Best Of 2018

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.

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
Phil Heidenreich
click to enlarge Best Brewery for Dogs to Mix and Mingle
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
Hailey Bollinger
click to enlarge Best Cocktail for Split Personalities
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.

Some visitors to MadTree Brewing’s newly revamped taproom have undoubtedly woken up the next day with a souvenir that assuredly isn’t a commemorative pint glass. But never fear, dear hangover-sufferer, there’s an easy way to relieve this hellish existence: go back to MadTree! The local brewery has begun offering brunch on Saturday and Sunday mornings, with Catch-a-Fire Café providing the eats and MadTree bartenders stretching their drink-mixing muscles by providing beermosas. Brunch staples like biscuits and gravy, eggs and bacon, frittatas and more adorn the menu, so no matter what’s needed to stop the jackhammer in your skull, MadTree’s got your back. Maybe this time you can buy a pint glass to say thanks. MadTree Brewing, 3301 Madison Road, Oakley, madtreebrewing.com.

In a city where brewing beer is an integral part of our history, it should be no surprise that craft breweries are popping up in every single neighborhood, which means some smaller endeavors can get overshadowed by the bigger cats in town. From their taproom/brewery along Eastern Avenue in Columbia Tusculum, which frequently hosts food trucks and programmed events, Streetside Brewery’s coffee-blonde beer, Return of the Mac, recently received a silver medal by RateBeer, a crowd-sourced global site for craft beer enthusiasts. With beers like the New England Style IPA #blessed; the milkshake blonde Cereal Milk; a red velvet donut stout collaboration with Holtman’s donuts called Robe; and a Key Lime Gose that tastes like buttery graham cracker crust, this brewery has developed a niche for having your cake and drinking it, too. Streetside Brewery, 4003 Eastern Ave., Columbia Tusculum, streetsidebrewery.com.

Best Excuse to Dance with a Pineapple
Lindsay McCarty
click to enlarge Best Excuse to Dance with a Pineapple
Lindsay McCarty

What is it about drinks in pineapples that make people want to dance? Here’s a hint: it’s the rum. In the case of Tiki Night at Japp’s, music could also have something to do with it as well, as the event draws loyal patrons monthly with its deft mix of ’80s New Wave/Punk Rock and surf-ready drink staples. Jeremy Harrison, bartender, musician and one of Tiki Night’s founders, spins dance jams throughout the night to keep the fun vibe alive and proves that serving traditional Tiki beverages doesn’t mean the rest of the presentation has to follow all the rules. Head down the first Wednesday of every month, knock a few back and hit the dance floor, but be careful — pineapple spines are deceptively sharp. Japp’s Since 1879, 1136 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, wellmannsbrands.com/japps1879.

Hardcore music lovers can get territorial about their passion, and they’ll celebrate and stand up for the outlets they love through thick or thin — even more fervently than sports fans fight for their favorite team. There was widespread outrage when longtime radio station WNKU was sold to a religious broadcaster in a budget-slashing move by Northern Kentucky University (thank then-new governor Matt Bevin for that). But the anger turned to tears when the station, one of the few outlets for “Alternative” music on Greater Cincinnati’s airwaves, signed off in September after 33 years. The station regularly — and loudly — supported local original music-makers, so its loss was also deeply felt by the region’s musicians. Two months after the sign-off, the station’s Aaron Sharpe and Liz Felix were surprised with a special “Best Cincinnati Music Ambassador” award at CityBeat’s 2017 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards, a fitting salute in front a room full of artists who greatly appreciated having such dedicated, higher-profile supporters in their corner. 

The holidays are typically the most festive time of year, and no one understands that more than The Video Archive/Overlook Lodge owners Gorilla Cinema. Their mission is all about bringing pop culture to life, whether it’s opening Quentin Tarantino-themed bar/video store The Video Archive or having The Shining scare people at Overlook Lodge. During the six-week long holiday period at the end of the year, the owners transformed both spots into a yin/yang concept. Walnut Hills’ Video Archive became a The Nightmare Before Christmas pop-up, replete with dry-ice skull cocktails and holiday horror films like Gremlins screening on TV. Pleasant Ridge’s Overlook briefly remodeled as Miracle, a brighter play on the holidays. They offered a Die Hard cocktail called Yippee-Kay-Yay Motherfucker, Bad Santa mulled wine and greenish eggnog. Let’s hope the tradition continues in 2018, alongside Gorilla Cinema’s new karaoke/Lost in Translation-themed bar, Tokyo Kitty. Maybe Christmastime karaoke? The Video Archive, 965 E. McMillan St., Walnut Hills, facebook.com/videoarchivecincinnati; Overlook Lodge, 6083 Montgomery Road, Pleasant Ridge, facebook.com/overlooklodge.

One of the best music releases of 2017 was the brilliant “comeback” album by instrumental Cincinnati Post Rock/Indie Rock ensemble johnnytwentythree. The Bridge is a fantastically evocative album on its own, but knowing the context makes it all the more genius, and often a more devastating listening experience. The band and its multimedia live show (with a vital film component) was a big club draw in the ’00s, before everything stopped in 2012 when bassist Joe Maier (whose wife and brother are also in J23) committed suicide. The album was written to show the far-reaching effects suicide has on the people around those who reach that ultimate point of desperation, something oftentimes not fully considered by those in that state. It succeeds brilliantly, from the emotive compositional movements to sampled voices of children and poetry. Besides helping people through its art, the band also donated proceeds from the album to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. johnnytwentyhree, johnnytwentythree.bandcamp.com.

Last summer, after some booking shuffling, the Covington space that turned into Octave started to become a touring destination for artists in the so-called Jam band scene (a terrible name that hints at open-ended, improvisational elements of the acts, but fails to encapsulate the very broad range of styles within the community), while also hosting numerous local and regional acts that possess the same spirit. It has also helped the emerging entertainment district around Madison Avenue solidify its place as one of the top areas in Greater Cincinnati for original, high-quality live music, located just a block away from music venues Madison Theater and Madison Live. In 2017, the club hosted fan-favorite national acts like the Ben Miller Band, Moon Hooch, Twiddle and Consider the Source, plus locals like Strange Mechanics, Ernie Johnson from Detroit and Peridoni, among many other shows and events (musical or otherwise). As word has spread, the bookings for 2018 have kept up the streak and look to continue Octave’s upward swing. Octave, 611 Madison Ave., Covington, theoctavebar.com.

Pianist Ed Moss is a Cincinnati Jazz legend for his musical achievements, but he was also beloved for his low-key venue, Schwartz’s Point, which was written about as one of the area’s “Best Kept Secrets” so often, it wasn’t really a secret anymore, particularly among the city’s Jazz players. When Moss passed away in 2016, his daughter, Zarleen Watts, decided to honor her father by keeping his passion project going. The club — fittingly located at a “pointed” building arrowed into the five-way intersection at Vine Street and McMicken Avenue — reopened in October, retaining the eccentric character and regular Jazz performances (by a who’s who of the Cincinnati scene) that were a part of Moss’ vision, but modernizing it a bit and adding a new drink menu. The club has even hosted a Tuesday night tribute to Moss’ music under his old “Society Jazz Orchestra” banner. Schwartz’s Point Jazz & Acoustic Club, 1901 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine, thepoint.club.

Cincinnati music in general gets some cursory coverage from the local media, but one specific genre of music in the Queen City has an entire magazine (and website) dedicated it. DBLCIN Magazine is released quarterly, while its site keeps the coverage going between issues, regularly posting new songs, videos, events and news updates for some of the best in the Cincy Hip Hop scene. Both are high quality, from top to bottom — from the writing to the photography to the layout. In 2017, the magazine’s eye-grabbing double covers (on the front and back of each issue) featured local artists like Monty C. Benjamin, Aprina Johnson, JAYAL, Santino Corleon, Trademark Aaron and DATNATIKID, the gifted graphic designer who founded the publication. DBLCIN gives the local Hip Hop community a pretty face, but it’s also a sounding board and opportunity for exposure beyond the superficial that area artists are lucky to have. DBLCIN Magazine, dblcin.com

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.