with awe-inspiring Art Deco décor. Sidle up to the bar — if you’re lucky enough to find a stool — and peruse the drink menu, which offers classic cocktails like the Chef’s Old Fashioned, with Four Roses private selection single barrel, a sweetened bitters-infused ice ball, a twist of orange and Amarena cherry, and a Hemingway Daiquiri, with light rum, grapefruit and lime juice and Luxardo. If you can’t pick a color for your liquor, go with The NP, a best-of-both-worlds cocktail that pairs bourbon with something bubbly. Named after the Netherland Plaza (the hotel which houses the bar), the cocktail features Four Roses yellow label bourbon, lemon, ginger, bitters and sparkling wine. It’s light, refreshing and still packs a boozy kick. Go during happy hour 4-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and grab a plate of discounted light bites — lamb belly sliders, ricotta tortellini or chicken wings with smoked butter-Cholula sauce — to accompany your cocktail, or Friday and Saturday night for live Jazz. The Bar at Palm Court, Hilton Cincinnati Netherland Plaza, 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, hilton.com.

In 2017, five of Cincinnati’s best and most imaginative Hip Hop producers — Homage (CVG), Waldo from Cincinnati, Samuel Steezmore, Phonophage and Dren AD — decided to pool their talents and create Fort Ancient Records. The label has served as a showcase not only for their own estimable talents for crafting engaging beats and tracks (the instrumental releases are some of Fort Ancient’s most compelling), but also for a variety of Cincinnati’s top MCs. Last year, Fort Ancient Records’ two superb compilations — Gatsby (a five-way collaboration between the label founders) and the more vocal-heavy First Team — offered time-capsule-worthy snapshots of Cincinnati Hip Hop circa 2017, with features from Speed Walton, Monty C. Benjamin, CJ the Cynic, Devin Burgess, D-Eight and more. Fort Ancient Records, fortancientrecords.bandcamp.com.